Liberation Theologies: Decolonizing the Masters’ Tool

On August 21st, 1831 Baptist preacher, Nat Turner, lead one of the largest slave insurrections in the history of the United States. In an explosion of prophetic and apocalyptic rage, Turner overthrew his legal owners ruling by fighting back, killing the elite colonial slave-owning families who had subjugated his life to a hell on Earth. With more than 70 other liberated slaves, Turner’s insurrectionary self-defense sparked brutal repression from local white vigilante militias and the State. After six weeks of freedom, he was caught and brought back to Southampton County, Virginia to be put on trial; his revolutionary actions were recorded by white lawyer, Thomas R. Gray, later titled, The Confessions of Nat Turner.

And on the 12th of May, 1828, I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first! (Gray)

Being Born into slavery as the chattel property of Benjamin Turner, Nat or Nathaniel (the Hebrew meaning, “gift from god”) Turner inherited two conflicting yet syncretized versions of religious expression; the first, and most obvious, being his Christian identity as a Baptist preacher, sharing the religion of his slave masters (he was bought and sold between 4 legal owners); the second, being his Mother Nancy’s African folk-traditions brought directly over in the year 1799 when she was purchased by a Methodist slave owner. Further in his recorded confession he details multiple mystical experiences: talking to spirits, having flash backs to previous lives, practicing divination through tree leaves, and deciphering hieroglyphic characters all of which direct his passion toward revolt. In an act of religious syncretism Turner used knowledges from Baptist Christianity (individual freedom and soul freedom), the Hebrew prophets (histories of prophetic witness), and past-life ancestral mysticism (possibly informed by indigenous African traditions) to act upon his direct liberation from slavery. In this way Turner used the religious tool of his master and the indigenous traditions brought over from Africa by his Mother to subvert and challenge the legal slave-system for collective emancipation. For Turner, God had judged the materiality of slavery as demonic and condemned the institution to exorcism; it was God who actively directed him through revelation, signs, scriptures, visions, and dreams to defend himself from slavery. Turner embraced the counterviolence of God against slavery and dehumanization, igniting violent insurrection to advance the Kingdom principles of freedom, equality, liberation, justice, and salvation for the common good. “It was not motivated by hatred, racism, fanaticism, or evil. His revolutionary violence was the self-defense of the oppressed slave and God’s counterviolence against the inherent barbarism and violence of slavery” (Lampley 3).

To understand the use of colonial religion as a strategy of liberation it is important to understand the severity of oppression and the overwhelming violence that colonialism brings to a people. The psychological, emotional, physical, spiritual, and social distress brought on by slavery creates an existence defined by perpetual trauma, abuse, and objectification. The opium of the masses loses its mind/body-numbing affects in the face of endless violence against black and brown bodies and becomes the methamphetamine advancing insurrectionary resistance.

The structural repercussions exacerbate conditions of trauma on a local and global scale through what Anibal Quijano theorizes as, the coloniality of power. Quijano argues that the development of the colonial project begins with the fabricated notion of race as a “supposedly different biological structure that placed some in a natural situation of inferiority to others” (533).  The conquered and dominated peoples of Africa and the Americas were racialized as “other;” they were “situated in a natural position of inferiority and, as a result, their phenotypic traits as well as their cultural features were considered inferior” ultimately determining racialized categorizations as the “fundamental criterion for the distribution of the world, population into ranks, places, and roles in the new societies structure of power” (Quijano 535). With the development of newly racialized historical identities, a foundation was created for the global structuring of social roles, geohistorical places, and the unequal planetary phenomenon of transmodernity (Mignolo 57). This social hierarchy of racialized bodies and knowledges forms the crucible of eurocentrism, modernist epistemologies, and the Westernizing project of the North through a coloniality of power that also controls the labor force, the means and lands of production, and the flow of capital itself. In this Western expansion, ideas from the colonized peoples were expropriated or ignored, often stripped of their ability to be re/produced from below. This equates to the destruction of cultures through the racialization, alienation, and commodification of peoples. Resistance lead to the hanging, burning, and murdering of millions of people for the promotion of an “evolved, modern, and civilized” society (it was an evolved, modern, and civilized Methodist pastor who first bought Nat Turner). “The expansion of Western capitalism” Coloniality theorist Walter Mignolo writes, “implied the expansion of Western epistemology in all its ramifications, from the instrumental reason that went along capitalism and the industrial revolution, to the theories of the state, to the criticism of both capitalism and the state” (59). This Western supremacy was crafted in suppressing other- and non-scientific forms of knowledges, and was especially suppressive to the subaltern social groups whose social practices were informed by such alternative epistemologies (Santos ix). Portuguese scholar Boaventura de Sousa Santos sees the suppression of indigenous peoples of the Americas and of the African slaves as a form of epistemicide – the other side of genocide. The epistemological foundation that the global world capitalist economy is structured on is the imperial ordering of knowledges with the North at the top and the South at the bottom. This North/South divide is metaphorical and geographical in Santos’ use, consisting of systems of visible and invisible distinctions that have material and cognitive ramifications. “The invisible distinctions are established through radical lines that divide social reality into two realms;” in the creation of “the other” as inferior, “the other side of the line vanishes as reality, becomes nonexistent, and is indeed produced nonexistent” (Santos 118). This non-existence is a radical exclusion, deeming all that is produced by the other as inferior, incomprehensible, and unworthy of serious consideration. Thinking from above abyssal-line, from the North, is the foundation on which modern theologies, sciences, and everyday societies are situated and are therefore in need of radical uprooting, decolonizing, and re-envisioning.

The cognitive supremacy of the Western expansion chose Christianity as its divine right to domination. The Christianity of the Spanish Empire used Theologies of Domination to “disseminate a characteristic ideology through all segments of society, propounding a set of fundamental values and principles which, while expressed in terms of lofty abstraction or eternal truth, nevertheless serves to further the interests of those who hold power” (Lincoln 269). These religions of the status quo replicate and co-produce the ideologies of capitalism: competition, hierarchy, racialization, epistemicide, and patriarchy. If Christianity was the religion of the colonial project, is a decolonial Christianity even possible? Is it possible to develop a Christian theology that subverts, challenges, and decolonizes its recent historical use in crafting the Western expansion of colonialities of power?

Audre Lorde’s well-known declaration that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” proves helpful in this integration of the colonial religion of choice. The immensity of the coloniality of power through Western expansion and the development of the United States as a force of global Empire by the blessing of a majority of Christian authorities, institutions, and lay persons alike, brings many to a frightening conclusion: “if the master’s tools cannot be appropriated then, in an age where our capitalist masters claim ownership over everything, only resignation is possible.” Do we give up on our faith and spiritual tradition forfeiting our theologies to colonial powers as we seek material emancipation? Do we give up on our Christianities as the masters’ tool to colonize, modernize, and under-develop most of the world? Or do we use the masters’ tool against the masters by re-shaping the tool itself, after all it was the Hebrew prophet Isaiah who wrote, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (2:4)?

The masters did not pluck their tool out of an ahistorical revelation but co-opted the religiosity of Christ-followers (the pejorative ‘Christian’ translated directly) to transform the world by thinking-with religion to bless their oppressive colonial project. Lorde was not making her argument to squash revolutionary determination, but rather attempting to articulate a similar message to that of the decolonial project that is attempting to open epistemology up to other ways of knowing and being, as valid, and co-equals in the production of our various worlds. Speaking from her experience as a black lesbian feminist, she refused to replicate the modes of racist patriarchal white-feminisms that honored her oppression through their ambivalence toward the continuing colonial project.

The question remains, can our Christianities be used as a tool to destroy the masters’ house? Activist and co-creator of Occupy Wall Street, Michael White, complicates our answer with this insight: “If we learn anything from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s exceptional, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, it should be that the dominant powers appropriated from us first.” He uses the example of war, which most associate as a tool of the master, to demonstrate his point, “based on anthropological, archeological and philosophical evidence, they hold that warfare was originally developed by nomadic anti-State forces and was only later appropriated and turned against its developers” (White).

Christian theology has not always been a colonial project. Based on anthropological, archeological, and philosophical evidence, Christian theology began in Roman Occupied Palestine, from within a peasant’s movement inaugurating the Commonwealth of God in direct confrontation to the Kingdom of Caesar. It would be a mistake to think we could reverse 1700 years of Christian world-making to discover a pure first century form, rather early Christinaities are a reminder that the “masters’ tools” have not always been in the hands of the masters, he stole them.

The convoluted histories of Christianity defy the simplistic conclusion that the entire tradition is a product of the coloniality of power. Exilic, resistant, and silenced voices have glittered Christian theological praxis for its entire history. And in the same way “religion” seems impossible to define, Christianity can be equally difficult “not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes” (Asad 29). If we take Talal Asad’s critique of religion seriously, we must refute any notion of a monoculture of theological discourse and seek to resurrect the various historical elements of Christianities worth saving. In this way, our theological reflections can reclaim stolen tools, blending cultural and social multiplicities that defy the homogeneity of dominant culture, and forming something altogether new. For liberal theologians, this kind of syncretism is often rejected as “cafeteria style” consumer religion, but for the colonized, syncretism is their mode of survival. By reclaiming and recreating the masters’ tool the possibilities of collective liberation are opened wide.

Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui troubles indigenous notions of identity by theorizing hybridity as a potent mixture of coexisting multiplicities of cultural difference that do not collapse in on one another but “antagonize and complement each other” each giving the other a possibility to “reproduce itself from the depths of the past and relates to others in contentious ways” (Cusicanqui 105). Theology from below is not a sterile mule without an ability to reproduce, but a motley trinity of indigeneity, de/coloniality, and critical theory with the ability to birth something quite different “merg[ing] features of its ancestors in harmonic and as yet unknown blend[s]” (Cusicanqui 105). This decolonial hybridity, a mixing of knowledges that are not limited by their original logics, is a defining character of Liberation Theology, for it is the reclaiming of our stolen tools for the purpose of emancipation/salvation.

In the 1960’s the redemption of the Christian tradition was attempted again by using the masters’ tool for emancipatory soteriology. Liberation Theology birthed out of the historical struggles of epistemicide and genocides in the Global South (Gustavo Gutierrez), and from persons within the heart of the United States empire who were racialized others and deemed inferior (James Cone). This mixology of Marxism, (de)colonial theologies, and indigenous traditions for the sake of liberatory emancipation created an entirely new decolonial theological discourse. The shift Liberation Theology brought to the larger conversation was a much stronger reflection on the matrix of material conditions creating poverty and dependence on capitalist economic social formations. It was Karl Marx’s social and critical theories, along with the Marxist guerilla movements birthed out of the early 20th century, that greatly influenced the priests and theologians expressing theologies of material soteriology from below. The liberatory theologies developed by Latin American and Black American scholar-activists of the radical 60’s were syncretic for the sake of survival, the oppressed were also using the master’s tools without replicating the masters’ epistemic coloniality.

Theologians of the North, those above the abyssal line, were debating classical philosophical ideas about the Kantian “priority of concepts versus things,” while ignoring the structural and physical violence brought to marginal communities around the globe (Cone 56). Theologies of material soteriology interested a colonized people, for what was ‘real’ for them was the very presence of oppression and the dire to end the brutality. The problems of the auction block, Jim Crow Laws, Neoliberal developmentalism, and the prison industrial complex will not be solved through philosophical and theological debates void of the materiality of demonized peoples’ intersecting oppressions. In this way liberation theologies break from dominant colonial discourses on Christianity by embracing radical subjectivity and rejecting theology as a universal Western language that never spoke with oppressed peoples, only down to them (or completely ignored them all together). Reflecting on theological epistemicide Lampley writes, “Euro-American and European theologies have tried historically to claim objectivity and universality while black theology and other liberation theologies have exposed their Eurocentric tendencies and worldview” (33). Christian theologies that do not rupture the colonial suppression of alternative knowledge production continue to reproduce the logics that uphold world-systems of planetary devastation and should be discarded to the fires of Hell.

Black Liberation Theology in the United States emerged alongside Latin American Liberation theology as a way for black Americans to assert their dignity as God’s beloved and fight for their freedom and self-determination. In the same ways academics and activists have ignored the Global South they have ignored Liberation Theologies birthed out of the colonial distress of life on the margins of empire. The father of Black Liberation theology, James Cone[1], argues black Americans have been systematically ignored and removed from legitimacy, their oppression and marginalized ignored by liberal protestants and Catholics alike leading to a Liberation Theology as a rupture within the abyssal line of colonial theologies. Cone writes,

Whites debated the validity of infant baptism or the issue of predestination and free will; blacks recited biblical stories about God leading the Israelites from Egyptian bondage,…White thought on the Christian view of salvation was largely “spiritual” and sometimes “rational,” but usually separated from the concrete struggle of freedom in this world (Cone 54).

Black Theology uncovers the “structures and forms of the black experience,” creating emancipatory theologies through “the thought forms of the black experience itself” (Cone 17). Black Liberation Theologies, much like the decolonial project of subaltern studies/activism, arises out of alternative epistemological formations centered on the experience of blackness, the experience of dehumanization, the experience of the Global South. The theological discourse of the North, of the West, and of Liberal academia centered on the White experience and White logical systems re/produces the colonial subject.

There is a striking similarity between the oppressed racialized communities in the Unites States with those below the abyssal line in the Global South fighting for cognitive and social justice, fighting to be heard, to be recognized, and to be validated. Blackness is produced through modernity, it is created and shaped by coloniality. Whiteness in Cone’s context is the colonial project as expressed in the United States, the racialized ideas of the West – where everyone has to look, think, and act the same. Whiteness is for Cone the capitalist economic structure and way of organizing society into slaves and owners, producers of knowledges and those subjected to them. The creation of emancipatory knowledges from the black experience, was and is the purpose of Black Liberation Theologies. This too is the purpose of decolonization and the only hope for Christian theology if it is to matter today.

As a product of decoloniality, Liberation Theologies are “undertaken by the oppressed people themselves” and stem “from the values proper to these people,” that is, the logics and grammars of anti-capitalist decolonial world making through which a “true cultural revolution comes about” (Gutierrez 91). We see this in the life of the Baptist revolutionary Nat Turner, his rejection of the theologies that bless racialization, colonialism, and economies of slavery; we also see it in his recreated theological imaginary emerging from his direct experience of all three. He reclaimed the stolen tool of Christian religiosity to remove the nails driven through his life and climb off the cross of coloniality. A hundred years later Liberation Theologies are attempting to further this work: these alternative ways of knowing and shaping the god-world-relationship reject the myth of progress and the myth of historical evolution into a modern state of abundance. Locating the site of hermeneutical reflection for decolonial theology in the experience of colonized bodies necessitates this rejection. Out of a motley mixology of theological, social, and critical knowledges from below a strategy for liberation and revolution emerges without replicating the logics of the colonial masters. Theo-knowledges birthed out of liberatory struggles can and do refuse to replicate the masters’ use of tools. The tool of religion in general, and decolonial Christianity in particular, can be used to articulate an egalitarian, life-affirming, ecological society, one that stands in direct contrast to the religious tool used to develop the coloniality of power. In this reshaping, the masters’ stolen tools used for domination are queered for collective and self-determined decolonial liberation.

Works Cited

Asad, Talal. 2009. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press. Cusicanqui, Silvia Rivera. 2012.

Cusicanqui, Silvia Rivera. 2012. “Ch’ixinakax Utxiwa: A Reflection on the Practices and Discourses of Decolonization.” . South Atlantic Quarterly. 111 (1): 95-109.

Cone, James H. 1975. God of the Oppressed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.


Gutierrez, Gustavo. 1979. A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics and Salvation. London: SCM Press.

Gray, Thomas R.; Turner, Nat; and Royster, Paul (Depositor), “The Confessions of Nat Turner” (1831). Electronic Texts in American Studies. 15.

Lampley, K. 2016. Theological Account of Nat Turner: Christianity, Violence, and Theology. New York City: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lincoln B. 1985. Notes Toward a Theory of Religion and Revolution. In: Lincoln B. (eds) Religion, Rebellion, Revolution. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mignolo, Walter. 2002. “The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference.” South Atlantic Quarterly. 101 (1): 57-96.

Quijano, Anibal, and Michael Ennis. 2000. “Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America.” Nepantla: Views from South. 1 (3): 533-580. 

Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. 2008. Another Knowledge is Possible: Beyond Northern Epistemologies. London: Verso.


Santos, Boaventura de Sousa. 2016. Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide. New York: Routledge.

White, Michael. The Wisdom of Audre Lorde. Web.

[1] James Cone passed away on April 28, 2018 just five days before the presentation of this paper. I am forever indebted to his work. May he rest in Black Power.

2 thoughts on “Liberation Theologies: Decolonizing the Masters’ Tool”

  1. Hi Gregory. I’m a San Francisco-based reporter with The Atlantic who has written a lot about poverty and inequality in the Bay Area and what tech companies and the wealthy are and aren’t doing about it. (Here’s a recent story about philanthropy:
    I’d love to sit down and talk about your experiences as a pastor and what you’ve seen locals try and do — and not do — to eradicate inequality. Can you shoot me an email or give a call?


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