Faculty Stories

What Is Our Relationship to the World?

A Conversation with Dr. Wonhee Anne Joh, Harry R. Kendall Professor of Christian Theology and Postcolonial Studies

Dr. Wonhee Anne Joh

Amid her ill-fated campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Nikki Haley tweeted, “If we want to be serious about saving the environment, we need to confront India and China. They are some of the biggest polluters.” While her tone was blunt, her argument was not particularly new—she joined a growing chorus of voices who blame industrialization in Africa and Asia for the rise in carbon emissions, and a reason that the United States should refrain from passing new environmental policy. As I talk with Dr. Wonhee Anne Joh, Garrett-Evangelical’s Harry R. Kendall Professor of Christian Theology and Postcolonial Studies, she describes the intellectual dishonesty of this myopic perspective, and the way it endangers our collective future. “We can’t talk climate change or catastrophe without talking about colonialism at the same time,” she says. “When you discuss it devoid of these racialized colonial histories, you presume a false equivalence. Climate change may be a shared global responsibility, but we are not all equally responsible for this crisis—nor will its harm be evenly felt.”

           Moreover, it’s particularly violent to cry out against formerly colonized countries’ economic development given the history of how countries like the United States fueled our own. “Western industrialization was only possible because of that colonialism,” Dr. Joh says. “The West was only able to accumulate its wealth because of its conquest, constituting itself at the expense of desecrating the rest of the world.” The effects of these extraction economies are ongoing. “They didn’t just conquer people at that time,” Dr. Joh explains. “They decimated culture and also took the raw resources,” creating manufactured scarcity where there was once abundance. Now, she says, people talk about “natural” disasters, without ever confronting their distinctly unnatural foundations. “These crises happen because resources are unevenly distributed,” Dr. Joh observes. “The long history of underdevelopment and theft through racialized colonial history is why countries can’t withstand ‘natural’ disasters.”

            Even nominal attempts to redress that harm have played out along colonial fault lines. Consider the World Bank—who declares it their mission to “to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity on a livable planet.” While the institution was formed in 1944 as anticolonial movements were gaining power, in function it has served to further enrich wealthy nations by exploiting poorer ones. “Formally colonized nations were lent tons of money so they could develop, but neoliberal imperial powers actually put the money back into themselves through transnational companies,” Dr. Joh says. “Now, you have formally colonized places, stripped of resources, lent all this money with interest and they can barely make interest payments.” And still folks like Nikki Haley have the gall to blame India for driving climate change. “It’s a deft move that dominant folks make,” she wryly observes. “They keep changing the rules, right at the moment when they are applied to them, and then they take the posture of a pseudo-ethical stance.”

            This hypocritical attitude is offensive and hinders ecological progress; it’s also a stark threat to the wellbeing of people living in countries like the United States. “Our fates are intertwined and that’s something the U.S. and other dominant parts of the world don’t realize,” Dr. Joh explains. “We live together or we die together.” The persistent fantasy that lies beneath climate denialism is that somehow we can adapt our way out of this crisis, even as entire nations and ecosystems collapse. “We cannot accumulate so much that we become invulnerable,” she says bluntly. “That’s not how life works. But somehow, we don’t yet realize that there will be no life for us, either.”

            In order to change at the pace and magnitude this crisis demands, countries like the United States must stop viewing international environmental legislation as a zero sum game and accept our moral obligation to do substantially more than formerly colonized nations—and also to follow their wisdom and leadership. “It’s simple,” Dr. Joh says. “But people don’t want to accept how simple it is. Stop producing. Stop accumulating. Take the back seat. Learn from others. Change the way we think about who we are, what we are in relation to everything around us.” Again, the history of colonization presents an impediment here: The U.S. is so accustomed to thinking of ourselves as the people who can teach and lead the world. “Now we must learn from others who we’ve been told are inferior to us,” she observes, “I constantly have to be mindful that there is a different mindset to which I must return—that there are other truths just as valid and perhaps even more ancient, even more wise, and that those will offer us lifesaving ways. Unless we do that, we won’t turn away from this lifestyle.”

            Ultimately, understanding our fundamental interconnectedness is what fosters transformation. And that work begins by uprooting the lie of self-determination. “You cannot love others unless you love yourself,” Dr. Joh says. “Unless we see our own vulnerable humanity, there’s no way that we’re ever going to think about the rest of the world differently.” There’s a tenderness required there, but not one that tumbles toward self-pity. We in the United States will continue to live within the violence of empire but cannot use that reality to justify despair. “Even Jesus had a consciousness that was born into a colonial context,” she says, voice rising with passion. “So the question becomes: What does it mean for followers of Jesus to embody the compassion, love and activism with which Jesus bore witness as a form of counter-governance?”

          Fortunately, we don’t have to find those answers on our own—we can turn to folks who are already doing that work. The scale of change required is far closer to overthrowing an occupying empire than it is to begin a recycling program, so we must learn from people whose histories and genealogies lived through that change. “It starts with base communities, everyday practices in which we live our lives in relation to one another,” Dr. Joh concludes, “We must retrain our imaginations, rearrange our desires until we desire a different kind of world—to live an embodied hope.”