In recent years, scholars in digital humanities began to recognise the coloniality of knowledge production in the digital space. Both direct and indirect intentions may contribute to such colonisation, such as governmental surveillance, advanced technological education in one’s social location, and platforms favouring particular groups or certain types of knowledge.
This research investigates the intersection between decoloniality1 and digital theology, and uses Hong Kong as a case study to illustrate the danger of recolonisation in the digital space. Despite the increasing discourse of decolonising digital space,2 such an implication to Hong Kong is minimal, and not about digital theology.
By decoloniality, I refer to the continuous reflection on one’s epistemology that does not prioritise knowledge from those with power, whether based on geographical location, class, ethnicity, or gender. In this paper, decolonisation and recolonisation mainly indicate the process of decolonising or recolonising subject matter. On this note, my usage of decoloniality and coloniality will differ, as this usage is more connected to one’s mindset rather than a process.
The discourses about decoloniality often refer to the situation where those with power, the colonisers, dominate the dialogue and knowledge production, including digital media. In Inna Kizhner’s research about the digitised content held in Google Arts and Culture, she discovered the content was disproportionally dominated by materials hosted in the United States, which are around 82 per cent of the materials, compared to the remaining 18 per cent from 72 countries out of 195 from the United Nations’ country list.3
While digital scholars are aware of the coloniser-colonised dilemma, my paper further problematises this issue in the digital space, where the role of coloniser and that of colonised is not as clear-cut. For example, the colonised ones may not be from former colonies but exist due to the marginalisation in the digital space. Questions may raise if multinational social media companies are the colonisers4 and if a governmental agency, which applies surveillance on social networking services (SNSs), becomes another type of colonisers.5 Against this backdrop, this paper aims to build a constructive dialogue through the methodology of digital theology. Taking the approach which Peter Phillips, Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero, and Jonas Kurlberg identify as wave five of the development of digital theology, the project seeks to “analyse and critique the use of digital technology within the study of theology and religious belief and practice; [and] to describe and contextualise the impact of digital culture upon religious belief and practice”.6 I argue that, due to the heavy reliance on internet usage during lockdown, the coloniality of digital culture has indeed shaped our worldview both online and offline.
There have been increasing discourses regarding decolonising Protestant theology and the theology and religious studies curriculum. In his monograph Decolonizing Christianity, the Baptist liberation theologian Miguel A. De La Torre urges his readers to resist white nationalism and “to decolonize [their] own minds, which have been conditioned to see reality through the lens of the oppressors”.7 This understanding would prevent the creation of bad theology, that is, “an attempt to theologically justify oppression through liberty-based platitudes”,8 in light of the white supremacy faced during the presidential election in the United States.
Regarding decolonising the curriculum in the United States, the religious studies scholar Travis Cooper observes that religious studies departments assume a particular type of neutrality applied by lecturers in the classroom, built on the “Protestant secular” epistemic framework. For Cooper, such neutrality may not be as helpful when teaching religious studies because positionality may still be necessary when constructing knowledge of religious ethics. He calls for objective realism, a decolonised objectivity that comprises self-reflexivity regarding religious experience and not restrained by the colonial structure present in the academy.9
For Shadaab Rahemtulla, a Muslim liberation theologian, decolonisation discusses how power and knowledge are constantly developed from a social context. Thus, “decolonising knowledge is about locating knowledge within power relations… [The] knowledge we have [is obtained] through the lived experience of the privileged centre of our society”. While rejecting objectivity, he suggests to “reconstruct new forms of knowing and being from the neglected margins of society”.10
Similarly, this paper questions in what ways churches can avoid such a colonial mindset that may indirectly recolonise others in the digital space. I argue that digital theologians should be cautious of the unjust structures in digital space – not only about knowledge production but also digital poverty, which becomes more evident during lockdown.11
Employing Eric Stoddart’s theology of surveillance, I argue that it is of high importance to be aware of the online presence and the absence of individuals. Just as God’s omnipresence illustrates God’s care to human beings,12 the church community, as the witness of God, may have to rethink its approach to nurture both digital natives, marginalised groups in the digital space, and those who prefer offline interactions. While most of us have benefited from the internet during the pandemic, such as online grocery shopping, updating COVID-19 news, and keeping in touch with colleagues and families, digital space also constrains the knowledge we receive in our limited geographical location.13
In Stoddart’s monograph The Common Gaze, he highlights the importance of the role of shepherd in the parable of the lost sheep. He states that people often focus on the lost sheep who returned to the shepherd, but they seldom ponder the role of the shepherd in the parable, especially the description in Luke 15, where the emphasis is put on the latter who “has lost” the sheep.14 Internet users nowadays may be more conscious of their digital footprint. For example, the University of Edinburgh has introduced courses to “reflect on [our] own online tracks and traces”.15 Obviously, this is for individuals’ digital footprint, but this also raises questions on how theologians or churches can assist those systematically marginalised in the digital space.
Stoddart’s postcolonial analysis will also be helpful to advance the discourse of decoloniality in the digital space, especially the question of surveillance in the digital space. As Hong Kong faces the suppression of freedom of speech due to the implementation of the National Security Law in June 2020, which, some may argue, is a “recolonisation” by the People’s Republic of China (PRC),16 there will be an urgent need to theologise these issues, considering the challenges both churches and Hong Kongers may face in the future.
As pastoral ministries are forced to shift online during the pandemic, it is evident that the coloniality of digital space had indirectly changed the landscape of pastoral ministries. Building on Stoddart’s argument, I propose to handle ministry with sensitivity and, as a digital theologian, indicate the limitations of digital devices/spaces can do for us. While most digital inhabitants are comfortable sharing their lockdown life on social media, those who are digitally poor may be indirectly marginalised online. In terms of digital poverty, I refer to the (in)ability to choose to be online or offline. This can mean the lack of digital devices and/or digital literacy. Since the digital divide will worsen in the post-COVID-19 world, doing pastoral ministries with a decolonial mindset will help tackle digital inequality.
Regarding church ministry, the five marks of missions introduced by the Anglican Communion, especially the fourth mark, may assist us to think through the disappearance of marginalised people online. It proposes that the church “[transform] unjust structures of society, [and challenges] violence of every kind and [pursues] peace and reconciliation”.17 While I will address oppression by governmental bodies in the next section, societal oppression can be observed in day-to-day interactions.
For those in digital poverty, their absence of a digital footprint online may decrease their exposure to social networks as well as the access to information, and thus receive less pastoral care when necessary. Here I am thinking of the lack of social media posts because they are diagnosed with COVID-19 and thus cannot use social media as often. This is probably different from youth ministry in the pre-COVID-19 world when youth pastors hesitated to spend too much time online, because online interaction has become a significant form of communication during the pandemic. When our worldview is heavily shaped by social media, or by search engines that select the information we receive, it is essential to remain humble on the reality that we may not obtain the truth of particular events or people. The willingness to learn more about each other’s experiences during COVID-19 seems necessary when our understanding of each other is predominantly shaped by the other’s presence or absence online.
This understanding is beneficial when social media portrays an ideal life for most, whether Christians or not, although the heavy use of social media may not always positively impact one’s mental health.18 I am aware that I use a theory from a highly institutionalised denomination, which, for some, is the cause of structural racism and marginalisation.19 However, an institution does not have to be changed if it is already in perfect condition. The recognition that our society is not perfect due to structural inequality and thus needs to be improved will also help us reflecting on our ministries. This will hopefully bridge the gap in highly institutionalised churches. Decoloniality does not necessarily mean identity politics, that one’s epistemology must be replaced by others; instead, different ideologies can co-exist, and one can develop a decolonial mindset based on the theologies they learn from their contexts.
While I use Hong Kong, my hometown, as a case study, this can apply to Burma or Mainland China, where internet usage is restricted under governmental surveillance. In reflecting on the scenario in Hong Kong, one may notice the increasing surveillance of the digital space which may jeopardise the freedom of speech in Hong Kong.20
According to Article 43 of the National Security Law (NSL),
if the Commissioner of Police has reasonable grounds to suspect that an electronic message published on an electronic platform is likely to constitute an offence endangering national security or is likely to cause the occurrence of an offence endangering national security, he may, with the approval of the Secretary for Security, authorise a designated police officer to request the relevant message publisher(s), platform service provider(s), hosting service provider(s) and/or network service provider(s) to remove the message; restrict or cease access by any person to the message; or restrict or cease access by any person to the platform or its relevant part(s). It is a reasonable defence if the technology necessary for complying with the requirement was not reasonably available to the publisher or relevant service provider; or there was a risk of incurring substantial loss to, or otherwise substantially prejudicing the right of, a third party.
If the publisher fails to cooperate immediately, and the relevant information on the Internet will continue to seriously affect members of the public, police officers may apply to the magistrate for a warrant to seize the relevant electronic device and take any action for removing that information as soon as practicable. Relevant officers may also apply to the magistrate for a warrant under specific circumstances to authorise police officers to request the relevant service provider to provide the identification record or decryption assistance as the case requires.21
Since the implementation of the NSL in July 2020, the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) began to use NSL to remove websites that, they claimed, may threaten the stability of Hong Kong society. For example, the pro-democratic, multinational newspaper agency Apple Daily was shut down at the end of June,22 prior to the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) establishment on 1 July. All their websites were deleted within a few days of freezing their assets by the HKPF.23
Moreover, the closure of websites applies to those generated by the Hong Kong diaspora. One of the recent incidents includes removing the Hong Kong Charter website,24 which promotes democracy in Hong Kong and urges the Hong Kong diaspora to contribute to a campaign for a better society in Hong Kong.25
In these scenarios, the digital space almost becomes a battlefield for the CPC to determine what ideologies are or are not aligned with the Party’s goal. While I agree that Hong Kong is part of China, I am concerned with a China-centric ideology, such as the tianxia theory,26 which claims China is the centre of the world. For me, this is merely another form of recolonisation, which should be resisted, whether we are Chinese or Christian.
The case of Hong Kong shows digital theologians the limitation of digital space itself. When the digital space inhibits the freedom of speech and asserts recolonisation to internet users, it will not become a democratic space as we hope to be;27 rather, it illustrates that offline interactions become a more viable option, whether the users choose to be or not. Hence, as digital theologians, we may have to discern when digital space is no longer safe for users, if they do not use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) or encrypted messaging services such as Signal,28 and how we may use a hybrid approach creatively for ministry or day-to-day interactions.
Chiu Shin-wing, the founder of the non-governmental organisation Fair Circle, foresees that the primary task for Hong Kongers in the future is “living in truth”, quoting the ideas of the first Czech president Václav Havel (1936–2011).29 On top of promoting his work about fair trade, he uses the online platform to share meaningful information to assist citizens in discerning the truth and confronting fake news. For Chiu, Hong Kongers are now ruled under an authoritarian government. Hence, it is essential to keep a calm attitude toward everyday life “to do what has to be done”.30 This will help to build a robust civil society that cannot be easily suppressed by power.
Applying Chiu’s wisdom of digital space, undoubtedly digital space is not as accessible as one may think and is not as fair as one hopes; Therefore, guiding online users to meaningful content, and even the truth, will be the next task for digital theologians in the post-COVID-19 world. As discussed above, we all have our limitations on what knowledge we receive – based on our geographical location and education – and thus, unpacking our colonial epistemology may take time. Humbly listening to each other’s story, just as Jesus reaching out to the Samaritan woman (John 4), is of essential importance when information is gerrymandered online.31 In the post-COVID-19 world in which human interactions become highly digitalised, may we all be good and faithful shepherds who are conscious of the necessity of decoloniality and the danger of recolonisation in digital space.