Míguez Bonino enfatizó que teologós/as se encuentran en una “doble ubicación”; primero dentro de una disciplina teológica con sus condiciones y demandas epistemológicas particulares, y segundo, como agente social dentro de una formación social específica. Estoy honrada de escribir esta reflexión sobre José Míguez Bonino y su impacto en my enseñanza y trabajo académico. ¿Cómo esta cristiana blanca, de clase media, feminista, progresista, de los Estados Unidos de America llegó a valorar tanto el trabajo de este teólogo de la liberación argentino? Abordar los trabajos de José Míguez Bonino reveló continuamente la profunda y dominante influencia de mi ubicación social en mis ideas y prácticas teológicas y políticas.
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Míguez Bonino enfatizou que o teólogo está em uma “localização dupla”; primeiro, dentro de uma disciplina teológica, com suas condições e exigências epistemológicas particulares, e segundo, como agente social, dentro de uma formação social específica. Tenho a honra de escrever esta reflexão sobre José Míguez Bonino e seu impacto em minha docência e pesquisa. Como essa cristã branca, classe média, feminista, progressista e norte-americana chegou a valorizar tanto o trabalho desse teólogo da libertação argentino? Meu engajamento com trabalhos de José Míguez Bonino revelou continuamente a influência profunda e generalizada da minha localização social nas minhas idéias e práticas teológicas e políticas.
José Míguez Bonino: Double Location and Theological Thinking-Acting
I am honored to write this reflection on José Míguez Bonino and his impact on my teaching, scholarship, and community activism. I often use Míguez Bonino’s writings in my courses at the Iliff School of Theology, the progressive United Methodist seminary where I teach in Denver, Colorado. Míguez Bonino also served as an important resource for my doctoral dissertation on religious-ethical perspectives on violence and (non)violence in U.S. social change. How did this white, middle-class, feminist, progressive, U.S. Christian come to value the work of this Argentine liberation theologian so much? Engaging José Míguez Bonino’s works continually reveals the deep and pervasive influence of the intersections of identity and power on theological and political ideas and practices of liberation in community.
Míguez Bonino emphasized that the theologian is in a “double location”; first, “within a theological discipline with its particular epistemological conditions and demands,” and secondly, as “a social agent within a particular social formation.” Taking the second location first, my early life as a white, middle-class suburban United Methodist in the northeastern United States was influenced by the presence of two United Methodist pastors who were liberationists. One was a Chilean who had been exiled to the New England area during the Pinchot regime in the 1970s. The second was a white, U.S. pastor whose ministry at the time was defined by his solidarity with the struggles of war-torn Central America. Both of these individuals combined the deepest pastoral love with structural, anti-capitalist points of view. Their insistent theology of Jesus Christ was: God is in and with the poor. God takes the side of the poor. These two men were both highly influential in my call to ordained and prophetic ministry as a United Methodist serving across local and national church levels.
I did not know at the time that this was the basic tenet of Latin American liberation theology. It would be years before I sat down and read Gustavo Gutiérrez’ classic text A Theology of Liberation. From this text I understood theology for the first time as a “second step,” a process of reflection deeply bound up in and arising from a particular context, versus descending as a core set of beliefs from above. Every claim to theology itself must be accompanied by owning and articulating the context out of which it speaks.
Over forty years since Gutiérrez’ original text, the liberationist perspective and demand for theology to arise out of the context and experience of “the least of these” may be taken for granted by some readers of this article. However, my experience in local church work, community ministry, and theological education in the United States tells me that the liberationist perspective must never be assumed. The reality is that most students and religious seekers still consider that the Christian faith consists of assent to a series of truth claims about the nature of God, Christ, and the church. This is as true in the primarily Roman Catholic and conservative evangelical Latinx community in which I live as it is at the primarily white, liberal seminary in which I teach. Most people have not considered that theological ideas are derived from historical contexts and support certain kinds of politics and socio-economic policies. The nature of privilege is the freedom to not know, to never consider how one’s perspective is conditioned by a set of power relations. The nature of power is to hide this understanding. Míguez Bonino’s statement that “There is not socially uncommitted theology” is still a radical notion in theological education, particularly among privileged populations, but across the intersections of multiple axes of difference and at all levels of church, academy, and society.
Míguez Bonino in the Classroom
At the school of theology where I teach, the first way in which I use Míguez Bonino’s writings is to expose the students to the idea of double location from Toward a Christian Political Ethics (1983). We read this text early in the class. We define what our social location is, and how that might influence our viewpoints of social change or what justice looks like. We note that the matter of understanding political power and its relationship to God’s power are intimately related and conditioned by our social location and our privileged and oppressed identities, and how those intersect in complex ways depending upon community context.
From the same book, I assign the chapter on justice and order. In my experience of teaching, no one theologian or scholar articulates so plainly and in so few pages the subordination of justice to ruling class power, and the complicity of Christian theologies and churches in the maintenance of an unjust order. Somehow students grasp the implications of the following point from Míguez Bonino with the utmost clarity:
Injustices should be corrected whenever that can be done without endangering order and peace. But if any redress of wrongs threatens to become disruptive, it should be avoided. The premise of Augustine’s position in these cases is quite clear – peace understood as order. Society is an organism that must function harmoniously. The chief purpose of societal organization is the suppression of conflict and tumult. Changes, or the respect for personal freedom or for justice, might endanger that order. Whenever an alternative emerges, therefore, the Christian ought to work for the best possible solution, the most just and generous one, short of endangering the existing order… Peace, therefore, understood as order is the basic direction, the ultimate ethical key. Theologically, justice and love are supreme, but historically both are subordinated to order.
I cannot overestimate the impact of these words and perspectives on students from primarily white, privileged North American backgrounds as they struggle to come to terms with the role of the United States and how it has imposed its dominant form of Christianity in the world. Yet no matter the intersections of racial and ethnic identity of the students, almost every student must come to terms with their investment in existing systems of power. Míguez Bonino’s point here lays a foundation for discussion and analysis within community activism and social change movements about the tension between so-called liberal and radical, reform and revolutionary theory and practice. Every justice seeker must come to terms with the different point at which their commitments either challenge or do not challenge the established hierarchies and institutions in which they are invested. The context of struggle for LGBTQ liberation in the United Methodist Church is entirely different from the context of struggle of the Latinx youth in the small mill city where I live in Massachusetts. Both contexts are deeply embedded in powerful systems of patriarchy, colonialism, heterosexism, and capitalism vis-à-vis institutional church structures. The double location of any minister/activist in each of these sites of struggle reveals different histories that constitute the conditions of oppression, and therefore different priorities for solidarity and liberation.
In a course on Christian colonialism, my co-instructor Dr. Tink Tinker and I assigned Míguez Bonino’s chapter from Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation, “Beyond Colonial and Neo-colonial Christianity.” Despite this text being over 35 years old, the analysis is still incredibly cogent. In this chapter, Míguez Bonino points to the unfortunate and enduring reality that churches have allowed themselves to be subordinate to the class (and land) interests of ruling political elites in the context of Latin America. Míguez Bonino labels this form of imperial Christianity heresy, and calls the church of the current age to reject the colonial project and embrace a post-colonial, revolutionary form of Christian faith and practice. The clarity of Míguez Bonino’s description of the colonial context makes it almost impossible for students to deny that such colonial realities continue to implicate North American Christian churches in theologies and practices of domination, violence, and oppression. In my community of Lawrence, Massachusetts, it is easy to trace the U.S. history of imperialism in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and the economic devastation of U.S. “free trade” policy in Central and South America, to the migration patterns to this city, which is the second poorest city in the state. The role of North American churches in this imperialist history and ruling class power remains obscure to both the rich and the poor, and requires research, repentance, and repair. Christian leaders must commit to investigation and action as these legacies play out in urgent matters of life and death, poverty, immigration, and detention that are legacies of these decades of Latin America-U.S. political and economic struggle.
Professor Tinker had the opportunity to know Míguez Bonino through their connections in the World Council of Churches, as well as when José Míguez Bonino came to Iliff as a visiting scholar. When I asked Dr. Tinker what he believed the ongoing importance of Míguez Bonino’s writings was for contemporary students, he answered,
A lot of what he wrote just made such clear-headed sense. And it made clear-headed sense within the particular context of Latin America’s struggle for liberation. But it wasn’t tied just to that occasion. To the extent that he spoke particularly to Western power out of that social context is what I think endures, because Western power has not stopped exercising its prerogatives.
Dr. Tinker added, “The other thing is, he did it with such gentleness. He was such a kind gentleman. Just a spirit of graciousness always.”
Míguez Bonino’s Influence on My Doctoral Work
I was also powerfully and personally implicated by Míguez Bonino’s questions throughout my doctoral work. While embracing in general terms the idea of the preferential option for the poor throughout my life and ministry, I had not internalized clearly how my social location continued to influence my own theo-political understanding and practices. My doctoral education revealed deeper layers of the pervasive influence of my double location on me and my ideas.
In my studies, I proposed to analyze religiously rooted social change movements, focusing on (non)violent social change as spiritual practice. I was raised in a Christian activism in which (non)violence and the occasional need for civil disobedience were assumed. I was not trained in any theoretical basis for this work, but understood that it flowed naturally from biblical-prophetic mandates for peace and love. I assumed that the best form of social change was (non)violent social change; or, at the very least, that it was the most suitable place to discover authentic forms of spirituality that propel public faith. I elevated (non)violent social action as a superior form of spiritual practice.
During my first year of study, I took a course on biblical ethics with Dr. Miguel De La Torre. The methodology of the course was to investigate normative Christian ethical claims from marginalized perspectives. A central text was Thomas Schubeck’s Liberation Ethics. Schubeck’s text introduced me to José Míguez Bonino. When I asked Dr. De La Torre how Míguez Bonino had influenced his own liberationist perspective, he said he had difficulty naming one thing that stood out as most important. He said, “Rather than one thing, his work has really been more foundational… I go back to him without even realizing I go back to him.” Míguez Bonino’s descriptions – his whole analysis of economic dependence and multi-national corporations, his concept of utopia, his commitment to ethics, his Protestant voice among the earliest Latin American liberationists – all of these perspectives, Dr. De La Torre said, “are so second nature now.” Having had the opportunity to work with José’s son Néstor O. Míguez, Dr. De La Torre said the one thing the son impressed upon him about his father was that
When he was doing his ethical analysis, it wasn’t an issue of thinking of paradigms implemented from within safe environments. These were paradigms wherein people were being killed. People were disappearing…So it’s an ethics that I think helped shape my own thinking that puts your body on the line. That literally there could be a cost for doing this type of ethics.
Grappling with this matter of costliness and sacrifice within my own and others’ doubly located perspectives about (non)violence would become a central preoccupation of my dissertation work.
Double Location and Understanding (Non)violence
Dr. De La Torre’s course and Schubeck’s book introduced me to Míguez Bonino’s analysis of power and violence, which became foundational for my doctoral dissertation. In a project for De La Torre’s course, I intended to bring in non-Euroamerican perspectives on Walter Wink’s well-known exegesis of Matthew 5:38-42. This interpretation of Jesus’ exhortation to turn the other cheek, go the second mile, and give a creditor one’s outer garment results in Wink’s popular interpretation of Jesus’ “third way” of (non)violent resistance. Though I searched high and low for sources, from what I could tell, there were no engagements of Wink’s exegesis from marginalized perspectives. It took me quite a long time to realize this meant there was a good chance that this text and Wink’s interpretation of it may not be particularly important to marginalized communities at all. It would not be important to critique Wink’s analysis if one simply rejected it. Might marginalized communities reject Matthew 5:38-42 because it has historically been used to oppress by using Jesus’ words to enforce passivity in the face of violence?
While this insight seems plain to me now, at the time Míguez Bonino’s insights about double location forced me to this point of understanding related to my own commitments to (non)violence. He wrote, “A social location determines a perspective. It conceals some things and reveals others. The poor…do see reality from a different angle or location – and therefore differently.” I had to ask myself, what did my own privileged social location conceal and reveal about my absolute acceptance of (non)violence as the most ethical means of social change? (Non)violence was not a perspective or my perspective; for me, it was the perspective emerging from the Bible. How might other communities in a different social location view the issue of (non)violence?
My own relatively privileged social location presented even “what [was] worthy of being thought” by me. Míguez Bonino asked, “What is relevant (and consequently what is irrelevant and alienating) in the questions chosen to be addressed?” Clearly, I was not interested in the notion of revolutionary violence as a potentially justifiable means of social change. As Míguez Bonino’s insights demonstrated, as a result of my social location in a non-revolutionary U.S. social context, this was not even a question in my mind. To ask such a question meant to question the efficacy and justifiability of (non)violence itself.
Finally, Míguez Bonino suggested that “the destination of our work has to be considered: to what end is it related? …all the productions of human thought have a social impact and the theologian cannot remain indifferent to the question: for whom?” Here, Míguez Bonino’s implication brought me back to his insights around justice, peace, and order. For whom was my commitment to (non)violence? Was (non)violence as I understood and practiced it fundamentally a praxis of liberation for the poor and oppressed, or did it unknowingly, from my own privileged social location, affirm order over justice? It was easy to affirm (non)violence from within my own safe environment. The only way to talk about (non)violence from the point of view of the marginalized was, first, to move away from my normative reading of the text. This move surfaced one point immediately: the daily reality of the vast majority of exploited people in the world is that of violence, not (non)violence. To begin an analysis from a position of (non)violence would be to miss the reality of the marginalized. Without those voices, I was potentially creating an ethic of doing justice, which could not be considered either complete or just.
Violence and (Non)violence: Revolutionary Social Change
Míguez Bonino emphasized that “such sentences as ‘we are against violence, wherever it may come from,’ or ‘we reject all forms of violence’ may be quite ‘seductive for human and Christian sensibility,” however, “they can only make sense on the lips of people – who do not usually employ them – who are actively and dangerously involved in the removal of prevalent violence.” From my privileged, white, U.S. social location it was quite simply easy for me to affirm (non)violence as the most moral and superior means of change. In fact, I had faced very little violence and understood very little about the nature of violence and what radical (non)violence or violence for revolutionary social transformation looked like or felt like.
Míguez Bonino wrote that the most important question for social transformation is not what extent of justice is harmonious with the peaceful maintenance of the existing order, but “What kind of order, which order is compatible with the exercise of the justice?” If justice is defined as the end of violence and the liberation of the oppressed, then social change is “not change just for the sake of change,” but for the sake of achieving a new order that is not based in violence as the current order is. The establishment of a just order will require a disruption of peace.
Unfortunately, (non)violence from a Christian social location (and other dominant social locations) as a requisite for social change has often served the purpose of pacification in historical and modern conflict, including revolutionary and social reform contexts. Instead of developing strategies of resistance and non-cooperation with violent structures within the context of struggle, a normative frame of Christian (non)violence often pacifies eruptions of conflict and anger occasioned by the vicious nature of structural violence. In eras of both historic colonization and contemporary social change, (non)violence as pacification reinforces the material order and the entitlement rewards of dominant cultures. When they serve a dominant culture’s need to enforce pacification, Christian calls for (non)violence may be forms of cultural and structural violence themselves.
Arguments for (Non)violence
Míguez Bonino did not oppose (non)violence; not at all. In fact, he wrote, “Nonviolent action is not only most appropriate to the Christian conscience, but also to the revolutionary purpose.” He thoroughly understood the problems that a revolutionary violence posed:
The exacerbation of hate, resentment, and rivalries, the imposition of changes from a structure of power without a corresponding development of conscience, the acceptance of the “rules of the game” of the present system. Victorious revolutionary violence runs the risk of simply substituting one form of oppression for another and thus becoming really counterrevolutionary. It certainly makes the construction (human, economic, social, institutional, political) necessary after the takeover of power all the more difficult, almost in proportion to the amount and length of the period of subversive violence.
He wrote that (non)violent action is coherent only when it serves a revolutionary purpose: it respects the human person, makes room for an internalization of the project of liberation in the masses, and fosters a sense of solidarity in the construction of a new society. He also pointed out that the problems of the residual effects of violence also apply to the application of (non)violent means.
Precisely this same consideration of the human cost of revolution and the health of the ensuing process which leads us to reject absolute violence is the one which prevents us from embracing absolute pacifism. Nonviolence also has to ask what is the human cost in lives, suffering, paralyzing frustration, dehumanization, and the introjection of a slave-consciousness. We pay for our choice of means of change.
Therefore, if violence would be more efficacious to the liberation of poor and oppressed in certain contexts, it should also be considered, given certain rigorous analysis and the application of explicit restrictions. He reiterated that no one position should be endorsed over another without context, analysis, and consideration of the participants’ social location. Here he cautioned against any romanticization of either violence or (non)violence:
No sentimentalism can replace the sober assessment of the situation. A Christian ethics cannot take refuge in the subjective appeal to “my conscience” or satisfy itself with a readiness to suffer violence without resistance. For it is not our life or comfort as Christians which is at stake – at this point the Christian community can only follow the road of the cross – but the life and humanity of our neighbor. Certainly Christians in the struggle for liberation will witness to their faith – as well as to the ultimate goal of the revolution – by insisting on counting carefully the cost of violence, by fighting against all idolization of destruction and the destructive spirit of hate and revenge, by attempting to humanize the struggle, by keeping in mind that beyond victory there must be reconciliation and construction. But they cannot block through Christian scruples the road clearly indicated by a lucid assessment of the situation. Even less can they play the game of reaction lending support to those who are profiting from present violence or weakening through sentimental pseudo-Christian slogans (however well-meaning) the will among the oppressed to fight for their liberation.
Analysis of Violence and Social Location
In his dissertation work regarding the topic of violence in the writings of select Latin American liberation theologians, Ransom Eugene Casey-Rutland emphasized that beyond Toward a Christian Political Ethics and Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation, Míguez Bonino consistently and increasingly supports the labor of revolutionary (non)violence. However, the central questions of complicity in violence by the advocates of (non)violence, particularly regarding the social locations from which they analyze context, speak, and act, remains critical. Citing Míguez Bonino, Casey-Rutland asks, “The question is not whether we accept violence or not, but what do Christians do with the reality of violence in which we are all actively involved.” All Christians, North American suburban Christians and Latin American revolutionary Christians alike, must ask themselves certain critical questions of the location from which they ask their questions about social transformation and from which they engage in praxis.
Míguez Bonino emphasizes that all Christians – not simply those Christians confronted with decisions about overt acts of physical violence – but all Christians everywhere should contemplate their participation in violence. In so doing, he deliberately shifts the focus of ethical attention to violence from universal, abstract, and generalizable criteria, to the concrete, particular, and often overlooked dilemmas of Christians caught up in institutionalized violence.
This became a central question in my dissertation research and has become the central question in teaching students about social change in a theology school. For whom are our efforts? If our efforts are for the poor, then we must be with the poor in determining what striving for social transformation looks like, and not imposing our own agendas. Particularly in the contemporary non-revolutionary context that is the United States, I try to impress upon students that Míguez Bonino’s perspective is not necessarily asking U.S. Christians to engage in revolutionary armed struggle, or violence of any kind for social change. But his perspective continues to challenge our own complicity in violence of all forms, and to open ourselves to the critique of an easy and idealistic Christian stance on (non)violence, which ultimately costs the privileged of this country little to nothing. Again, the clarity of Míguez Bonino’s analysis of violence arising out of the particular revolutionary context of Latin America helps us to extrapolate, but not universalize, the lessons to other social contexts. His emphasis on double location constantly pushes theologians to recognize the extent to which our investment in the status quo influences our theology and therefore serves to mitigate the costs of engaging in praxis.
José Míguez Bonino was very much responsible for bringing these conversations to the world ecumenical stage, particularly throughout the era of the emergence of liberation theology from world-wide revolutionary situations in Latin America and elsewhere. His voice is prominent throughout the documents and publications of the World Council of Churches, and more mainstream English-language publications of the U.S. Christian left where he argued these matters with passion and compassion. Yet these well-documented, rigorous, and heated discussions appeared to have had little influence on white, liberal Christian theology in the United States, which continued and continues to uncritically privilege (non)violence alone despite the experience and knowledge of an earlier generation of activists and scholars living in and representing oppressed communities. In this day and age, entering into similar discussions reveals little to no knowledge of these earlier debates. Míguez Bonino was infuriated by a worldwide church that persisted in its refusal to stand clearly on the side of the oppressed, and which continues to seek compromise and reconciliation with the liberal capitalist system and its beneficiaries, whose theology and practice do not seek liberation.
Why haven’t these controversies and insights been more thoroughly integrated into primarily mainstream white, progressive religious peace and justice circles in the U.S.? Part of my answer is that (non)violence is more often spoken of as an ideal than practiced, more individual than collective. It is a (non)violence that is not, by most standards, a challenge to the status quo. It is a (non)violence advocated by those of us who are part of the dominant power structure. As such, we are generally unwilling to consider the costs, much less sacrifice, the many privileges our dominant identities bestow, but which radical social transformation might actually demand in circumstances of life and death. (Non)violence has often been a means of such liberal compromise, amounting to a lack of confrontation and conflict.
Return to Our “First” Location
It is important here to return to Míguez Bonino’s articulation of double location. Míguez Bonino noted that the theologian is in a double location: first, “within a theological discipline with its particular epistemological conditions and demands.” This “first” location is one of emphasis within Míguez Bonino’s writing that I believe is critical, particularly within the context of liberal-to-progressive theological education in the United States. The relationship of the U.S. Christian left to the Bible remains ambivalent at best. As a result of an awareness of our dominant social location, some of us hold an appropriate and understandable sensitivity to the ways in which the Bible has been used as a weapon of oppression and colonialism. Therefore, our claims to the demands and value of the text are weak. As an evangelical Methodist, Míguez Bonino demanded faithfulness to the biblical text and the biblical witness alongside an awareness of the dominance we bring to our interpretation and implementation of the biblical text from our social location. Part of our double location as Christians, he insisted, was our location within Christian theology, and the Bible must remain one of the critical epistemological sources for Christians.
The Bible never lets the left off the hook in terms of our idealistic notions of social transformation. In terms of violence and (non)violence, like many other notions such as freedom or peace, “the biblical starting point… is never an abstract notion or principle, but a concrete situation.”
Violence appears in the Bible, not as a general form of human conduct, which has to be accepted or rejected as such, but as an element of God’s announcement-commandment, as concrete acts which must be carried out or avoided in view of a result… indicated by the announcement-commandment. Thus, the law forbids certain forms of violence to persons and things and authorizes and even commands others…
Despite Míguez Bonino’s overall support for the theological claims of (non)violence, “as theological positions, both perspectives find support in the biblical and ecclesiastical tradition.” There simply is no escaping this basic point. Whether it has to do with violence or (non)violence, gender, slavery, or sexuality, the sacred text never merely works to support our own political ideals. It confounds them with context, as Míguez Bonino constantly reiterates. The Bible never squares with our abstract ideals about (non)violence. We claim the ideals of justice, but are often unwilling to go to the full lengths of what justice costs and the full weight of what solidarity with the poor and oppressed demands. Being willing to reckon with the reality of violence in the Bible and in historic revolutionary contexts does not necessarily mean Christian progressives condone violence. It means that we let the reality of violence in the Bible and in history question, criticize, and deepen our (non)violent ideals and practices.
For Míguez Bonino the costs of Christian discipleship and socio-economic, political liberation go hand-in-hand. Context and double location confound discipleship-liberation and Christian sources demand full engagement with injustice, violence, and costly action. Míguez Bonino’s writing continues to push us to grapple with the implications of these realities in and on the theological classroom, scholarship, and in the struggles of our local communities.