José Míguez Bonino is well known in Latin America and many other sectors of theology in the world. In conversation with Nancy Bedford, she commented that he was called “Don José.” In her article she expresses that he was a simple man with a good sense of humor, profoundly ecumenical, and with an enormous pastoral sensibility. Harold Segura describes him as a man of deep thinking and knowledge yet simple and humble, always with a welcoming smile. This maybe the best way to describe this very good writer who through his theological ideas, his way of interpreting the liberating message of Jesus, and his Christian testimony marked the lives of men and women who followed after his footsteps and learned of his way of doing theology even today.
I read the second book by this author sitting down on the hard-wooden chairs in the library of the Baptist International Theological Seminary in the city of Cali, Colombia (now Baptist University Foundation); I was working toward my Master degree in 2001. The books by Latin American and Latina/o authors were foreign to us, because almost everything that came to us was from the Baptist Publishing House “made in E.E.U.U.” After reading the title, Love and Do What You Want I jumped and devour its pages. In the introduction of this short work, Míguez Bonino clarifies that:
We want to talk with believers who are truly interested in responding faithfully with their lives to the call of Jesus Christ. The problems that such people confront are not different from those which concern the specialist—that is, if we are talking about a specialist grounded in reality and not just a mere juggler of abstractions.
I must confess that there were many moments during which I, as a student, drowned myself in a world of theological abstractions which did not respond to the social needs of my country, immersed in raw violence. As I read Don José, I felt that he was speaking to my own reality, that I was talking with someone with Latin American ancestry and blood, who knew that our plantain is sour, and not with a stranger who thought he knew everything and taught us doctrinal formulas but who did not have his feet resting on the social reality of Latin America.
Don José was born in Santa Fe, Argentina, in 1924. His father was a Spaniard and his mother was born in Uruguay of Italian ascendancy. He was reared in a Christian home, as he expressed it:
I was born to an Evangelical home. My mother was the daughter of Piedmontese who had recently arrived, and who converted to the Gospel listening to the preaching of the Methodist pioneer Juan Thomson, when she was little over twenty years old. My father was a Galician who had arrived in the country in the 1900, a dock worker in an English importing company, and met my mother’s family at work; it was she who led him to the faith. In Buenos Aires they ended up congregating in the Methodist Church.
Don José knew the gospel from an early age. It seems that his family and ecclesial Methodist faith marked his life to the degree that, he decided to abandon his studies to become a physician and instead dedicate himself to the pastoral vocation and theological study. He studied in the now closed Facultad Evangélica de Teología de Buenos Aires (later known as ISEDET) (Evangelical Theological School of Buenos Aires). He studied his master’s degree at the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta and completed his doctoral studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York (1960). His doctoral dissertation focused on ecumenism, a topic about which he was passionate and which he lived thoroughly.
His pastoral vocation led him to direct several congregations in the Methodist Church in Argentina and Bolivia, while his academic vocation led him to be a professor of dogmatic theology at ISEDET, institution at which he was named president (1961-1970) and where he directed graduate studies. Don José was an active and committed man in various movements like Church and Society in Latin America; Latin American Theological Fraternity; Latin American Evangelical Union; Latin American Council of Churches; and the Latin American Council for Evangelization. As a pastor and theologian he crossed borders, as he was invited as guest professor to various institutions like Union Theological Seminary in New York; Selly Oak College in Birmingham; the Latin American Biblical Seminary in San José Costa Rica; the Faculty of Protestant Theology at the University of Strasbourg in France; Emory University in Atlanta; Iliff School of Theology in Denver, and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.
Don Jose was an avid reader of the theology of Karl Barth and the ethics of Paul Lehmann. He was prolific in his writings and developed a unique method of doing theology that emerged from pertinent and provocative questions. One of his students. Alberto F. Roldan comments: “[An] aspect that characterizes the theology of José Míguez Bonino is that itself asks questions instead of making assertions… In this sense it can be stated that [this author] is annoying as a gadfly and calls into question many theological and ideological positions that prevail in the Protestant and Evangelical sphere.” This gadfly has been considered the dean of Latin American theologians, above all, for his emphasis in the theology of liberation from a critical Protestant angle. Don José was a pastor, professor, and citizen committed to the gospel, the church, and human rights. He was a man that loved the mission of the church and fomented Christian praxis with his preferential option for the poor. Other authors of the theology of liberation such as Gustavo Gutiérrez, Juan Luis Segundo, and Jon Sobrino were among his theological interlocutors. Yet, he stated very clear that despite being considered a revolutionary and liberationist, his true identity remained evangelical:
I have been catalogued variously as conservative, revolutionary, Barthian, liberal, Catholic, moderate, and liberationist. Probably all of those are true. I am not the one to speak against that. But if I try to define myself in my heart of hearts, what “comes out of me” is that I am Evangelical. The roots of my religious and ecclesial militancy seem to have been sinking into that soil for over seventy years. From that source, the joys and conflicts, satisfactions and frustrations that have been woven overtime seemed to have flowed. There the deepest friendships sprouted, and painful estrangements developed; there lie the memories of the beloved dead and the hope of the generations that I have seen born and grow.
From that Evangelical source emerged his commitment to the struggle for the weakest ones in the Latin American societies. There also emerged his theological, social, and liberative work reflected in his Christocentric ethic. According to that Argentinian theologian, his work was based on more than inflexible rules or governed by institutions which dictate moral laws, but was rooted in the love of Jesus as a proposal to a new humanity; a new humanity free to love and serve. According to Míguez Bonino, the faith of the gospel brings us closer to a new disruptive reality that convokes us to a new situation in which our place is as responsible beings with a new power, and where a new form of existence emerges.
Don José had an ecumenical commitment that led him to participate in various conferences of the World Council of Churches (WCC) since the 1950s, and as a delegate in New Delhi, Upsala and Nairobi. He participated as an editor of the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement and he was an active member of the Commission of Faith and Order of the WCC (1961-1977). He collaborated with the Christian Student Movement (CSM) and the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians (EATWOT). He worked arduously for the unity of the church in the ecumenical world but always with a liberating focus. He was the only Latin American Protestant observer invited to the Second Vatican Council, from which emerged his book Open Council: a Protestant interpretation of the Second Vatican Council (1967). Concerning ecumenism he wrote the following: “The term ‘ecumenism’ has entered the vocabulary of contemporary man [sic] with an affective burden that connotes peace, fraternity, reconciliation, unity, constructive and open dialogue: terms that symbolize its aspirations and hopes.” This thinker always emphasized that hope and aspiration reflected in a new lived oikumene in the love of neighbor and exemplified in Jesus.
On July 2012, Don José died at the age of 88 in Tandil, Argentina. To this noble man of Deep thinking and simple heart we have dedicated the chapters in this especial edition of Perspectivas. Authors from Latin America and the United States of America who read his work and value the writings of this Argentinian thinker got together to honor Don José. The theological, ethical, ecumenical, and political legacy of this man can be seen in the following pages.
The first article opens with a theologian who closely knew Don José. Nancy Bedford begins this homage by showing the value of the theological contributions by this thinker, which do not follow the standardized European Canons, but instead are rooted in the soil and history of suffering, violence, and poverty of the Latin American peoples. The theology of Don José is committed with reality and with a hermeneutics which interprets and links with that same social reality. Nancy highlights the faith that seeks efficacy which Míguez Bonino so much proclaimed, above all, in the sociopolitical context of Argentina during the 1970s. That is to say, according to the author, “justification by faith is accompanied by the praxis of the Holy Spirit, that always has to do with love.”
The second article by Néstor Gómez and Edwin Villamil presents a panoramic view of the ethical perspective of Don José, primarily in his work Love and Do What You Want (1972). The authors briefly revisit the basic aspects of the Western philosophical subject of ethics that has influenced Christianity, in order to approach Míguez Bonino’s ethics from a Latin American context. As a good inquisitive thinker and liberationist theologian, Don José was not oblivious of the social and political struggles that people lived in his native country and in Latin America. In fact, his ethics attempted to respond with a Christian praxis that run counter to Western ethical abstractions. His ethical proposal of a rereading of the New Testament, as these authors understanding it, was that of a new humanity in Christ and a new creation in the kingdom of God, grounded in faith, hope, and love.
Nicolás Panotto writes the third article on public theology, a theme not very well developed on Latin American soil. He dialogues with Míguez Bonino’s theological work to see how faith assumes social and political challenges, in the diverse public spaces that have new emerging social subjects. Nicolás achieves this analysis from a postfoundational philosophy that questions absolutisms, essentialisms, and abstractions, as the Argentinian author himself did from theology. What is interesting about this section is the “postfoundational deconstruction from a Trinitarian economy of the divine” approach proposed by the author, that leads to questioning the idea of two histories: one profane and the other divine, as Míguez Bonino and liberation theologians did. According to Nicolás, the challenge Don José left for a public theology is “to tear down the walls of the senses and of institutions, and to be open to history and the social as infinite forms of being and doing.
The fourth article written by Aaron Conley accounts for the social mistakes that have existed in historical writings, when social phenomena is viewed only from the angles of privilege and power. The author dialogues with Don José and his book Toward a Christian Political Ethic and presents his own transformation and conversion toward a spiritual life centered in praxis. Thus, all ethical-political reflection must be developed as a social analysis and as a historical meditation that leads to observing and even privileging the voices of the peoples who live in the margins of society. The recovery of a historical memory is key to understanding the collective memory of these peoples that have been made invisibles, and for an historical self-reflection critical of the meta-narratives pervasive in the memory and history of the societies of the North. In a very interesting way. Aaron concludes that in his reading of authors such as Nietzsche, Finley, Derrida, or White, even in the writings of theologians and ethicists from the North, he has not found an “option for the poor.”
Similar to Aaron Conley, Julie Todd shares her experience of reading in Míguez Bonino about the “double location” in which every theologian lives, from her vocation as a leader in the United Methodist Church USA and as faculty at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. She carries out a reading of this idea in Don José from an ethical-religious perspective on the theme of violence and non-violence. She analyses how the idea of non-violence so proclaimed among progressive Christian circles ends up being a double-edged sword which can privilege the social location of those who proclaim pacifism but to the detriment of socially marginalized communities. Hence the importance of a critical biblical reading that unmasks the structures of oppression and dynamics of power.
The last article corresponds to Carlos Beltrán, who was one of my undergraduate students and today a good friend. Carlos writes on one of the themes that Don José lived in his own flesh: ecumenism. The author takes a brief historical recounting of the world ecumenical movement, giving a general panoramic view of macro ecumenism, ecumenism at the basis, and of the World Council of Churches. Carlos highlights the serious and interdisciplinary work that Míguez Bonino accomplished in his Faces of Latin American Protestantism. This volume serves as model of modern ecumenism for the following reasons: because a historical work helps us to understand our historical present; because the history of the church is part of human history, that is, they are not separate histories; and finally, because an irrelevant theology is that which is oblivious of the social realities that appear in the history of the peoples, especially of those peoples that continue to live under oppression.
Harold Segura closes this homage to José Míguez Bonino. He was my homiletics professor at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Cali. Harold gives us in many of his brief memories, the sweet human flavor of a simple and friendly man as was Don José was. He highlights how the eschatological faith and ecumenism were the central axis of his theological thought. In this following phrase is clearly expressed what Harold (and many of those who follow this author) felt for the teacher Don José: “that form of combining the depth of his thoughts with a simple life placed at the service of the Reign and of the churches is a pattern that I always wish to follow.”