Este ensayo representa un resultado de mi conversión a la praxis. Demuestra algunas de las maneras de las que el pensamiento de Míguez Bonino esbozados en Toward a Christian Political Ethics ha formado mi trabajo actual. El focus primario de esta reflexión no es acerca de ética política sino acerca del analísis histórico en el que se basa Míguez Bonino para hacer una ética plítical cristiana. Pasando de un evangelio exclusivamente individualista característico de otras personas en mi contexto social a un evangelio que envuelve estructuras injustas de opresión, es un giro que requiere maneras alternativas de entendernos históricamente..
Português do Brasil
Este ensaio representa um resultado da minha conversão à práxis. Ele demonstra algumas das maneiras através das quais os pensamentos de Míguez Bonino em Toward a Christian Political Ethic moldaram meu trabalho atual. O foco principal dessa reflexão não é sobre ética política, mas sobre a análise histórica na qual Míguez Bonino se baseia para fazer possível uma ética política cristã. Passar de um evangelho exclusivamente individualista característico de pessoas de contextos sociais diferentes do meu para um evangelho que envolve estruturas injustas de opressão, é um movimento que requer uma maneira alternativa de nos posicionarmos historicamente.
Toward a Christian Ethic of Remembrance
Aaron D. Conley
Perhaps there is scarcely a more fitting context than here to reflect deliberately on the nature of remembering. As theologians, ethicists and others commemorate the inspiring life and legacy of José Míguez Bonino, we recall the multitude of ways that Bonino’s praxis has influenced our own. For me, encountering the Argentine Protestant theologian was akin to taking preliminary steps towards a process of conversion much like what I imagine Augustine experienced when he “discovered” the Neo-Platonists. Augustine writes, “By the Platonic books I was admonished to return to myself” in a process that allowed him to break free from the materialism of the Manichee and more rightly understand the spiritual meaning of the Christian Scriptures. The Neo-Platonists offered Augustine a transformative way of seeing a world that was already in front of him. I first encountered Bonino through his book, Toward a Christian Political Ethic, which in many ways is unsurprising given the popularity and accessibility of this book among audiences in the United States. The book was required reading as I began my doctoral studies; and for one of the first times in my academic training, I was faced with a radical (for me) praxis-centered theology. This little book offered me a transformative way of seeing the world. But if Augustine’s intellectual conversion was from the material to the spiritual, my conversion was from the spiritual to the material. The context of my Christian upbringing stressed personal piety while one’s purity before God was measured by the degree to which one remained untainted by the many evils of the world. The gospel of Jesus was a spiritual gospel entirely, whose only concern was for “saving” the individual’s soul from eternal punishment. Bonino offered a gospel-centered praxis built upon the recorded actions of Jesus that engages the empirical, concrete realities of the oppressed that continually afflict our rapidly globalizing world.
This essay represents an outworking of my conversion to praxis. It demonstrates some of the ways Bonino’s thoughts in Toward a Christian Political Ethic have shaped the work I now engage. The primary focus of this reflection is not about political ethics, but about the historical analysis Bonino relies upon to make a Christian political ethic possible. Moving from an exclusively individualistic gospel characteristic of others from my social location to a gospel that engages unjust structures of oppression is a move requiring an alternative way of understanding ourselves historically. Many churches in the United States must come to understand their complicity with these unjust structures and arise to engage them “through [alternative] structures of responsible participation.” We in the Global North who enjoy great privileges must no longer presume that our privilege comes without a cost. Speaking Bonino’s words as if they were my own, I must awake to the reality that “my decisions and actions similarly have consequences for millions of other people throughout the world who either suffer or rejoice as a result of what I do.” To this end, G. K. Chesterton wrote:
Unfortunately, humanitarianism has been the mark of an inhuman time. And by inhumanity, I do not mean merely cruelty; I mean the condition in which even cruelty ceases to be human. I mean the condition in which the rich man, instead of hanging six or seven of his enemies because he hates them, merely beggars and starves to death six or seven thousand people whom he does not hate, and has never seen, because they live at the other side of the world. I mean the condition in which the courtier or pander of the rich man, instead of excitedly mixing a rare, original poison for the Borgias, or carving an exquisitely ornamental poignard for the political purposes of the Medici, works monotonously in the factory turning out a small type of screw, which will fit into a plate he will never see; to form part of a gun he will never see; to be used in a battle he will never see, and about the merits if which he knows far less than the Renaissance rascal knew about the purposes of the poison and the dagger.
In order to achieve this manner of seeing, I must first achieve this manner of remembering.
This essay provides one attempt at bolstering the work of “social analysis and historical mediation” upon which liberation theologies and ethics should proceed. It is not my intention for theologians and ethicists of the Two-Thirds World to appropriate the critically self-reflexive historical method for which I call. Indeed, many of the liberationist authors I have read from North America and South America already embody a similar historical method. Instead, this method is directed at those who have yet to adopt an “option for the poor” and at those people like myself who must learn to hear the voices crying out from the margins of our past and present realities. The first section of this essay explores the structures of both memory and history. While neither entirely synonymous nor antithetical to one another, the tensions between give rise to hegemonic master narratives that severely limit our abilities to see and hear counter narratives residing on the peripheries. The second section attempts to more clearly discern the shape, content and praxis of Míguez Bonino’s approach to history. In so doing, we are implored to choose the side of the “poor.” The essay concludes with a reflection on the importance of developing a critically self-reflexive historiography rooted in praxis. This final section, while applicable to many, is addressed primarily to those of privilege in the Global North. I detail the important shifts that must occur within the normative historical consciousness in order to move towards a liberative Christian political ethic.
On the Nature of Memory and History
While not synonymous, memory and history provide similar structures by which to orient a community’s identity and actions. This structure is like the initial frame of a newly built house upon which various facades may be affixed. The frame provides the boundaries for ingress, egress and containment. By their structure both memory and history orient reality in the present and for the future through discerned continuities with the past. In addition, my memory of past events is often located within a wider understanding of historic events. For example, I distinctly remember watching the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 unfold on the television in my living room while I was eating pizza out of a white box with the rest of my family. Yet in thinking back on this memory, I located the events of that evening with respect to its wider historical significance.
A brief explanation of history and memory here will orient their usage in the remainder of this analysis. The academic discipline of history began around 1835 in Germany as scholars became eager to explain the past as it actually happened. This goal demanded an objective and inductive methodology whereby the historian was required to omit himself and anything else such as theology, philosophy or ideology that might “taint” the interpretation of the past. Time was adopted as history’s controlled variable and past realities emerged in pristine recondition. Memory, on the other hand, became history’s “thorn in the flesh” because of its comparable imprecision and filtered biases. Thus, for these scholars, history was the promised corrective for memory because it alone provided the truth of the past.
Possessing a memory of the past and locating memories on a timeline of history are invaluable tools for theologians and ethicists because they help constitute the contexts of reality under examination. “Our insistence,” Míguez Bonino postulates, “on social analysis and historical mediation should make plain that we are not suggesting any short-circuiting of reality in political ethics.” The political ethics that he envisages is one based upon a “reality” made real through “social analysis and historical mediation.” But Míguez Bonino’s historical reality is not dependent upon just any sort of socio-historical analysis. The reality he seeks demands a particular mode of reading history and one that counters readings of European inspired historians. It privileges the voices from the margins, or the under-represented “people” who are too often overlooked in normative self-articulations. In an effort to better understand the significance of Míguez Bonino’s historicity, this section interrogates differences between memory and history as they relate to the dominant or normative understandings of itself. These differences result in a tension that goes unacknowledged by modernist historical self-understandings. After providing a brief history of the academic field of history as a form of unacknowledged collective memory, I offer an analysis of some of the problems this collective memory presents for people on the margins.
I begin with the concept of collective memory as elaborated by French philosopher and sociologist, Maurice Halbwachs. Collective memory has served the human species well without the assistance of historical conscientization that began in the mid-nineteenth century. It can be described as the larger fabric upon which all individual memories are sown. Based upon the assumption of humans as social creatures, individual memories are never the exclusive domain of the individual—that is, they are not sui generis. Instead, individual memories exist as memories for recall because they have been stitched onto the social fabric of relationships, places, times and other socially shared substrates. An example here might be useful. Suppose I travel alone to Mexicali, Mexico for the first time. While my experiences, and therefore my perspectival remembrances of the trip afterwards, are shared by me, I presume that this memory is mine alone. However, before ever embarking I studied maps of the city, and once I was there a police officer gave me direction to my hotel and I actually found the building just as it had been described by the maps and the officer. Thus, my experience conformed to the impression that I had of what to expect and contributing to this impression was a host of other people who collectively establish the structure upon which to judge my experience. Halbwachs acknowledges that “each [individual] memory is a viewpoint on the collective memory, that this viewpoint changes as my position changes, that this position itself changes as my relationships to the other milieus change.” These other milieus are the social or collective fabric that orient our experiences and enable the brain to remember.
Another important factor to collective memory is its spatiality. Halbwachs points out how “every collective memory unfolds within a spatial framework.” The spatiality of collective memory is important because memories are bound by some facet of the empirical realities that constitute the remembrance. So, a group may recall the significance of a particular building structure or legal code (a genus of spatiality that binds people together) from the past regardless of the physical existence of such spaces today. Located spatially, collective memory may constitute a demolished structure’s existence far beyond its physical amelioration. Simply conjure-up a favorite local cafe that has long since gone out of business and you are immediately transported into that spatiality. The passage of time may dim specific details of your relationship to the cafe and to the others with whom you enjoyed its goods, but time is not the primary mode through which the memories are made possible. In our relationship to the spatiality of memory, our memories stand ready to live again and again. Memory is vibrant, vivacious, and cyclical.
What is more, if collective memory exists primarily within spatial relationships, then the linearly temporal march from present to the past characterizing a modern ethos of history carries much less significance. No absolute binary exists between memory/space and history/time, but memory is not as constrained by time in as rigid a manner as is history. According to Pierre Nora, “memory, insofar as it is affective and magical, only accommodates those facts that suit it; it nourishes recollections that may be out of focus or telescopic, global or detached, particular or symbolic…” Nora’s observation reveals two important characteristics of memory, namely that it is selective and therefore malleable, and that in the age of history, memory has been reallocated to specific sites. As selective, memory resides in the inevitable subjectivity of the one or ones who are remembering. Its “truths” are perspectival. As malleable, memory resists all forms of stagnancy when new information or perspectives rupture preexisting narrative continuity. Oh, that delicious cafe on 34th Avenue was actually on 35th Avenue, and I had forgotten until Emily recently reminded me that the customer service was horrendous. While attesting to reality, memory is perspectival and the “content,” or spatiality of its narrative remains open to adaptation when necessary.
Concerning Nora’s second observation on memory, the introduction of linear or temporally-dictated history has forced collective memory into smaller and disconnected sites. These lieux de mémiore are places in which disenfranchised memory reside as a result of their exclusion from the dominant historical narratives. Nora’s full description of the significance of these sites merits full inclusion:
Our interest in lieux de mémoire where memory crystallizes and secretes itself has occurred at a particular historical moment, a turning point where consciousness of a break with the past is bound up with the sense that memory has been torn—but torn in such a way as to pose the problem of the embodiment of memory in certain sites where a sense of historical continuity persists. There are lieux de mémoire, sites of memory, because there are no longer milieux de mémoire, real environments of memory.
While admittedly artificial, the binary between history and memory presented in this paper is informed by this rupture that historical continuity inflicts upon collective memory. The language here is intentionally violent in order to signify the extinction of the validity of interpretive communities who had previously exercised self-mastery over their wider milieux of collective memory. The historical as a platform for knowledge dismantled the milieux upon which Halbwachs’ collective memory was based. With striking parallels to other forms of colonization, historians stole memory away from the masses through its de-legitimation and replaced it with their own self-legitimated historical milieux.
Yet it is precisely the subjectivity and malleability of memory that historical thinking arose to counter. Nora actually goes as far as to state that history systematically seeks the “conquest and eradication of memory.” Setting themselves in opposition to a perceived colloquial quality of memory, Prussian scholars in the mid-nineteenth century set out to professionalize history by giving it a proper methodology. Adopting a scientific method to reconstructing the past promised to tame perspectival memories through objectivity. Time, then, became the dominant controlled variable since its universality seemed particularly well-suited to resist the subjectivities and changeability of memory. Such an effort demanded formative first-generation historians like Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) jettison all theology, philosophy and anything else that resembled “politicization.” Under the guise of scientific objectivity, von Ranke and others offered a historical realism that was then presented as self-evident, or natural, and therefore universally valid. This historical realism presents for humanity the nature of things—an objective account of reality that is true for all individuals irrespective of time (history) or place (memory).
Reality offered by the objective historian surmounts into grand or master narratives purporting to offer the legitimate interpretations of the past. In short, a grand narrative is a story about a story. It is the meta structure by which to assimilate and interpret all the data of a particular historical period. For instance, Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930), a second-generation German historian, synthesizes the early history of Christianity as a digression from pristine origins in the first century to their “fall from grace” collusion with the Roman Empire in the fourth century. He asserts that after Constantine in 313 C.E., Christianity unconsciously adopted Roman value systems such as its imperial legal and social structures, including its justifications for using military might to impose doctrinal orthodoxy. While some mergers between Christians and Roman structures are evident in the fourth century, they were likely neither unconscious appropriations nor novel innovations by Christians with newfound political clout. But Harnack’s “fall from grace” master narrative became the primary interpretive grid through which to understand the history of the Church. As a master narrative legitimated by an objective historical method, all data must conform to its parameters or be tossed aside as unreliable information unbefitting scientific consideration.
Philosophers, theologians and later historians who held their fingers to the pulses of these jettisoned “political” subjectivities were quick to point out the myopic assumptions of these master narratives and their attestation to historical realism. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), himself an admirer of ancient Greece, states,
A historical phenomenon, completely understood and reduced to an item of knowledge, is, in relation to the man who knows it, dead: for he has found out its madness, its injustice, its blind passion, and especially the earthly and darkened horizon that was the source of its power for history. This power has now become, for him who has recognized it, powerless; not yet, perhaps, for him who is alive.
Nietzsche’s observation calls into question the validity of history’s claims to objectivity and universality. He locates the power, or life-giving spirit, of the past within the very subjectivity of the human experience that overflows from passion. Passion cannot be contained for when it is, it loses its vivacity and is reduced to a mere artifact of knowledge. Objectified knowledge becomes a possessed and, correspondingly, passivized object. History books become the catacombs of civilization containing within them the deceased remains of the past. And while Nietzsche does not complicate the linearity of history, he accurately acknowledges that the modern enterprise of recovering the facts of history will lead to lifelessness. And I identify this lifelessness with the severing of ourselves—that is our identities—from the ethical responsibilities of remembering who we are and from where we’ve come.
Over a century after von Ranke, a number of historians such as Moses I. Finley and linguistically-based Euro-American scholars such as Jacques Derrida and Hayden White were still attempting to undo the naïve assumptions of first-generation historians. They each challenged the natural realities that modernist historians claimed, and in their own ways they each identified that these modernist master narratives account primarily for the victors of history. But by this time a linear historical conscientization was already firmly entrenched in Euro-American self-conceptions. We had become historical creatures characterized by our particular place on history’s timeline.
Finley (1912-1986) notes that just as present day historians cannot escape their own ideological biases, neither could ancient writers whose texts provided the “objective” data for modern histories. Historians have a moral obligation, according to Finley, not to take ancient texts at face value as actuary-type facts but instead to discern the meanings of these texts in a way that speaks powerfully to situations in the present. Finley navigates the tension between a dead history in a Nietzschean sense and a living memory by privileging the power that comes from discerning meaning through textual interpretation. He asserts how memory functions more like myth did for ancient societies in that both myth and memory were free to jump “instantaneously to the desired point and then date it by association.” Thus, the power inherent in discerning meaning from history can be accessed without the need for the linear constraints of the historical timeline. It must be noted that this power resists the same structures of power implicit in modern attempts to catalogue historical knowledge into the objectified narratives of the social elites. Instead, it opts for the unwieldy type of power stemming from a human subjectivity and fluidity capable of resisting such centrism.
Philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) furthered Nietzsche’s assault on the naïve assumptions of modern historiography by drawing attention to the limits of textuality on interpretation. A text, he claims, becomes distinct from its author the moment it becomes encoded in written form. As words are written on a page they become subject to the multitude of discourses already in play. The “origin” or “transcendental-arche” of the author and his intended meaning exist only as a “trace”—the presence of an absence, or in this context, the impression of the author that is no longer existent. Relating this idea of trace back to von Ranke, we begin to see that meaning is not mined from self-evident facts found in texts as he had assumed, but constructed anew by contemporary readers each time it is read. Moreover, Derrida’s notion of “trace” illuminates the presence of things that are excluded from the formal narratives. Readers construct meaning from what is presented within a text as well as from what is excluded. Whether consciously or otherwise, what “exists” between the lines of a text provides significant clues concerning the larger discourse out of or into which the text speaks. In consequence, meanings that we assert from historical texts must be deconstructed in order to reveal the ideological commitments that undergird interpretation.
Following the deconstructionist lead of Derrida and other French philosophers, historian Hayden White (1928-present) makes one of the most significant contributions to awakening historians from their “dogmatic slumber.” White examines an ebb and flow oscillation existent between texts and their meanings. Meaning is never static but moves back and forth “between received encodations of experience and the clutter of phenomena which refuses incorporation into conventionalized notions of ‘reality,’ ‘truth,’ or ‘possibility.’” In other words, the meanings of history are (re)generated over and over again and our awareness of this process will help us remain self-critical about the “truths” we claim from historical texts. What is more, White’s critical discourse leads also to an awareness of “deep structures” that delimit our ability to creatively imagine historical realities. These “deep structures” that guide human consciousness express themselves as various tropes into which all narratives comply. The significance of White’s work for historical self-understandings can be summed up by what Hans Georg Gadamer once said: “all play is being played.” Just as the historian attempts to synthesize and encode the past into a proper history, the wider linguistic and discursive structures of meaning into which they enter stretch beyond the volitional control of the historian. In the end these linguistic and discursive structures of meaning return us to the subjectivities inherent to the processes of textual interpretation.
These theorists and others attest to the false assumptions made by modernist historians of objectivity and universality. In so far as historians work with texts and indeed write texts of their own, meanings derived therefrom are subjective, perspectival, malleable, and a form of memory unto themselves. A significant distinction is drawn, however, by Nietzsche and Nora indicating the continued living nature of memory, albeit as lieux rather than milieux, and the lifeless nature of history. So, while decrying the colloquial nature of collective memory, these historians provide one of their own.
Historicity and the ‘Option for the Poor’
With the historical stage set this next section more specifically addresses Míguez Bonino and the work of Christian ethics. In brief I draw out these lines primarily to illuminate the path that so many Euro-American scholars, such as myself, travel in order to arrive at the type of historicity already activated in Míguez Bonino’s liberation ethics. Since the Global North developed and so deeply internalized modern historical consciousness, it must learn to recognize both the assumptions of historical thinking and the solutions available to us in our journey out of those assumptions. And having created the contexts for modernist objectivity, linearity and universality, we often struggle to find effective ways through history and memory and toward praxis that includes an “option for the poor.” Consequently, due in part to our lack of accounting for privilege, legitimation of marginalized voices so often must first pass through the center in order to condition the center towards the concerns of the margins. As a social ethicist, I aim at finding effective ways to travel that path in search of social justice that neither dismiss the assumptions and privileges of my own location nor commandeer the contributions of scholars from the margins of Euro-American normativity.
As already indicated, Míguez Bonino clearly calls for a type of historicity in his attempt to move toward a Christian political ethic. But clarification of what historicity might imply is necessary. He states early in Toward a Christian Political Ethic that he will be contributing to “a radical imperative” (himself quoting John Bennett) “on the basis of our Christian history and experience in Latin America.” At various points throughout the text Míguez Bonino offers insight on what he means by history and experience even though this text does not provide a detailed description. By history, he identifies the need for a “careful sociohistorical analysis” capable of sharpening “theological-ethical reflection,” he recognizes that Reinhold Niebuhr and Emil Bruner’s attempt to construct their realisms led to the “dehistoricizing of the kingdom of God,” and acknowledges the modern reinterpretation of “cosmic symbols and myths” according to “new meanings derived from historical experiences.” This last point draws nearest to the distinction drawn above between history and memory. Indeed, Míguez Bonino seems willing to embrace the “dangerous memory” (borrowing from Johann Baptist Metz) out of which comes an “explosive power” that can be “recovered and reactivated from within the life of the people.”
Along with Christian history, Míguez Bonino also points out the need for integrating experience into his “radical imperative.” By experience, it seems that Míguez Bonino has concrete praxis in full view. Commenting on the “unstable” historical dialectic between facts and consciousness, he asserts, “Facts constitute the framework and support for decision. Theory is a human construction abstracted from past and present praxis that in turn opens the way for a new praxis.” However, even this praxis is firmly rooted in historical self-understandings. Míguez Bonino admonishes that the powerful and dangerous memory capable of social transformation is nothing short of a “conversion.” He states,
But we must add [to the breakthrough from within the oppressed consciousness] that such change cannot occur as a purely subjective process. A ‘conversion’ of this sort is always related to historical events and to a historical praxis. It is within the actual struggle of the people—sometimes in minute ways in the little chinks and crannies of the system but sometimes in the larger confrontations—that the rebirth of consciousness takes place, where the stories of the faith disclose their ‘surplus of meaning’ and their power to move their hearers.
This lengthy quote deserves attention because it both demonstrates the continuity Míguez Bonino understands between history and praxis and because it provides the clearest example of the line he draws between history and memory. The type of historicity he calls for and employs throughout the book is an intentional way of reading history from the perspective not of the bourgeois, or victors of history, but from the subjective living experiences of “the people.”
Looking at an essay Míguez Bonino wrote for the Christian Century provides greater context for the type of historicity he thinks necessary for moving towards his Christian political ethic. In “For Life and Against Death: A Theology that Takes Sides,” Míguez Bonino offers one of his more concise explanations of the type of history he employs. Seeing history rightly begins with a commitment to theology and a certain hermeneutic of biblical interpretation. A commitment to theology provides the unique social impact theology makes with its “religious language, ideas and symbols.” Theologians must make commitments, which means they must take sides, and taking sides means that one’s socio-historical narratives will be perspectival and subjective. To this point Míguez Bonino states, “God himself has chosen sides—he has chosen to liberate the poor by delivering them from their misery and marginality, and to liberate the rich by bringing them down from their thrones. Christians and churches are invited to take the side of the poor, to claim solidarity with them in their struggle.” He continues, “There is no socially and politically neutral theology; in the struggle for life and against death, theology must take sides.” The necessity of adopting a theology that takes sides is made evident by this theological observation/imperative. The biblical hermeneutic he employs is born out of his theology of taking sides. Understanding that God chooses to liberate the poor through the work of Jesus establishes a central “motif” that illuminates both the Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament alike. Not only that, but one’s willingness to choose this motif further grants her or him the sight to see how the biblical stories of liberation relate to “our present situation[s].”
Building upon his theological and biblical taking of sides, Míguez Bonino adds the social analytical tools of the social sciences. It was, after all, the “the social scientists’ reflection on ‘dependence and liberation,’ which awakened us to a basic biblical motif!” Yet he is careful to note that while the rigorous academic enterprise of gathering and analyzing social data is essential to his work, the theories resulting therefrom must be rooted in, or subordinate to, “the praxis and experience of the community.” Thus, theory must serve marginalized communities rather than perpetuate its own self-importance.
At least three conclusions about Míguez Bonino’s historicity can be drawn from his theology, biblical hermeneutic and use of social-scientific analysis. First, Bonino’s concern for historicity is a way of seeing; seeing the world and the various systems within it in terms of life or death, and he chooses life-enabling systems and opposes death-dealing ones. But to do this requires a way a seeing that cannot be contained by the larger master narratives at play among the systems of domination. Looking again to Johann Metz, “the enslavement of men begins when their memories of the past are taken away. All forms of colonization are based upon this principle.” Modern master narratives do precisely this, namely, they suppress all conflicting narratives by re-narrating them into continuity with the dominant story or by de-legitimating them altogether. The resulting residual collective memory is perforated by incongruities despite the continuities claimed by the master narratives. These perforations do not disappear, but becomes sites of resistance. Metz continues, “Every rebellion against suffering is fed by the subversive power of remembering suffering. The memory of suffering continues to resist the cynics of modern political power.” Míguez Bonino seeks to recapture the powerful memory (Metz’s memoria passionis) demonstrated by a people who have been formed by the remembering (or re-membering) of Jesus through the liberating work of God. Here, theology and biblical hermeneutics harmonize. To choose this option of understanding one of the central themes of Christianity is to choose solidarity with the peripheral peoples of the earth and to use the “dangerous memories” to confront the larger normative histories.
A second conclusion drawn from Míguez Bonino’s historicity is that our interpretation of Scripture and the work of theology are never neutral. What we choose to see in Scripture matters for how we understand our identities and live out our praxis. Returning to Toward a Christian Political Ethic, Míguez Bonino states, “Theological and social location for the Christian are one, unified in the specific commitment to the poor.” All interpretations of texts, including sacred ones, are political because they are influenced by the wider convictions and ideologies of the social locations from which they come. Indeed, many scholars from a variety of disciplines in the North have attested to this observation including W.E.B. Dubois (1935), Howard Thurman (1949), Fredrick Jameson (1981), Gabrielle Speigel (1990), and Elizabeth Clark (2008). The same non-neutrality applies to history as well. Had von Ranke and von Harnack been successful in establishing an objective historiography, their historical work still exemplifies the stories of the elites—the dominant and the privileged peoples of the past. They wrote histories of the great European conquests of civilization. And as these triumphal histories crescendo into the grand narratives of a privileged people, they become the operative collective memory of those groups. And where such myopic memories persist, so too will the continued marginalization of the people whose lives are excluded from the boundaries of the master narrative.
The third conclusion that can be drawn from Míguez Bonino’s historicity further sews the other two together while also finding a way to navigate the space between history and memory. He makes clear that the “option for the poor” is a matter of choice because God has chosen to side with the downtrodden. Historicizing Jesus with the tools provided by the social sciences proves effective for Míguez Bonino in so far as it serves contemporary communities through visible praxis. In this light, he presses those who will listen to understand history not for its own sake—as some archival object of knowledge—but because it provides a way of seeing—a hermeneutic, if you will—capable of uniting the continual stories of suffering throughout history. What is more, emphasizing praxis transforms knowledge from the past into affective fuel needed to mobilize the resistance of those whose stories were forced to the peripheries. This quality of knowledge itself is a form of resistance as it refuses domestication implied by the modern virtue of objectivity. Finally, new forms of continuity thusly begin to take shape when past and present are re-united according to the relationality (both interpersonal and spatial) of adjoining memory sites. Like individual drops of oil on the surface of water, when heat is added the oil droplets will reunite until they form a unified mass. Míguez Bonino’s call to historicity, then, is a mode through which the suffering may speak as individual droplets and as a collective whole.
Indeed, the “option for the poor” that Míguez Bonino and a host of liberationist theologians on six continents espouse is intentionally adopted as the primary lens through which to understand the context and purpose of the work for justice. It is an essential component to social, theological and ethical discernment with firm roots in a familiar hermeneutical circle. For example, a similar praxis-based historicism is made by African American slave men and women who resisted the Christianity of the White slave owners by “reading” themselves into the Israelite slave narratives from Egypt. Theologian James Cone’s recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, bears witness to the connections between Jesus’ death on a tree and the death of the unnumbered men, women and children who were strung up in Southern trees. At the end of the book he calls us to examine what forms the lynching tree has assumed in our contemporary contexts. This movement takes a particular site of memory—and one that Cone identifies as almost wholly absent from the writings of prominent White ethicists and theologians—and contextualizes it within the larger socio-historical milieux. In so doing, Cone revives the collective memory for both Blacks and Whites, emphasizes the marginality of this memory, and empowers it as a legitimate source of resistance. Now that the memory of lynching has been re-articulated against the prevailing master narratives, a choice must be made upon which side of the noose the hearers will stand.
Interrogating Privilege and Converting Memory
Turning abreast to the face the praxis-based historicist imperative that fuels Míguez Bonino’s political ethic, I now examine the place of such a method with respect to my location within the Global North. I and those who share my location cannot hope to incorporate Míguez Bonino’s historicity without first interrogating the blinders of privilege. Social privilege affords the convenience of not having to see life on the peripheries. For example, the middle-class location in which I was raised was removed from conditions of homelessness that communities in lower economic classes encounter as a matter of daily reality. I did not have to face the realities of such poverty because they were not inherent to my economic class. Given the absence of the realities of homelessness, it remains peripheral to the wider narratives that informed our collective self-understanding. Thus, I was seldom challenged to see the realities of life from anything other than a centrist’s vantage.
Very often, uninterrogated privilege perpetuates operative “structures of oppression” precisely because we cannot see them. In our heightened states of individualism we pass the conditions of poverty off onto imagined defects in the “poor’s” character. This is due in part because our master narratives are not equipped to handle memories of the suffering since history belongs to the winners. For me, it is a matter of privilege to side with the “poor” or not. I must learn to recognize the optional nature of the privilege of my location. If I do adopt an option for the “poor,” I must recognize that I would have one foot in suffering and the other foot in privilege, or what Justo González calls, “beyond innocence.” If things got too uncomfortable, the privilege of my location allows me the opportunity of escape back into the comforts of the master narrative. However, such ejection-seats do not exist for peripheral communities subject to historically-rooted “structures of oppression.”
Retreating back into the master narratives will not simply make the “structures of oppression” disappear. Oppression in all its forms hounds our master narratives. Sites of oppression exist as discontinuities that perpetually threaten the temporal continuity of the master narratives. And while discounted, ignored or re-written in the master narratives, the absence of these sites exists within the larger narratives as a “trace,” in the Derridian sense. They leave a “residue” on our hegemonic collective memory, albeit a collective memory that is historically conditioned. Contrary to the master narratives, homeless peoples stand on the sides of the streets, gunmen continue to take the lives of innocent school children, and debates rage on concerning social safety nets for peoples in need. The presence of these few examples of marginalized peoples ruptures the stability of the dominant ones. Collectively, they attest to the individual faces of peripheral existence and provide a living memory of inequality and suffering. Individually, they reveal the weathered face of the homeless military veteran and disclose the smell “burning flesh” of Black bodies about which Billie Holiday sang in “Strange Fruit.”
Critically examining unexamined assumptions of privilege proves one important avenue for adopting a preferential option for the poor. However, a critical examination of privilege alone does not imply I will be any better able to hear, see and join “the people.” Instead, as it heightens my awareness of inequality I could easily wallow in feelings of guilt, remain detached with a newfound sympathy or even be moved to engage some paternalistic charity work as an attempt to “fix” the problem. These alternatives do not provide an adequate alternative to the dominant narratives unless they are merely the starting point for genuine reciprocity for widening the boundaries of collective memory. How, then, can we decolonize our collective historical consciousness that exacerbates a center/margin binary with its master narratives? Clearly, the historical conscientization that has shaped the modern world over the past two to three centuries cannot be erased. By this I recognize the implausibility of returning to a pre-history origin that no longer exists. Neither can we simply undo the past by recovering a larger spatiality of collective memory that may have existed prior to our historical ethos. To yearn for and attempt to recover such romantic origins is itself an impulse of modern parentage. So, we must work with what we’ve got, i.e. we must find ways to deal adequately with the modern milieux of historical consciousness and the tensions of collective memory instantiated by the “lieux de memiore.” Such work requires a praxis-centered historicity: a critical deconstruction of master narratives combined with a self and socially reflexive interrogation of privilege and an earnest social, political, economic and religious analysis of the lived conditions of all peoples. This historical disposition must identify the traces or residual imprints of peripheral communities and actively attest to the presence implied by their absence from the larger narratives. Further, it must accomplish a “systematic unsettling of the stability of meaning” assumed to be natural, universal and objective in order to carve out the space necessary for alternative historical self-conceptions. And at the most basic level, we must, in the Global North, choose sides.
Accounting for these peripheral memories is “dangerous” indeed because it threatens a dismantling and reconfiguration of the invisible scaffolding upon which the privileged maintain our power. It requires a systematic destabilization of the narratives that have shaped my identity, and it is dangerous to willingly uproot my perceived place in the world. It is dangerous for the privileged because it demands nothing short of a conversion away from the colonizing forces of modernist historiography. I must learn to see reality anew and, in this seeing, I must choose life-enabling social structures while opposing life-denying ones. I must learn to take responsibility for the past. Even if I did not personally participate in a lynching, I have benefited much from it and must be prepared to engage restitutions (personally and collectively) even if it means that I will lose so much of the privilege I enjoy. After all, it is a borrowed (or stolen) privilege. An option for the poor is an option that demands we in the Global North reconcile our history with a collective memory that now includes the privilege-less and power-less. But in order to reconcile we must be willing to listen, to learn, and to take responsibility for our parts in the history of suffering.
While Míguez Bonino’s historical analysis remains rooted in the praxis of the Latin American liberationist tradition, it teaches me how historical recovery itself is a political act. Its call to historicity demands we look at the margins, but not as a peripheral aside, but as a central concern through a process capable of inculturation and integration. We must deal with power differentials resultant from our history of colonialism—political, economic and religious—that persist through our master narratives. Fortunately, we in the North have had resources within our own traditions for critically challenging the assumptions of our master narratives. These resources have aided much in the ways of postmodern and post-colonial thinking and have even contributed in important ways to Míguez Bonino’s [far from second rate] “second-rate academic” training. But an element lacking in our “first-rate” historical thinking is precisely the praxis that anchors Míguez Bonino’s scholarship. In my reading I have yet to find an “option for the poor” explicitly stated in the works of Nietzsche, Finley, Derrida, or White. In fact, I seldom find it in the works of so many in the North who self-identify as Christian theologians or ethicists.
Adopting critical and self-reflexive historicity that accounts for privilege will be an important first step for us if we want to take God’s choosing of the poor seriously. But we must remain sensitive to our “recovery” of marginalized voices through any process of historicism since there is a real danger of appropriating their memories into our operative master narratives. No matter how much “recovery” is done from peripheral vantages, these communities will remain locked within the lifeless archival recesses of history unless they are allowed to speak for themselves. As a process of conversion, I must undergo a transformation of my heart, eyes and feet. My heart must choose to stand in the midst of suffering and suffering peoples. My eyes must learn to see privilege and the structures of oppression that I benefit from and I must be willing to accept the “responsible participation” that our true interconnectedness demands. My feet must move me into the dangers of peripheral memories, which will result in a genuine praxis of solidarity rooted in the real historical conditions of individual people and communities. “A conversion to this sort,” Míguez Bonino instructs, “is always related to historical events and to a historical praxis.” So let us attend to our use and abuse of history.