Nancy Pineda Madrid – « In Light of the People »

Deutsch: Weisheit der Völker – Theologie des Volkes
Italiano: Sapienza e teologia del popolo
Português: Sabedoria e teologia do povo
Français: Sagesse et théologie du peuple
Español: Sabiduría y teología del pueblo
中國人: 人民的智慧和神學
English: Wisdom and People’s Theology

Nancy Pineda Madrid – « In Light of the People: Theologizing in Our Time »

1. Interrogating the subject presumed

On behalf of whom do we theologize?  The weightiness of this question deserves attention regularly if theology is to remain prophetic and honest.  Yet responding is no easy task. If, as liberation theologies have established, oppressed people hold a privileged place among the people of God, then it follows that all forms of liberation theology advocate on behalf of some group of oppressed people, and, in so doing, seek to advance a more just world to the benefit of this particular group and all other human beings. To advocate for an oppressed people requires a conversion on the part of the theologian. Conversion necessitates a turning toward the oppressed group intellectually, affectively, and in terms of our praxis. Thus, for theologians to make an option for the oppressed means choosing to take up the cause of the oppressed, and, in solidarity, struggling alongside the oppressed in their endeavors for greater justice. Almost always, such a struggle leads down a path of great personal sacrifice, sometime to the point of a martyr’s death.[1]

To ask the question, ‘on behalf of whom do we theologize?’ we must first consider our own positional relationship to the oppressed people.  There is a crucial difference between, on the one hand, advocating on behalf of an oppressed group to which one has never belonged but to which one is deeply committed, a visionary position, and, on the other hand, advocating on behalf of an oppressed group to which one belongs by virtue of an accident of birth, a materialist position. While theologians in both positions have made an option for the oppressed group, what this option means is distinct for each.  That said this distinction serves primarily a heuristic purpose since many theologians do not consistently belong in only one of these positions.

Theologians occupying the visionary position seek to subvert the sinful, hegemonic paradigm that tears down the humanity of the oppressed group.  The visionary is theologically committed to the transformation of the oppressed group’s limited and limiting condition.   Even so, for a visionary, the choice to take up the cause of the oppressed group is a free option, in most cases, an altruistic option.  For example, almost all Latin American liberation theologians have the freedom to choose to walk with the economically poor or not to do so.  This choice remains a free choice always. By global standards, most of these theologians are not economically poor. Their education and other factors mean that they are not forced to experience the world as a poor person.  This holds true, even if a theologian chooses to live an extremely simple life.  Because the option for the poor (or for another oppressed group) is a free choice, the visionary can presume — unintentionally, inadvertently, and unconsciously — a distorted image of the poor as discussed below.  Those in the visionary position are wise to heed Roberto Goizueta’s caution: ‘The struggle for social justice will, in the long run, simply perpetuate the dehumanization of poor persons if not undertaken together with poor persons.’[2]

In contrast, theologians in the materialist position know the world in and through the life experience that comes with being born a member of an oppressed group. These theologians have the experience of repeatedly facing situations that reinforce the worldview that as a woman, a person of color, a LGBTQ[3] person, and/or a poor person, she or he is of a lesser humanity than their privileged counterpart.  Upon reflection, such experiences may provoke a critical awareness of how social structures collude in oppressing particular groups of humans.  For example, black theologians and feminist theologians write theology not only with a critical awareness of how social structures collude to oppress but also with a recognition that most blacks and most women must work to overcome a deeply internalized self-alienation.  For materialist theologians, taking up the cause of the oppressed, of which they are a part, means writing theology that supports greater self-respect and self-identification in a world in which these are always under threat. Note too that blacks and women are socialized to be less trusting of people like themselves, and much more respectful toward white men, in fact, to identify with white men. Of course, this socialization breeds an internal cognitive dissonance, a self-alienation. For materialist theologians, this dissonance is not optional but a given. Whether one chooses to engage it, or not, has serious, unavoidable consequences. In addition to addressing this dissonance, the materialist theologian then makes a choice to write theology that challenges the oppression they know in the most intimate and personal way, in other words, to make an option for the oppressed.  

To press the point further, for decades a number of theologians from Latin America – for example, Ivone Gebara, Marcella María Althaus-Reid, Virginia Raquel Azcuy, María Pilar Aquino, among others — have highlighted the ways in which most of Latin American liberation theology has failed in its option for poor through its refusal to take gender seriously.[4]  After all, a disproportionate number of the poor in Latin America are women and children. Among others, Gebara, Althaus-Reid, Azcuy, and Aquino, rightly recognize that much of liberation theology far too often ends up privileging the idea of the poor more than poor people. As such, much of the discussion about the poor reflects a stagnant, tenacious, androcentric consciousness.[5] The option for the poor, then, becomes more of a romantic abstraction, one that glosses over, erases, and renders alien the historical experience of actual poor people themselves.  The constant challenge for liberation theology is to figure out how to stay grounded in the concrete lives of poor people. 

Alternately, if grounded in the lives of poor people, liberation theology would not ignore the violence against women or simply tag it onto an already long list of concerns.  The brutal assassinations of women known as feminicides have sharply escalated in recent decades in Latin America as well as around the globe.[6] Female victims of this violence summon us to see a truth that demands a radically transformed liberation theology.  Ironically, Jon Sobrino’s words rightly advise, ‘Imprisoning the truth by injustice is the fundamental sin of individuals and also of the nations. Many evils derive from it: among others, the darkening of the heart. A light whose power is capable of unmasking lies is very beneficial and very necessary. This is the light offered by the crucified people.’[7]  Feminicides illustrate the utterly crucial need for theologians in the materialist position.  

If we are to speak of the people, then, integrity requires that our theologizing recognize the primacy and necessity of focusing our attention on the material level, namely the physical condition of the bodies of poor persons. Theology can no longer afford to slip into an abstract construct of poor persons because doing so easily leads to a tacit acquiescence to the abuse of power, in other words, evil.  As theologians, we must remain vigilant about confronting our scotosis, the ways in which our own group interests function to limit our intelligence and circumscribe the range of our insight. Short of this vigilance, the theology we write will likely betray our endeavors to seek justice for victims and to advance human flourishing.


[1] I wish to express my gratitude to Dr. Francine Cardman, Dr. Neto Valiente, and Dr. Mary Jo Iozzio for their insightful suggestions on an earlier draft of this essay.

[2] R. S. GOIZUETA, Caminemos Con Jesús: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995, p. 207.

[3] LGBTQ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer. 

[4] See for example: I. GEBARA, Out of the Depths: Women’s Experience of Evil and Salvation, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002; M. M. ALTHAUS-REID, ‘¿Bién Sonados? The Future of Mystical Connections in Liberation Theology’, Political Theology, 3 (2000); V. R. AZCUY, ‘Una Expresión de un Signo de Estos Tiempos: Mapas de Teología Feminista Cristiana’, in V. R. AZCUY, N. E. BEDFORD, y M. L. GARCÍA BACHMANN (eds), Teología Feminista a Tres Voces, Santiago de Chile: Ediciones Universidad Alberto Hurtado, 2016; M. P. AQUINO, Our Cry for Life: Feminist Theology from Latin America, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993; M. P. AQUINO and M. J. ROSADO-NUNES (eds), Feminist Intercultural Theology: Latina Explorations for a Just World, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007. 

[5] M. M. ALTHAUS-REID, ‘¿Bién Sonados? The Future of Mystical Connections in Liberation Theology’, Political Theology, 3 (2000), 60.

[6] R. L. FREGOSO and C. BEJARANO (eds), Terrorizing Women: Feminicide in the Americas, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

[7] J. SOBRINO, Witness to the Kingdom: The Martyrs of El Salvador and The Crucified Peoples, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003, p.160.