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For Life and Against Death:

A Theology That Takes Sides

Theology comes at the rear guard, as a reflection, as a help to think
and to deepen a commitment already undertaken as an act of obedience.
• I M U S T CONFESS that the question of how my as something already defined and determined, like a
mind has changed is one that has never exercised well-traveled road, he begins to ask a question with
me much. T h e reason may perhaps be that, like most some urgency: Can I really consider my life a unity?
If I look at it objectively and dispassionately, I must
theologians from the so-called T h i r d World, I have
answer: "I am not sure that it is like that." There
never set out to develop a theological program are so many disconnections, so many gaps, so many
or to articulate an all-encompassing system. Rather dead-end streets! How many times did I have to tear
I have spoken or written as questions came up, as out the page and start again? My intention of a few
issues were pressed upon me by circumstances or months ago to write an article on the development
requests. Consistency or logical development has of my thought, another request which I finally turned
never been a conscious objective. down, renewed the impression: after 1 revised some
things I had written at least two decades ago, how
A Necessary Self-Examination many inconsistencies, how many indecisions, how
Occasionally, others have called my attention to many starts and stops there were! [Room to Be Peo-
changes or developments in my thinking. An Amer- ple (Fortress, 1980), p. 25].
ican doctoral student announced that he identified It is now again an external stimulus, the request
three distinct stages in my theological development, that I write this article, that forces the perhaps
moving from a church-centered to a world-centered necessary self-examination which I would hardly
theology. Perhaps he is right! An erstwhile colleague have undertaken otherwise.
used to tell me that the decisive break in my thought
occurred in 1968, at the time of the popular uprisings Neither Despair Nor Indignation
in Argentina against the military dictatorship of Obviously, one has to begin with world events,
Onganfa. Even more precisely, he timed it with the and more particularly those in Latin America,
death in Rosario of a student killed by the police. which give the background — nay, which enter eon-
H e contended that my theology had since become stitutively (and this is perhaps already a major shift
more militant and political, that it had broken away in my thinking) — into theological reflection. T h e
from the captivity of a self-contained theological horizon has progressively darkened throughout the
universe and had accepted the challenge of histo- world in the past decade. On my continent, fragile
ricity. I had never intended to live in a purely theo- hopes for a peaceful social and political transforma-
logical universe — but, again, perhaps he is right! tion were dashed to pieces in Chile, in Uruguay, in
My wife — who is usually right — tells me that Argentina and in Bolivia. T h e brutal regimes in-
what I have consistently tried to do is simply to re- spired by "national security'' ideology have imposed
read and explain the Bible: "Questions, issues and their visible police repression and their relentless
challenges have changed," she says, "but at bottom economic policies over two-thirds of the continent.
you remain what you have always been: a preacher T h e people of Nicaragua have paid an unbelievable
bound to his text." I hope she is right this time! price for a small and precarious space of freedom.
Only once, in 1974, as I was preparing a series of In Brazil, El Salvador, Argentina, Guatemala and
evangelistic talks, I consciously raised for myself the elsewhere in Latin America the church mourns and
question of the consistency of my thinking or, more celebrates its martyrs.
deeply, of the unity of my life. As I pondered for I have become more and more convinced that
some hours, this is the conclusion I reached: neither despair nor mere moral indignation is the
right response to this situation. W h a t is happening
When someone turns 50 and begins to view his life
before our eyes is a revelation, the "unmasking" of
"the logic of death" in the economic-socio-political
Dr. Miguez-Bonino, currently a visiting professor at Chris- order in which we live. Awareness of this fact came
tian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, is a theological
educator from Argentina. He is also active as one of the vice- to me as I was reading Milton Friedman's "theory
presidents of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights in of population" ("the production of h u m a n beings is
Argentina. to be regarded as if it were a deliberative economic
1154 the christian CENTURY
choice determined by the balancing of returns and assistance programs could be a healthy exercise also
costs") and his distinction between "human capital" for theologians?
and "nonhuman capital" (that distinction being In any case, it is this insight that has come to de-
hard to predict so long as "social arrangements" fine the framework within which I try to do the-
grant some human freedom — should we say, as long ology. Many things are complex, but a basic thing
as life remains to some extent human?) (Price Theory seems clear: we are faced with a total system of death,
[Aldine, 1976], pp. 210-211). My quarrel is not with a threat to all life and to the whole life. It is our
Friedman; it is with the logic of the system which Christian privilege and duty to witness concretely
he so clearly and consistently interprets. Life has and unhesitantly, with all the resources we have, to
been made finally only a function of the economic God's creative and redemptive concern for life and
process. against death! This conviction is not the result of
As the economist-theologian Franz Hinkelammert some theological deduction. It is a commitment
cogently argues, the human subject vanishes and (shall I use the beautiful and daring Pauline word
only the "fetish" (capital? property? the economic "discernment"?) that a growing'number of Chris-
laws?) remains in control. Repression, torture, dis- tians in Latin America and elsewhere have assumed
appearances, the withdrawal of social, educational — or rather, that has been forced on us, we trust, by
and health services, the cultural or physical genocide the Spirit. We cannot bracket it out of our theologi-
of native Indians, the suppression of all expressions cal reflection.
of public opinion — these are not the result of the
God Has Chosen Sides
whim or the cruelty of bloodthirsty tyrants: they
are "the necessary social cost" of "freedom." It is the I can express this same point in a different way,
sacrifice that the highest god, "the economic laws," one which also corresponds to my experience and
demands. studies in the '70s. The insights derived from the
I am aware that the logic of this "compressed" ar- social sciences (particularly from social psychology,
gument will not be self-evident to many readers studies on the meaning and operation of ideology,
from the affluent world. In any case, I was not in- and the structuralist study of the functions of lan-
vited to change their minds, but only to explain guage) and observations of the role played by re-
mine. May I suggest, however, that a meditation on ligious language, ideas and Symbols in our past and
"the unavoidability of unemployment," "the mys- present history combine to give us an acute aware-
tery of inflation," the escalation of the programs of ness of the unavoidable social impact of theological
defense and the "need" to cut down on social and thinking. It is not enough, therefore, that we "enun-
ciate the correct doctrine"; we are responsible for
Jose Mfguez-Bonino. "the correct social operation" of that doctrine. There
is no socially and politically neutral theology; in the
struggle for life and against death, theology must
take sides. I have to ask myself: What is my "social
location" as theologian? Whose interests and con-
cerns am I serving? Whose perspective on reality,
whose experience am I adopting? (And, since it is a
conflict, against whom — temporarily and condition-
ally, but no less resolutely — am I struggling?) In
this sense, my friend is right in saying that my theol-
ogy has become (contradicting my temperament)
more militant.
Let it be understood: theology is not the main
subject of the struggle. We theologians are not the
avant-garde of "the new society." It is the struggle
of the people (particularly the struggle of the poor)
for their life. Moreover, it is not we who "theolo-
gize" this struggle. God himself has chosen sides —
he has chosen to liberate the poor by delivering
them from their misery and marginality, and to lib-
erate 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. And theology comes at the rear
guard, as a reflection, as a help to rethink and deep-
en (and thus perhaps, also, if we are faithful, to cor-
rect and enrich) a commitment already undertaken
November 26, 1980 1155
age, a place and a social class which need not be
taken as universally normative.
T o be sure, the questions still remained. Latin
American theological production has been con-
How cerned largely with methodological questions dur-
ing the past decade. As social sciences took the place
My of philosophy as the privileged method for interpret-
ing human experience, new questions emerged:
Mind How should we use these sciences? Were they "auxil-
iary" or "constitutive" in theology? How did they
Has affect our hermeneutics — both of Scripture and of
history? How were we to choose between differing
Changed and conflicting interpretations? How was the ques-
tion of "ideology" to be faced?
Although no one would claim that these questions
have been sufficiently answered, I have no doubt
Thirteenth in a Series that the joint work of a number of Catholic and
Protestant theologians (here I must bear witness to
as an act of obedience. T o accept being simply this the joy, the deep fellowship, the mutual support
kind of theologian and to rejoice in it is the lesson which has characterized our work, often in difficult
that some of us have been trying — not always suc- situations) has helped to clarify some issues. This is
cessfully—to learn during these past years. not the place to enter into a detailed discussion of
these questions. But I would like simply to indicate
Methodological Questions
some of the main convictions and perspectives which
Naturally I was not trained or conditioned for I have begun to articulate during the past ten years
this kind of reflection. Like most of my fellow pro- or so.
fessors of the Third World, I was trained and des-
Reflecting on Basic Motifs
tined to be a second-rate academic theologian (this
is neither an accusation nor a sign of modesty: it is In the first place, I am more and more convinced,
the simple recognition that we do not have the time, after the first explorations and uncertainties, that
the infrastructure, the "milieu" or the "market" — theology must remain theology through and through.
even if we had the intelligence and the will — to It will best fulfill its vocation in the struggle for
pursue the rigorous course of the "developed" aca- liberation by retaining its specificity and refusing
demic scholar). We found much in the resources of to dissolve its fundamental epistemological principle
academic theology that was of value. T h e rediscov- — it is a knowledge of faith rooted in God's self-
ery of the Old Testament's historicity, and partic- revelation, centered and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
ularly of the way in which the old traditions were Moreover, this basis must be explored and articu-
reread and reinterpreted for new situations; the lated in its full trinitarian dimension. The living
breakthrough in Roman Catholic theology at the triune God is the only reality from which we can
time of Vatican II; the birth of "political theology" face the complex social, political and economic is-
in Europe — these and many other developments sues which a theology of liberation must address if
were of great help. But we were searching for a new it wants to be meaningful for the life and witness
way of doing theology, one that could begin at the of the churches and Christians in our time and
point where our basic experience lay: with the situation. This is the service which we can render
struggle of the poor and the commitment of Chris- and our only justification as theologians.
tians to it. How, then, shall we articulate this relation? Is
For me it was very important to realize — of course, there a theologically responsible way of rereading
we all knew it all the time, but seldom thought about the biblical testimony from within our present situ-
it —that modern academic theology, with its par- ation? How can the theologian bring out this "re-
ticular methods, was just one of the ways in which serve of meaning" (as my colleague Croatto calls it)
the church had thought through its faith. There was in the biblical stories without arbitrarily reading in-
the "episcopal theology" which began with the to them one's own ideology? Catholic theologians,
burning issues in the life of the church in the early relying on an old tradition, emphasize the "sensus
centuries; there was the spiritual theology of the fidelium" and, as one listens to the living response
mystics; there was free meditation commenting on to the text in the Bible study of the "basis" or "pop-
Scripture in early medieval theology. This aware- ular ecclesial communities" (reflected, for instance
ness brought about a great freedom to profit grate- in Ernesto Cardenal's Gospel in Solentiname), one
fully from the great riches of modern academic the- becomes convinced of the truth that Jesus himself
ology but to look at it as a timebound product of an celebrated: "I thank you, Father . . . because you
1156 the christian CENTURY
have hidden these things from the learned and pow- through the analysis of this experience and praxis.
erful, and have revealed them to the little ones." It is at this point that the theologian must try to
At the same time, as a Protestant, I look for other sharpen the critical (socioanalytical and hermeneu-
"intrinsic" controls. And I have come to the conclu- tical) instruments of the trade. Theory is one's busi-
sion that the articulation of the biblical witness in ness! Sloppy and careless talk and alienated and
terms of our situation has to be mediated by a deep irrelevant theory are the Scylla and Charybdis be-
consideration of basic biblical themes or "motifs," tween which one has to walk.
such as peace (shalom), justice, love, hope and soli-
Christians and Marxists
darity. I am aware of the danger of falling back in-
to an idealistic ethics. We must be on our guard, During these years I have had to face many mis-
to be sure, but I don't think that this is for us a understandings—some genuine, some contrived —
great temptation. If we keep the reflection on these concerning the relation of liberation theology to
basic motifs closely bound with the story of God's Marxism. In Latin America, moreover, more than
acts and with our concrete situation, I think it can academic status is at stake in this issue. I have tried
enrich and give orientation to our commitment. to clarify some aspects of this relation (see Christians
Sharpening the Tools and Marxists [Eerdmans, 1976]).
Let me try to express in a few sentences not the
Then there is the use of socioanalytical tools. I substantive question but my personal attitude. I
find it difficult to understand that theologians in a have never felt attracted to Marxism as a system;
tradition which oozes philosophy through all its neither have I felt inclined to enroll in any anti-
pores feel free to warn us solemnly of the "ideo- Marxist crusade. Since my youth (in which I was
logical" danger in the use of the social sciences! For attracted to the Argentine socialist — non-Marxist —
many of us it has been a painful and at times frus- party) I have believed that certain elements of the
trating exercise to go "back to school" and sit at the Marxist economic and social analysis were correct.
feet of the social scientists, trying to understand I have never experienced the Entdeckungsfreude
their categories of analysis, to evaluate the results, (joy of discovery) that my friend and colleague Jiir-
to distinguish the different orientations, and to try gen Moltmann thought he had spotted in some of
to relate this knowledge with integrity to our theo- us. I have more and more come to think in terms of
logical work. But it has been a fruitful exercise in a long humanist-socialist tradition, with early Chris-
which a true and open fellowship has emerged. In-
terdisciplinary work born in a common commitment Poor peasants selling firewood in front of a church in
and carried out in mutual respect is now a reality Chichicastenango, a mountain town in Guatemala.
for Latin American theology. We theologians should
not forget that, after all, it was the social scientists'
reflection on "dependence and liberation" which
awakened us to a basic biblical motif!
There are two points in relation to the question
of "social analysis" which we have had to face. One
has to do with "theoretical thinking." Not seldom
is it pointed out that some of our work moves at a
level of "abstraction." For most of us this is an exis-
tential question because we are engaged at the same
time in pastoral and "academic" work (jacks of all
trades!) and would not be ready to withdraw from
For my part, I am convinced that theology has to
find expression in different forms and styles, all of
them necessary but no one absolutely normative:
the impassioned word of the prophet (witness many
of the episcopal letters in our continent); the spon-
taneous, concrete response of the basis-community;
the spiritual meditation of the mystic (Ernesto Car-
denal's poems or Arturo Paoli's meditations on the
Gospels), and the rigorous "theoretical" work of
the academic. We are concerned with the unity of
all of this, not with a reduction.
Now the academic work has a subordinate place:
it depends on and draws from the praxis and ex-
perience of the community, and aims at serving it
November 26,1980 1157
tian and Hellenic roots, which has developed in the cision, and of human freedom — is the immediate
modern world, in which Marx has played an impor- context of my theological work. It is not an absolute,
tant — even decisive — part, but which he has neither not an object of faith, but simply a sociopolitical de-
created nor fulfilled. cision (a lucid one, I hope) which concretely defines
In this sense I firmly believe that we must — now my Christian obedience in the world at this time.
with Moltmann's words — "demythologize" the Marx Theologically, I think it is a historical project par-
question. On this basis I have found it possible to tially and ambiguously but really and intrinsically
work together with Marxists and others — on ques- related to God's Kingdom, and therefore to my
tions of human rights, for instance — with clarity and Christian hope. T h e gospel does not stand or fall
mutual respect. with the correctness of this view. But my theology
I must say it directly: this socialist option — as does. After all, if the Century authorizes us to
Gustavo Gutierrez defines it, the social appropria- change our minds every ten years, why should we
tion of the means of production, of the political de- claim any greater permanence for our theology! •

Name Tags and the

Theocentric Focus
Have we not been so overlaid by the achievement-orientation
of our culture that we have come to see the local church,
the community of faith, as organized to do rather than to be?
+ RECENTLY I had a physical examination. As a lishing, reviewing, renewing or moving toward ob-
consequence my physician and I agreed that my jectives and goals of the church.
clothes would fit better and I might live longer and This is an altogether appropriate and essential
have more energy if I lost ten pounds. So I have activity for the synods, boards, committees and ju-
commenced a 40-day diet worked out on a careful dicatories of the church which have a task-orienta-
calculation of calorie intake. I have designed a tion and are charged with the accomplishment of
"time line" which charts dates and weights for "re- goals. Goals and objectives: for the instrumentalities,
view and evaluation" every ten days; it is posted Yes! For the church, the church in its primary and
above the scales in the bathroom for daily check- elemental form, in its fundamental manifestation,
ups. I have a calorie counter and a small scale in No! For the church as persons gathered together
the kitchen. I carry a note pad to record all intake. voluntarily in Christ's name, No! Indeed, such con-
The "measurable and achievable objective" of two centration on goal-setting and achievement of ob-
and one-half pounds every ten days, if met, would jectives may be the most dangerous and destructive
bring me to the "desired goal" on the projected mind-set and operational assumption in mainline
date. It is a pristine example of Management by American Protestantism today as it seeks to be faith-
Objective with all the predictable and built-in ful to Jesus Christ in the '80s. The danger is that we
pleasures of achievement and the discouragements will see the church as an organization which exists
of measurable failure. in order "to do" rather than "to be."
Caught as I am in a current personal planning A Southern Presbyterian bureaucrat, Richard G.
and goal-setting activity by means of which I an- Hutcheson, Jr., has written persuasively in this re-
ticipate the future with hope, I am in tune with the gard. In Wheel Within the Wheel (John Knox,
dominant theme of almost every meeting of every 1979) he reminds us that all the
conference, association and synod of almost every
Protestant denomination in the United States and classical confessional statements accepted within the
Canada. These various "instrumentalities" of the Reformed tradition . . . include declarations about
the church. They deal with its foundation, its com-
church are all preparing for or recovering from
position, its holiness, its catholicity, its relationship
some meeting, large or small, concerned with estab- to God in the headship of Christ and the presence
of the Holy Spirit, its governance, its discipline, its
Dr. Barr is dean of San Francisco Theological Seminary sacraments, the marks of a "true church/' and the
in San Anselmo, California. communion which exists within it. But not one of
1158 the christian CENTURY
^ s
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