Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Working with Mexican Theologians

I recently participated in an ecumenical conference in Mexico City at the invitation of the Centro de Estudios Ecuménicos (CEE). It was inspiring to work with so many thoughtful people who are deeply involved in social justice and its integration with theological reflection. Of course, connecting reflection to responsible engagement has been important to me for a long time and it is always good to connect with others who share similar commitments. However, the conference was as challenging as it was inspiring because, almost to a person, the participants’ theological reflection was born out of direct and first-hand experience of walking side by side with the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized. This is good…excellent, even. However, it was a departure from many of the conferences I frequent where folks are either thinking but rarely act or where they act but rarely think.

The conference, Esperanza de Liberación y Teología (the hope of liberation and theology), was attended by about three hundred Mexican theologians, philosophers, and activists from across the country, from those teaching in one of Mexico’s many theological institutes, to those working with indigenous populations in the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, to those working for peace in Ciudad Juarez, the epicenter of the narco wars where over one thousand people have been killed this year alone.

Over the past three years I have visited the CEE in Mexico City a number of times and have twice taken ESR students with me as part of the Theology in Context course. Thus, when I received the director’s invitation not only to attend, but to participate as well and to present some of my own work on the conference’s theme, I was honored and accepted immediately. I was one of a handful of non-Mexicans who gathered at the Comunidad Teológica Mexicana to work on topics at the intersection of theology and social engagement. We were assigned specific groups where we focused most of our energy: human rights, economics, environment, Church practice, and citizen participation. Based upon some of my recent work, I was assigned to a mesa de diálogo focused on theology and/of migration.

Working in this group make me aware of how different the US experience is from the Mexican. This was evident simply in the language we used. If we had been meeting in the United States we probably would have used “immigration” rather than “migration.” It’s another angle on the same phenomenon and a reminder why neither the US nor Mexico can address the issue satisfactorily without substantial cooperation from the other.
The reality in Mexico is of citizen movement to the US or to one of the country’s major urban centers, particularly Mexico City. Additionally, Mexico sees the movement of persons across its southern border as they make their way north. However, before reaching the boarder many are subjected to rape, robbery, human trafficking, hunger, or death. As one participant explained: many escape violence in their own country only to encounter it in the US and in the journey through Mexico. She recounted a saying: antes de llegar a sueño americano tienes que pasar por la pesadilla mexicana (before you arrive at the American dream you have to go through the Mexican nightmare).

In July 2008 I spent time with a couple from Honduras who were traveling to the United States without documents. They were spending a few days in Mexico City where she was waiting to have an abortion. She had been raped by a coyote who had beaten her husband into unconsciousness and stole the money and belongings they carried with them.

Difficult social realities such as these were front and center at the conference. One participant described our work with the Spanish verb aterrizar (to land) which we generally use when speaking about airplanes and runways. Tenemos que aterrizar nuestra teología—we have to land our theology, she said, bring it out of the clouds. We tried to do teología contextualizada. To this end, our work was divided between first seeing the issue (descriptive), and then thinking about the issue (analytical), and finally, formulating proposals for acting (application).  

In addition to the working groups, we began each day with worship and had plenty of time for fellowship. I stayed on campus with the Centro de Estudios Ecuménicos staff and roomed with a priest from Oaxaca. We cooked together and had enough late-night conversations to keep me thinking for quite a while. Several plenary sessions helped direct our attention as well. We heard from Doris Garcia Mayor, Padre Alejandro Solalinde, Maria Pilar Aquino, and also from Enrique Dussel, who in the last year and a half has become an intellectual hero of mine.

Dussel’s critique of post-modernity and neoliberalism was pointed. He drew upon Gustavo Gutiérrez and the Puebla Conference of 1979 where theologians began articulating justice in terms of “God’s preferential option for the poor” (which Paul Farmer has more recently modified: “disease makes a preferential option for the poor”). Dussel noted that neoliberalism exploits time and the earth as much as it exploits people. There is no rest in globalization and its march toward totalization; there is no sabbath—not for humans, not for the earth. Yet, salvation is not for humans alone; it is for the entire cosmos. El reino de Dios no cede la tierra (the kingdom of God does not give up the earth). A sufficient economy needs to take into account local communities as well as broader publics—el consenso del pueblo (consensus of the people), and families, and the health of human beings and the entire planet. This is the cost of a well-ordered life—economy (a concept that has been hijacked by those incapable of thinking beyond money and “free” markets).

Without a doubt there was tremendous energy among participants at the conference for exploring the social implications of being Church and it seemed no one hesitated to name concretely the challenges we face in our present context. Although we were surrounded constantly by an awareness of the crushing poverty and suffering of the human family, an underlying hope was present as well and it was repeated by many throughout the week—otro mundo es posible (another world is possible).

As I was saying my goodbyes, both to a city I dearly love and to people who are becoming very good friends, I said to one of the coordinators: “It’s been great to be here with all of you.” She responded: “Here there is no ‘all of you’ (ustedes); there is only ‘us’ (nosotros). This spirit of welcome extended also when I was accepted into the Mexican Ecumenical Theological Association. I’m not sure how many other non-Mexicans are members of this group, but there is no doubt that with these folks I feel right at home.

David Johns
David Johns is Associate Professor of Theology at Earlham School of Religion. He is an Associate Editor of Quaker Religious Thought, a member of First Friends Meeting, Richmond, and now a proud member of the Associación Teológica Ecuménica Mexicana.

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