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Has Yahweh Spoken Only Through Moses?: An Introduction to Mujerista Theology

Mujerista theology is a theology devoted to the liberation of Latina women. A mujerista is “someone who makes a preferential option for Latina women.”[1] With its use of the phrase “preferential option,” it is clear that mujerista theology is a theology of liberation in the tradition of Gustavo Gutierrez’s Peruvian liberation theology. But whereas Gutierrez wrote from a male perspective and focused primarily on socio-economic realities in Latin America, mujerista theology focuses on women and centers Latina women in theological discourse, aiming to push back against the male-centric nature of both traditional and liberation theology.

One of the most known advocates of mujerista theology is Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, a Cuban-American Catholic theologian. In her book Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century, Isasi-Diaz grounds her theology in the importance and necessity of self-determination, which “allows us Latinas to construct something in our own terms, not in the shadow cast by the Anglo.”[2] This self-determination begins with naming. “To name oneself is one of the most powerful acts a person can do.” A name “provides the conceptual framework, the point of reference, the mental constructs that are used in thinking, understanding, and relating to a person, an idea, a movement.”[3] Having the right to name is not only important to individuals but movements. For this reason Isasi-Diaz and other mujerista theologians insist on their movement being named not simply “liberation theology” but mujerista theology, a theology not only created by but also named by Latina women.

Isasi-Diaz sees mujerista theology as a challenge to not only male-centric liberation theology but also to the white female-centric nature of feminist theology. Like the contemporary feminist movement, contemporary feminist theology alienates and marginalizes women of color. “Serious flaws in the Euro-American feminist movement have led grassroots Latinas to understand ‘feminism’ as having to do with the rights of Euro-American middle-class women, rights many times attained at the expense of Hispanic and other minority women.”[4]

Mujerista theologians thus fight to claim their own space — “to claim a space in the garden to plant my own flowers”[5] — in the spheres of both liberation theology and feminist theology. Claiming their own space means redefining what is normative in those spheres and society in general, “what is normative having been set by non-Hispanics and to the exclusion of Latinas and Latinos, particularly Latinas.”[6]

As a form of liberation theology, mujerista theology is a liberative praxis. That is, it emphasizes putting ideas into action. It understands fully what the Apostle James said, that, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). Works are the spirit within the Christian life, animating it and bringing the Gospel to light. “To understand theology as praxis means that we accept the fact that we cannot separate thinking from acting.” Theology is an embodied discipline: it is lived by embodied souls within concrete history. “As in other liberation theologies for us the unfolding of the kin-dom of God does not happen apart from history.”[7] By being embodied in history, the kingdom of God manifests through a spirituality that looks like justice: “To strive to live to the fullest by struggling against injustice is to draw nearer and nearer to divine.” Thus “walking picket lines” can become a form of “kneeling” and “being in solidarity with the poor” can become a form of “fasting.” Spirituality is not just “prescriptions for holiness” but a life of obedience to “the gospel message of justice and peace.”[8]

In efforts to liberate Latina women, mujerista theology has three primary tactics: First, it works to “enable Latinas to understand the many oppressive structures that almost completely determine our daily lives.”[9] This means that to liberate oneself and one’s community, one cannot put on the mantle of privilege. One must fight to overthrow privilege itself and the power structures that maintain it. These struggles are the essence of what it means to be a Latina woman: “la vida es la lucha — the struggle is life.”[10]

Second, mujerista theology “insists on and aids Latinas in defining our preferred future.”[11] Like Gustavo Gutierrez and black liberation theologian James H. Cone, Isasi-Diaz believes self-determination is a prerequisite to true and full liberation. “Liberation is not something one person can give another”; rather, liberation is something in which the oppressed must become active participants, “a process in which the oppressed are protagonists.”[12] With the power to self-determine one’s future comes the hope that the future can indeed break into the present. Thus “the centrality of eschatology” is key to mujerista theology, as “Latinas’ preferred future breaks into our present oppression.”[13]

The third tactic of mujerista theology is “enabl[ing] Latinas to understand how much we have already bought into the prevailing systems in society.” Latinas must become aware not only of oppressive power structures but also internalized oppression. Structural change and personal change are inherently linked. “Radical structural change cannot happen unless radical change takes place in each and every one of us.”[14] Through personal conversion, structural conversion actualizes.

As a self-contained theology arising from a specific cultural and historical context (Latina women embedded in the United States), mujerista theology has unique characteristics. Isasi-Diaz emphasizes the following three: First, mujerista theology makes clear that its locus theologicus (the place from which it does theology) is “our condition as racially and culturally mixed people.” Mujerista theologians work from communities “where the white, red, and black races have been intermingled.” This leads mujerista theology to both value and emphasize pluralism, or, “embracing differences.” Pluralism is necessary not only on an interpersonal level but also a structural level, “distributing opportunities, resources, and benefits in an inclusive way.”[15]

The second unique characteristic of mujerista theology is that it not only considers but also values the everyday struggles of Latina women as sources for theology. Isasi-Diaz calls these everyday struggles lo cotidiano. These experiences are the foundation of how and what mujerista theologians know. Experience is epistemology. “Lo cotidiano refers to the way Latinas know and what we know to be the ‘stuff’ (la tela, literally, the cloth) out of which our lives as a struggling community within the USA is fabricated.”[16]

One cannot overstate the importance of this characteristic — nor can one overstate its revolutionary point of departure from traditional theology. Mujerista theology claims that the everyday experiences of the average person have as much hermeneutical (exegetical) value as biblical texts or tradition. “The ‘stuff’ of our reality,”[17] or “the daily experiences of Hispanic women,”[18] reveals to us truths about God as much as the stuff of the academy. This means everyday, struggling Latinas’ experiences of God are as legitimate as the most decorated academic theologian’s experiences. The latter does not have a more “objective” understanding of God, for “What we know is what we have found through our experiences.”[19]

Third, mujerista theology is a liberation theology. That is, it believes that spiritual salvation does not exclude bodily liberation and that bodily liberation is the context in which we come to know spiritual salvation. “Both are interconnected”; “to work for liberation for us Christians, which has to do with establishing justice in concrete ways in our world, is not necessarily different from being good Christians.”[20]

As a unique, praxis-oriented theology, mujerista theology is not only a different way to do theology. It also calls out and prophetically critiques traditional theology. First, mujerista theology demands that we make “a very serious and ongoing effort to be aware of our subjectivity.” Our experiences color and shade how we engage the Bible and God, yet traditional theology denies this. “One of the key elements of traditional theology is its so-called objectivity, its so-called immutability, its sense of being ‘official’ and precisely because it is official, of being the only perspective that is correct.” Yet mujerista theology counters that, “What passes as objectivity in reality merely names the subjectivity of those who have the authority and/or power to impose their point of view.” Thus mujerista theology challenges traditional theology to admit its personal biases and prejudices. “All theology has to start with self-disclosure.”[21]

Second, mujerista theology challenges traditional theology to focus less on systems and more on communities. Whereas traditional theology has an obsession to “come up with a Summa, or with three volumes entitled Systematic Theology #1, #2, and #3,” mujerista theology is busy with “Latinas’ struggle for liberation” — and challenges the former to similarly place communities over “doctrines and dogmas.”[22]

Third, mujerista theology challenges traditional theology to value diversity. Like the dominant Euro-American culture of the United States, traditional theology demands assimilation of minority groups. It only tolerates other cultures insofar as they conform to any and all of its demands. But for mujerista theology, “Differences are not something to be done away with but rather something to embraced. In our theology we do not aim at assimilation.” Mujerista theology is inclusive, stands against otherizing those who have different opinions, and does not want to be an ultimate standard against which others are judged. Those are the very things it challenges traditional theology to reject, as traditional theology uses “an essentialist meaning of difference in which one group serves as the norm against which all others are to be measured. Those of us who do not measure up are considered to be deviant, and our ideas are heretical.”[23]

By enabling Latina women to understand the oppressive power structures that work against them, encouraging them to fight for the right of self-determination, and exhorting them to fight not only for structural change but also personal change, mujerista theology hopes to lift up and liberate Latina women who live at the margins of society. It challenges traditional theology to realize that it, too, is a bodied, contextual theology, one dominated with the biases and prejudices of white and male supremacy. White people and men do not have a monopoly on God, in the same way that Moses was not the only prophet of God. “What has guided mujerista theology from the beginning,” Isasi-Diaz concludes,” are those wonderful words of Miriam in the book of Numbers, ‘Has Yahweh indeed spoken only through Moses?’ (Numb. 12:2).”[24] Mujerista theology follows Miriam in answering that question with a resounding No.

Citations

[1] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century, Orbis Books, 1996, p. 61.

[2] Ibid, p. 3.

[3] Ibid, p. 60.

[4] Ibid, p. 60-61.

[5] Ibid, p. 18.

[6] Ibid, p. 62.

[7] Ibid, p. 73.

[8] Ibid, p. 33.

[9] Ibid, p. 62.

[10] Ibid, p. 21.

[11] Ibid, p. 63.

[12] Ibid, p. 1.

[13] Ibid, p. 63.

[14] Ibid, p. 63.

[15] Ibid, p. 64-5.

[16] Ibid, p. 71.

[17] Ibid, p. 67.

[18] Ibid, p. 68.

[19] Ibid, p. 72.

[20] Ibid, p. 73.

[21] Ibid, p. 76-7.

[22] Ibid, p. 78-9.

[23] Ibid, p. 80.

[24] Ibid, p. 82.

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