The Politics of Jesús: A Hispanic Political Theology
Reviewed by João Chaves, Religion, Baylor University and Baptist University of the Américas
The accented Jesús presented by Miguel De La Torre is at odds with what De La Torre calls the Euroamerican Jesus. Jesús is not on board with versions of the white, middle-class, American dream that are usually dependent on capitalist commitments either endorsed or ignored by the Jesus of the establishment. At the center of De La Torre’s project is the articulation of a Christology that is compatible with the praxis of the liberation of the oppressed based on God’s preferential option for the poor as expressed decades ago by Latin American liberation theologians. De La Torre’s work is deeply rooted in the liberationist tradition and, as such, his presentation of a Hispanic Jesús emphasizes a concern for hermeneutics and praxis. His project of articulating Jesús, therefore, has a strong deconstructive element as he attempts to reject the Euroamerican Jesus, as well as a prescriptive element in his presentation of Jesús as the suitable replacement for the Jesus of the dominant culture.
De La Torre’s motivation for writing The Politics of Jesús was to demonstrate to the critics of liberationist ethics that liberationist work is “deeply rooted in the Jesus story” (xiv). His stated goal is “to delineate a biography of Jesus as understood by marginalized Hispanics” (xiv). But De La Torre is not naïve when it comes to the risks of projecting one’s own dispositions onto the Jesus of the gospels—a mistake that, according to him, the interpreters of the Euroamerican Jesus commit repeatedly. His biography of Jesús is a theological one that is unapologetically subjective. In this sense, De La Torre’s work differs from Christologies that claim objectivity and universality. It is De La Torre’s contextual awareness that allows him to reflect on how his own experience as a Hispanic in America and the experience of millions of other Hispanics resonate with the biblical account of Jesus. The quest for the readers of The Politics of Jesús, therefore, is not one that attempts to find an objective interpretation of Jesus, but one that takes them on a journey toward the identification of how the experiences of oppression among the disenfranchised maps onto the major themes of Jesus’s life as preserved by the gospel accounts. In addition, this is not a book directed just for Hispanics, but one that, from a Hispanic perspective, builds on the broader theme of the relationship between images of Christ, justice, discipleship, individual consciousness, and social structures.
The book is divided into an introduction and four thematic chapters, and De La Torre wastes no time in contrasting his view from that of those who were influenced by the work of John Howard Yoder. The introduction of The Politics of Jesús is both a critique of Neo-Anabaptist ethics and a defense of the liberationist reading of Jesus. Readers of theological ethics may have noticed that the title of De La Torre’s book is a spin-off of Yoder’s influential work entitled The Politics of Jesus. This is no coincidence. For De La Torre, Yoder constructed a “pacifist Mennonite Jesus created in his own image” (7) that plays into the hands of the status quo by neither properly addressing the need for a liberative praxis nor fostering a discipleship that seeks to transform the social structures that oppress those in the margins of society. Stanley Hauerwas, arguably the most influential Christian ethicist of the last decades, is also accused by De La Torre of being limited by Eurocentric thinking due to Hauerwas’s disregard for social justice and emphasis on orthodoxy (12).
For De La Torre, an appropriate understanding of Jesús’s character should be rooted in the experience of disenfranchised groups in contemporary American society—particularly disenfranchised Hispanics—and must lead toward a Christian practice that has justice as its ultimate goal. De La Torre echoes José Míguez-Bonino’s criticism of the disposition present in the social ethics of the establishment since Augustine. For Bonino, the ethics of the Christian establishment is dominated by a concern with order, and, as such, Christian ethicists have, either explicitly or not, been guided by the wrong question. Bonino writes: “the true question is not ‘what degree of justice (the liberation of the poor) is compatible with the maintenance of the existing order?’ but ‘what kind of order, which order is compatible with the exercise of justice (the right of the poor)?’”1 Likewise, in The Politics of Jesús, it is justice understood as the practice of the liberation of the poor from oppressive structures and the struggle for the flourishing of the humanity of the disenfranchised that serves as the moral compass for a Christology from a Hispanic perspective.
De La Torre thinks that the quest for socio-political liberation, however, begins with the liberation of the mind from the colonization of the Hispanic consciousness. Thus, De La Torre begins his first chapter by emphasizing the need for Hispanics to be critical of what they appropriate as standards for justice. Looking at the example of Jesús, De La Torre argues that one can find clues for developing a de-colonizing ethic. De La Torre looks at the Gospel narratives and focuses on specific images of Christ: Jesús was himself a colonized man as a Jew under Roman domination; Matthew’s genealogy indicates that he came from a questionable background; Jesús was a migrant child in Egypt; and he was poor. An appropriate Christian ethic, thus, must consider the Christian response to Neoliberal colonization, sexual ethics, immigration, and economic policy. For De La Torre, Jesús is a liberator who calls all to act for the liberation of those who, like Jesús himself did, suffer the consequences of oppressive systems.
In his second chapter, De La Torre focuses on the marginality of Jesús in relationship to the Jewish culture itself. Jesús came for Nazareth of Galilee, hardly a prestigious place, and as such was raised among the alienated people of his “barrio.” He was also “bilingual” due to his dual identity with the divine and the human. In the incarnation, De La Torre argues, Jesús experiences humanity in the flesh of the poor. This is, for De La Torre, a sign of God’s preferential option for the poor: that God chose to reveal Godself as a poor Jew from the barrio.
The third chapter continues to draw on images of Jesús that overlap with the experience of U.S. Hispanics in general but also provides an unapologetic criticism of free market ideology. According to De La Torre, Jesús chose poverty and rejected the capitalist paradigms that exclude those in the margins. For example, Jesús rejected the “pious CEO” (for example, “the rich young ruler” of Matthew 13) and accepted the “impious CEO” who offered financial retribution (that is, Zacchaeus). The biblical examples of the Magnificat (Luke 1:52-53) and some of Jesus’s sayings (for example, Luke 6:20-21; 24-25) are also used by De La Torre, who argues not only that Jesús “understood that part of his purpose was to disrupt the social economic order” but also that the privileged in our society will participate in God’s reign only to the extent to which they act toward the liberation of the disenfranchised.
In his final chapter, De La Torre challenges core commitments of traditional theologies: eschatological hope, substitutionary atonement, and classical Trinitarian thought. For him, an emphasis on eschatological hope is counterproductive and must be replaced by a theology of hopelessness in which “Messianic solidarity with the oppressed in the midst of hopelessness might indeed be the only hope hoped for” (139). De La Torre argues that the cross signifies Jesús’s ultimate act of solidarity with the poor, rather than the appeasement of an angry deity and that the Trinity is an example of radical sharing. For De La Torre, the call to follow Jesús is not a call for a comfortable life of gratuitous bliss given to those who believe the correct propositions, but “an invitation to pick up one’s own cross and follow Jesús in his call to serve and be in solidarity with the marginalized” (178). The love of Jesús, in this approach, is ultimately expressed only by those who live a life of solidarity with the oppressed “in their battle for self-preservation” (163).
De La Torre’s The Politics of Jesús is accessible to a wide range of readers. The language is clear, the argument is straightforward, and there are many anecdotes that will keep readers engaged. Perhaps the major contribution of the book is providing an articulation of a liberationist Christology that is accessible for people without formal theological training. In addition, The Politics of Jesús connects insights of liberationist Christologies to the particular experience of Hispanics in America, thus providing a welcomed Christological perspective that relates to those in the margins of American society. When it comes to theological construction, however, one is hard-pressed to identify how De La Torre advances the insights developed by liberationists such as Leonardo Boff, Jon Sobrino, or Ignacio Ellacuria, whose Christologies remain the paradigm for liberationists.
In addition, the way in which De La Torre subordinates his understanding of an authentic appropriation of Jesús’s example to a struggle for structural, socio-economic justice fosters a particular theo-political emphasis that seems to overlook aspects of the life of Christ that seem integral to the gospel narratives as they have been traditionally interpreted. John Howard Yoder’s ethics, for instance, emphasized aspects of Christ’s life and teaching that De La Torre did not thoroughly address, such as forgiveness, humility, servanthood, radical subordination, and so on. Although an emphasis on such aspects may represent—as De La Torre seems to believe—a projection of Yoder’s own Mennonite dispositions onto the biblical text, the fact that De La Torre contrasts his work with Yoder’s in his introduction leaves readers wanting a more thorough engagement with Yoder’s reading of Jesus.
Finally, one wonders if a sharp distinction between an orthodox understanding of Christ and De La Torre’s central call for incarnational identification with the oppressed is necessary or even productive. Perhaps a “big-tent” Jesús that would also include Hispanics who are concerned with the more mystical aspects of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection would be both more appealing to and more representative of a bigger number of Hispanics. Despite these potential limitations, The Politics of Jesús is a clear and concise work that provides an accessible introduction to the ethos of liberationist Christologies while dealing with aspects that are specific to the experience of disenfranchised Hispanics in the U.S.