Nichole M. Flores
As a part of the planning for the Congreso Latinoamericano de Ética Teológica, convened at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia this past May, coordinator MT Davila (Puerto Rico), stressed the importance of including US Latina/o theological ethicists as participants in the conversation. Congreso organizers included US Latina/o ethicists from a range of ethnic backgrounds (Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican) and regional contexts within the US in an effort to enrich this first Congreso with a breadth of US Latina/o perspectives. I was humbled to be among those asked to participate and to present to our Latin American colleagues my work on human trafficking and aesthetic solidarity. I was troubled, however, by what my participation in the Congreso revealed about the state of theological ethics in the United States: that our discourse, even as it claims “global” engagement, remains largely disconnected from Latin America and other “global south” contexts. Our claims to global engagement rest on developing efforts that would cultivate sustained and meaningful interaction manifest in our local ethical conversations.
As a US ethicist—and one with poor Spanish speaking skills—this meeting offered me an opportunity to listen to the discussion without being able to easily intervene with my own arguments. Participation, for me, was thus a practice of reception: What is being argued here? How are concepts such as justice, rights, and dignity expressed in a Latin American context? How are major issues such as ecological justice and health care engaged in this context? How does expression and argumentation differ across regions and particular perspectives? My pen was on fire during each session, scrawling notes in Espanglish.1
In the posture of receptivity, I was confronted with the limitations of my own ethical methods and sources. Specifically, I was astounded by the irony that a US Latina ethicist working to illuminate contextual resources had such a shallow familiarity with the intellectual wealth of Latin American theological ethics. One goal of US Latina/o theological ethics is to assert a prophetic critique of the positions and sources considered authoritative for the study of Christian ethics. Yet, it was evident to those of us gathered in Bogotá that there is much work to be done by US ethicists from every context to truly heed Latin American ethical voices, as well as voices from other regions, before we can declare that our work is truly global in scope.
Beyond accountability for ethical methods and sources, the US participants were called to account for the incredulously dismal state of our public discourse and its deleterious influence on Latin American communities in the US and in Latin America. Chilean ethicists questioned US participants about the rise of Donald Trump and our nation’s flirtation with authoritarianism. Luis Jesús Paz Acosta of El Salvador illuminated the staggering reality of gang violence there, hinting at the connection between this violence and US migration and economic policies, enough to make me squirm in my seat. Mexican ethicist Miguel Ángel Sánchez unfurled a stunning analysis of state corruption as a social and theological issue, beckoning those inured to US forms of corruption to interrogate our own political establishments for the ways in which explicit disregard for humanity has become a norm inscribed and thereby protected in law.
The Congreso themes resonated with the US context, but this gathering was ultimately not about theological ethics in the United States. The Latin American congress, like other regional meetings before it, presented a radical model of gathering as it casts the powerful to the margins in place of prominence and control. This model foregrounds the distinctive excellence of the Latin American theological ethics and its discourses, which eschew conforming to idealized normativity, in order to express a communal anthropology as a basis for the common good and embrace a prophetic boldness as a central mode of theological and ethical argumentation.
My experience in Bogotá raises two questions for consideration in our research as well as theological curricula at both the undergraduate and graduate levels: What is the threshold for engagement in being able to claim that we engage a truly globally-engaged ethic? What is required to cultivate collaboration that decenters the US discourse toward practicing greater intellectual equality and solidarity? While these are questions that CTEWC has wrestled with since its founding, they are ones that should guide us in both intellectual and practical ways as we pursue a truly global ethic.
1 Carmen Nanko-Fernandez, Theologizing en Espanglish: Context, Community, and Ministry (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010)