Mujer: A Body of Dangerous Memories

Cristian de la Rosa, Baltimore-Washington Annual Conference

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The theme for this issue conjures what I understand to be a spirit of Mujer in all women, but which is clearly evident in the struggles for life and justice of the surviving descendants of indigenous women across the world. As a woman of Nahuatl descent living in the United States, I understand the spirit of Mujer as the female essence that encompasses strength, courage, wisdom, and discerning skills; deployed by female descendants of the colonized (women of color in the particular context of the U.S.); seeking justice and fullness of life in the fragmentation identified by postmodern Western thought. In my particular experience, the consideration of bodies, oppression, and gospel evokes memories of injustice and the struggles for survival at the intersections of globalization.

This particular experience, within the realities of indigenous peoples, is framed with collective surviving efforts against colonizing violence.[1] It is rooted in socio-political-religious historical processes that produced “visibly recognizable race categories” facilitating the classification of bodies for marginalization.[2] These processes continue to be articulated through a Western philosophical language permeated with interpretations of the gospel that perpetuate circumstances of marginalization, subordination, and fragmentation for female bodies of color, which can survive only as the embodied words of empire. As Mayra Rivera explains,

the bodies I most identify with and as, “Latina bodies,” are named (and thus inscribed) by language. Latin, the language of the first Christian empire, now signifies the language of the Spanish empire under the power of which these “types of bodies” were (literally) born. The imperial word became flesh. Today the imperial language names bodies. . . . The linguistic label is, however, insufficient for erasing the carnality of that colonial history.[3]

The ethos of European colonizing processes that instituted Christianity around the world intentionally erased indigenous cultural and religious points of reference and reconstituted the surviving bodies of indigenous peoples through particular interpretations of the gospel that rendered them inferior to the colonizers. My social location as a “Latina woman” in the context of the United States reflects the empire language of conquest by Spain. My faith tradition as a United Methodist clergywoman reflects the empire language of colonization by England. Neither social location nor faith tradition informs my identity as a woman of Nahuatl descent. However, both facilitate my survival in the flesh as a racialized body and continue to inflict fragmentation by misinforming my formation. Linda Tuhiwai Smith considers postcolonial theories and explains them in the following manner:

As Fanon and later writers such as Nandy have claimed, imperialism and colonialism brought complete disorder to colonized peoples, disconnecting them from their histories, their landscapes, their languages, their social relations and their own ways of thinking, feeling and interacting with the world. It was a process of systematic fragmentation which can still be seen in the disciplinary carve-up of the indigenous world: bones, mummies and skulls to the museums, art work to private collectors, languages to linguistics, “customs” to anthropologists, beliefs and behaviors to psychologists. To discover how fragmented this process was one needs only to stand in a museum, a library, a bookshop, and ask where indigenous peoples are located. Fragmentation is not a phenomenon of postmodernism as many might claim. For indigenous peoples fragmentation has been the consequence of imperialism.[4]

The violent Spanish conquest of Latina America, the treatment of indigenous peoples in the Americas, the acquisition of what is now the Southwest of the U.S. from Mexico, the establishment of slavery for economic development in this continent, the internment camps for citizens of Japanese descent, the legal racial segregation after the abolition of slavery, and the manifest-destiny ideology motivating the expansion of the United States—all are intrinsically related to the introduction (as Catholicism) and re-introduction (as Protestantism) of Christianity in the Americas. It is very difficult to forget these violent processes and practices that established and refined the colonial categorization of bodies in this continent, and particularly constituted acts of “nation-building” for the United States.[5] Such processes marked bodies for marginalization, making it impossible to separate the subjugated bodies of the descendants of the colonized from institutionalized experiences of oppression and imposed interpretations of the gospel.

Remembering the racially based social system designed by the Spanish colonizers in Latin America and thinking of the history of peoples of color within the Protestant denominations in the United States, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement today, is more than a critique or a historical academic exercise. My body feels the limitations of the Christian faith and its interpretation of the gospel, in light of historical practices by those that introduced Christianity to indigenous peoples in the Americas. Mayra Rivera notes some of these implications in relation to the interpretation of passages of incarnation of the word and the memory of the flesh. Her theological reflections about subordinated bodies of color interrogate the interpretation of the word that became flesh through the imperial constitution of subjugated bodies.[6] Is the word in my flesh the word of empire? Can women of color find any other words in light of the systemic embedded “isms” of today?

Tuhiwai Smith invites us to consider that places of marginalization are also spaces of resistance.

To acquiesce is to lose ourselves entirely and implicitly agree with all that has been said about us. To resist is to retrench in the margins, retrieve “what we were and remake ourselves.” The past, our stories local and global, the present, our communities, cultures, languages and social practices—all may be spaces of marginalization, but they have also become spaces of resistance and hope.[7]

As a contextual theologian, I find myself retrieving insights about the relationship of body, oppression, and gospel from the theological concept of “dangerous memories” noted by Johann Baptist Metz. I do so in relation to the encounter of Jesus and the disciples with the women of Matthew 15:21-28 and Mark 7:24-30. Dangerous memories are memories of suffering that live on in the experiences of the survivors of those who died without justice.[8] Metz explains that

there are dangerous memories, memories which make demands on us. These are memories in which earlier experiences break through to the centre-point of our lives and reveal new and dangerous insights for the present. They illuminate for a few moments and with a harsh steady light the questionable nature of things we have apparently come to terms with. . . . They break through the canon of the prevailing structures of plausibility and have certain subversive features. Such memories are like dangerous and incalculable visitations from the past.[9]

In their own time in history, the Canaanite and Syrophoenician women communicate the subversive essence of dangerous memories. In her suffering, the Canaanite woman breaks away from established social protocols and not only interrupts the walking of Jesus and his disciples but also questions and re-frames their mission and ministry. She is a foreigner with the ability to discern the power in Jesus and the amazing possibilities within the proclamation of a new human-God relationship. Courageously, stepping across all established social and religious boundaries, she asks for help in a public space, probably the market place. The response of Jesus is one of silence. However, upon the request of his disciples to “send her away” (Matt 15:23) because she is probably embarrassing them in public, he articulates the limitations of his mission and with the statement, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v. 24), clearly communicates that she is excluded.

The Canaanite woman does not give up at the denial of her first request for help. She finds courage and interrupts, with her body, the walking away of Jesus and the disciples. The narrative tells us that, kneeling before Jesus, she asks again for help. The exclamation mark after her request in the English translations communicates that she is demanding—if not appropriating—her share of God’s power in Jesus (v. 26). This action generates what can be interpreted as a loaded racial and sexist response. It is very difficult for me, as a woman or color, to get around the fact that Jesus calls her a dog and limits the access to new life for her and her daughter with, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (v. 26) as a public statement. This answer on the part of Jesus demands ongoing consideration by women of color. What contextual social and religious formation produced such a statement? What survived, from the contextual power dynamics at the place and time of the narrative, into our own time? What continues to permeate gospel interpretations and religious practices today that obscure the violence against the Canaanite woman and erases all traces of what I consider to be her Spirit of Mujer as the “other” in the Jewish tradition?

I am amazed at the strength, power, and wisdom of our Canaanite sister. In spite of a second refusal and clear public humiliation, she does not give up! She stands her ground, probably blocking with her body the advancement of Jesus and the disciples. Retrieving from her own experience of suffering and Spirit of Mujer, which is neither Jewish nor Christian, she confronts the limitations established by Jesus and claims the power of God! She appropriates God’s power for you and me today with the accretion: “even the dogs eat from the master’s table” (v. 27).

In conclusion, I must say that we are experiencing very difficult times in our indigenous communities. Violence continues to increase, eroding the social advancements on the issues of race and gender that emerged from the work of the civil rights movements in the 1960s and the numerous social and academic contributions by the first generations of scholars of color in the 1970s and the 1980s.[10] The epistemological retrieval by activists, sociologists, and theologians supported identity formation processes for women and descendants of the colonized. The words that articulated the possible places/spaces for bodies of color today seem to be lost in theory. We find ourselves at complex intersections, and challenges face our social and religious institutions.

I have come to understand that the words of imperialism that constituted me as a subjugated body can define me only as a projection of the colonizer’s image and word. The Spanish translation of John 1:14 uses an action word, the verb instead of the noun form of  “Word.” This invites me to consider that this verb that became flesh is the Spirit of Mujer that remembers and demands justice in order to facilitate my being. What are the limitations of my being as a reflection of imperial processes and gospel interpretation through Western philosophical categories and a Christian religion complicit with colonizing processes? Hope resides in the fact that I survive in “the memory of the flesh” as “dangerous memory” through the struggle for life and the intentional retrieval of indigenous epistemologies.

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[1] The term “Indigenous Peoples” emerged in the 1970s from the self-determination struggles of the world’s colonized peoples and represents the collective voice of the descendants of the colonized around the world. See Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies (London: Zed Books Ltd., 2012), 7.

[2] Mayra Rivera, “Memory of the Flesh: Theological Reflections on Word and Flesh” in Creating Ourselves: African Americans and Hispanic Americans, Popular Culture, and Religious Expression, Anthony Pinn and Benjamín Valentín, eds. (Durham and London: Duke University, 2009), 76.

[3] Ibid, 71.

[4] Tuhiwai Smith, 29.

[5] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), XIV.

[6] Mayra Rivera articulates the relationship between subjugation and visible physical traits in colonial discourses. See section titled “(In)Visible Ancestry” in “Memory of the Flesh,” 74–76.

[7] Tuhiwai Smith, 4.

[8] See Johann B. Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, trans David Smith (London: Burns & Oates, 1980). Also see Mary McClintock Fulkerson and Marcia W. Mount Shoop, A Body Broken, A Body Betrayed: Race, Memory and Eucharist in White-Dominant Churches (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015).

[9] Metz, 109–110.

[10] The first generation of Chicana scholars began to publish in the 1970s. Their research and theories across all academic disciplines were gleaned from their experiences. Their epistemological retrieval made accessible language and relevant references for women of indigenous descent in Latin America. See Ana Castillo, Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma (2014), 9.

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2017