I recently completed a chapter for a book on Latinx theologies; it’s the second edition of the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Latino/a Theology, edited by Orlando O. Espín, but this time with the slightly changed title of Companion to Latinoax Theology—aiming to be more inclusive in its umbrella term. The project has 35 contributors and covers everything from interreligious dialogue and care for creation, to race, racism and latinoax cultures, as well as chapters on such subjects as Christology, the bible, and ecclesiology. My particular chapter was about the intersection of gender, feminisms, and Latinoax theologies—not surprising. But what I loved in the process was a particular emphasis that emerged—decoloniality, like a thread woven throughout the chapter as it evolved; and this I now see as a necessity for Christian theologies. Let me explain.
Reading and researching for the chapter, I was repeatedly drawn to the work of decolonial feminist scholars because of how their contributions made theology more relevant for the present moment. Decoloniality is a concept that refers to an action or process that is “a way for us to re-learn the knowledge that has been pushed aside, forgotten, buried or discredited by the forces of modernity, settler-colonialism, and racial capitalism.” Decolonial feminist scholars, then, recognize the ways in which both gender and race—which are at the very heart of modern conceptions of the human—are tied up with modernity, settler colonialism, and the project of empire-building. As such, gender and race must be engaged with in tandem when reflecting theologically about our relationship to one another and before one another, and the systems that organize that relationality. This becomes especially relevant when seeking to end racist and sexist oppression because it helps us disclose and interrogate the substructures that maintain our hierarchical and exploitative forms of relating. The scholarship is dense, of course, but its import was crystal clear and emerged as one of the principal directions I think theology writ large needs to follow.
Let me share just one of the key insights decolonial scholars raise: the systematic intentionality with which the “human” is defined such that not all persons are equally regarded as one (if at all). Those who are not doing the defining or who are outside of the identification of human are positioned as “in the colonial difference.” Melissa Pagán, a decolonial feminist scholar, explains in an article titled, “Cultivating a Hermeneutics of “El Grito” in the Eye of the Storm,” that the colonial difference is “the status ordained on persons set to be dehumanized, exploited, and made dispensable (historically and presently) by the colonial system based on race, gender, and sexuality. Persons at the colonial difference are conferred this sub-human status… that which is negatively marked as dispensable as well as a target to rape and murder” (70). She was reflecting and writing on this after Hurricane Maria hit and devastated Puerto Rico in September 2017 only to have the island and the people neglected and left to fend for themselves without resources and support for months on end (in fact, the island is still not fully recovered).
What made it so that this kind of disregard can be the case?…the colonial difference helps explains it.
Pagán reflects that there isn’t an appropriate set of theo-ethical frameworks or theories to which she could turn to that would amplify the cries and the laments of persons at the colonial difference (for example, Puerto Ricans on the island after Hurricane Maria)–or, as she corrects, this colonial indifference. This is because, as she notes, “we cannot rely upon categories that were never created with persons like us in mind,” pointing to how current theo-ethical frameworks “were not created with any critical awareness of global coloniality” (71). Thus, the ways in which colonization has shaped our relationality and structured our world, positioning us unequally before one another, has not properly been taken into account in our theologies and ethical reflections.
This made me think of the work of Kelly Brown Douglas who similarly points to how we are not all equally regarded, which, she explains, is by design. In her book, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Brown Douglas outlines the ways in which Trevon Martin’s killing is part of the continuation of the values upon which the United States was founded, values that elevate whiteness and a specific kind of eurocentrism above all else (xiii). She explained in a teleconference that
the puritans and the pilgrims who came to this country really believed not only that they were the new Israelites, but they really, really, really believed that they were the remnant of these ancient Anglo-Saxons in the ancient woods of Germany. Yeah, they were upset with the Church of England because they felt that it was corrupt by the Norse…but they really believed that they were carrying forth the banner of their Anglo-Saxon ancestors…And what this made me realize is that the non-white body in this country was really, really never meant to be here.
She writes amid what she calls the “stand-your-ground crisis” that followed Treyvon Martin’s death and “what took place one evening on the Florida sidewalk.” This enactment of this instance of colonial indifference led her to discover and explain in her book that “Treyvon’s slaying has its roots in the backwoods of ancient Germany and was set in motion with the founding of this nation,” which then took root in “America’s grand narrative of exceptionalism” (xiv). And after the July 13, 2013 verdict of Trevon’s killer, “Black America had to once again confront the harsh reality that Black Life in American was virtually unprotected, if not, dispensable.”
Both of these scholars are drawing our theological attention to that which has not been properly accounted for and which needs to be if we are to advance our feminist and womanist theologies in ways that speak to the deep substructures that create the violent realities haunting us today. Race and gender, and how these take shape alongside coloniality, are key factors not given their proper critical attention. For those of us doing theo-ethical work and scholarship, the task before us is the necessary kaleidoscopic move of homing in and attending to the particulars and also zooming out and seeing the larger global patterns, systems, history, and processes that work to relegate particular people to subhuman status that result in suffering and violence.
This theological direction is good, deep, and needed work—important for the sake of our collective humanity. It is work to uncover that which has distorted our be-ing and relationality so that we can tap back into and relearn right and just ways of relating. I’m grateful to be able to bring these decolonial voices to the theological task and I look forward to having them continuing to shape my work.
 Kelly Brown Douglas, teleconference, “Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God,” Wednesday, November 11, 2015, minute 18, https://www.waterwomensalliance.org/watertalk-notes-stand-your-ground-black-bodies-and-the-justice-of-god/
Xochitl Alvizo, loves all things feminist, womanist, and decolonial. She often finds herself on the boundary of different social and cultural contexts, and works hard to develop her voice and to hear and encourage the voice of others. Her work is inspired by the conviction that all people are inextricably connected and what we do, down to the smallest thing, matters; it makes a difference for good or for ill. She teaches in the area of Women and Religion, and the Philosophy of Sex, Gender, and Sexuality, at California State University, Northridge. Along with Gina Messina, she is co-editor of the volume Women Religion Revolution (FSR Books, 2017). She most recently co-edited The Emerging Church, Millennials, and Religion: Volume 2 (Cascade Books, 2022) with Terry Shoemaker and Rachel C. Schneider. She lives in Los Angeles, CA where she was also born and raised.