Viewing Christ Afresh
Faces of Jesus: Latin American Christologies
By Edited by Jose Miguez Bonino
Review Author: Charles DeCelles
Latin America is a predominantly Christian (Catholic) section of the world. But it is perhaps Christian in name more than in fact.
In Latin America the majority of the people are poor and oppressed, marginalized by those in authority. This situation is nothing new: it reaches back to colonial days. Today, however, the people are slowly awakening to their own worth and dignity as children of God. The Church, which has historically been allied with the rich and powerful, is now beginning to recognize that it must truly open itself up to the poor and side with the downtrodden. To be true to itself, the Church must offer the oppressed not just the liberation of a beautiful existence in the next world and the freedom of divine forgiveness in the present moment, but also authentic human liberation in the here and now.
It is in the spirit of this awakening that Jose Miguez Bonino brings together a collection of 13 essays dealing in different ways with the problem of Latin American Christologies. Authored mostly by Latin American theologians and pastors, Catholic and Protestant, the essays are insightful and full of hope. They are not unorthodox. For the most part they are quite scholarly — perhaps too much so. As a whole the book informs us about the prevailing popular images of Jesus in Latin America, argues the case for the development of fresh Christologies, and provides us with a taste of such Christologies.
There are several different images of Christ hat prevail in Latin American piety at present. An image mentioned repeatedly is that of the defeated Christ. This is the crucified Jesus who is already dead or on the verge of death with his eyes rolled back. This image of Jesus is one that the people, in their oppressed condition, easily identify with. Latin Americans viewed their subservient condition as divinely willed, and accepted their subservience. Crushed and beaten, they found kinship with a defeated Christ: a Christ without strength who offers no hope and inspires no courage. Sadly, this defeated Jesus is in effect not alive, having never risen from the dead. He possesses less power to better human life than the Virgin Mary.
Another portrait of Jesus beheld by the poor of Latin America is that of the Conquistador. This is a majestic, royal Christ made up in the image of an earthly colonial monarch: a resplendent, oppressive master. This Christ in turn invests rulers and their representatives with divine sanction and authority.
Both of these exaggerated images of Christ were foisted upon the people by those in authority. It has since served the interest of the rich and powerful to keep these images in front of the popular mind. One image lulls the poor into inactivity and the other reminds them of who is in charge.
This book suggests that the time has come for the emergence of other images of Jesus, images that would give heart and strength to the people. In the light of their own concrete experience, Latin American theologians are now searching for constructive ways of viewing Jesus, endeavoring to produce positive Christologies.
It is clear that the gospels contain several different Christologies — complementary but different. One way of approaching Christ today that harmonizes with the Gospel message, and is compatible with the Jesus of history, is to view him as deeply concerned about the poor and the oppressed. Jesus actually identified with the downtrodden so that he might raise them up and set them free. Christ can therefore validly be viewed as Liberator. He does not liberate only in the next life, in Heaven; he also offers liberation in this world. After all, his Kingdom begins on earth: it affects life in the here and now. Jesus invited the downtrodden to enter immediately into his Kingdom. Forthwith he accepted them, establishing them in dignity and worth: the dispossessed, the outcast, the ignorant, the sick, the unclean, children, women. Moreover, Jesus loved the total person — physical and spiritual. When he cured, for example, he healed the entire individual, body and soul.
Jesus was not a violent revolutionary — a zealot. But he was not a “pietist” either. His message cannot be reduced to a political one. Nevertheless, his teachings on justice and brotherly love, if taken seriously, carry political implications valid for the whole human family throughout the ages.
His message produced fear and consternation among the Pharisees and Sadducees — members of the Jewish establishment who eventually orchestrated Jesus’ death. Although Jews, they were allied with the repressive Roman regime. In their own right, they suppressed the masses, looking with disdain upon the poor, the ignorant, and the suffering. The physically ill for them were enduring the just deserts of their sins and could rightly be ostracized.
This book intimates that Jesus’ most revolutionary gesture was chasing the moneychangers out of the temple. This was not an assault on the temple, but an attack on greed and theft. It hardened his enemies — the religious leaders — against him, and determined them to have him liquidated.
The official reason for which Jesus was executed was treason — because he made himself king. Although this was a trumped-up charge, it points to the fact that Jesus was not an apolitical figure. He was a man of his time who lived under oppressive conditions and who reacted against that oppression in his teachings and actions. He planted the seeds for the future dissolution of all dehumanizing regimes. He did not, however, encourage any reversal of roles — that is, where the once oppressed become the oppressors. Rather, he stood for an authority dedicated to love and service.
If Latin Americans could develop Christologies emphasizing Jesus’ identification with the marginalized — as the champion of the poor — Jesus would inspire the masses in their struggle toward full humanity. He would no longer constitute a personification of their own weakness or a symbol of their oppression.
Faces of Jesus, a sophisticated and nuanced book, whose central thrust I have simplified here, is a cry on behalf of the oppressed. It demonstrates a concern for orthodoxy. But it is more interested in orthopraxy — that is, right action. I wholeheartedly agree with the substance of this volume.
©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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