In Detroit, 1975, an event took place that would be something of a watershed moment in Christian theology. A week-long conference in August brought together ministers, activists, sociologists and theologians under the banner ‘Theology in the Americas’. The attendees and speakers represented different social and political perspectives as well as different church traditions. It would be an ecumenical, multi-ethnic affair, with participants from all parts of the Americas, South and North, Central and Caribbean, from dominant and minority communities, First World and Third World. This series is about what took place at that meeting, as well as directly before and after it, and how these groups came into conversation, competition, and collaboration over time.
This was not the first but probably the major meeting of minds in the fields of Feminist Theology, Black Theology, Political Theology and Latin American teología de la liberación (Liberation Theology). Today the insights cultivated by these different groupings are commonly talked about and practiced in concert with each other. We do not only focus on patriarchy and women’s liberation but on racism the liberation of people of colour, not only of wealth, poverty and class but on the myriad forms of oppression that affect our communities: homophobia, ableism, transphobia, xenophobia and other sins committed against people who are ‘othered’ by a dominant system.
We call it ‘intersectionality’, a term coined by critical race theorist and civil rights activist Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw in 1989, and described by Patricia Hill Collins as “the critical insight that race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, ability, and age operate not as unitary, mutually exclusive entities, but rather as reciprocally constructing phenomena” and “as a knowledge project whose raison d’être lies in its attentiveness to power relations and social inequalities.” This insight was already articulated during Black Women’s struggle for representation during the Feminist movements of the late 1800s and the first half of the 20th Century. bell hooks had also brought into question the validity of sexism as the main oppression facing all women; Black women had other oppressions facing them, including from White feminists.
Already in 1975, one participant/presenter at the Theology in the Americas would describe the same dilemma in almost exactly the same language. Rosemary Radford-Ruether called it not ‘intersectionality’ but ‘interstructuring’, with the same thought in mind. As Elina Vuola reminds us, this understanding was present in Feminist Theology earlier than in Feminist theory or Gender Studies generally. But these insights were only beginning to become apparent to many of those attending the conference, and the meeting was characterised by the opposite of intersectional thinking, with each main group-perspective declaring the primacy of its own activist focus.
The Latin Americans, coming from oppressed societies, experiencing fascism and poverty in the face of corporate wealth and landowning elites insisted on class as the key rubric for understanding the plight of the poor, los pobres, to whom they were committed.
The Black North Americans, coming from an engagement with the Civil Rights and Black Power struggle against White racism, the terror of lynchings and police dogs, and the blocking of equality by White institutions, insisted that race was the key to understanding North American life and religious life.
The Feminist Theologians, who were mostly European-American, realised that common to almost all societies was the persistence of patriarchy, not only its glass ceilings but also its violence. For them gender was the aspect that would be essential for any theology of human liberation.
Political theologians, also European-American, arrived at the conferences and meetings with their own concerns, which, influenced by European figures such as Moltmann and Metz, included post-WWII democracy and democratic socialism, and the alienation and disenfranchisement among the masses. They warned against theologies that could be utilised for further violence and cautioned against following false routes.
These groups and the other groups represented — to some extent Womanist, Native American, Chicano, Latino, and Asian-American voices were heard at Detroit — would disagree on the starting point and end points of theologising based upon the challenges they faced and the solutions they could envision. Class, Race, Gender — these are commonly treated as the mainstay intersections in which people live and struggle for freedom, to which we add sexuality, (dis)ability, education access, Indigeneity, migration, and other identities and life situations seen in relation to social power in a given society.
We will proceed, then, in four sections, beginning with the Latin American perspective that arrived in Detroit with its focus on class/wealth/poverty/economic domination, and then move through the other sections until we wrap up with an intersectional view of the theologies that were brought into conversation fatefully in 1975 and the surrounding years.
What will we learn from these early debates and dialogues on such critical issues? What has the church learned since then?
This is one of the most interesting parts of 20th Century church history and the questions arising around Detroit have continued to cause a stir and renewal in the the fields of theology, biblical studies and in community-based ministry itself. The conversations have come a long way, and they had begun in fragments before the Theology in the Americas group convened their conference, but 1975 was a watershed and our starting point. Now let’s turn to what Latin American theologians brought to that important meeting.