Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Review of Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins

Miguel A. De La Torre, Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2004. xvi + 280 pp. Paperback, $20.00. ISBN 1-57075-551-5.

Written in the same vein as his award-winning Reading the Bible from the Margins (Orbis, 2002), De La Torre's latest book achieves two important objectives. First, it fills a much needed void for instructors looking for an introductory textbook on liberation ethics. Second, it adds to the growing number of Christian voices on the margins that proactively seek to challenge those from the dominant Eurocentric culture in the U.S. to think and act theologically or ethically from the perspective of the disenfranchised. This book is based on an undergraduate course that De La Torre, a Cuban-American professor of religion, taught by the same name at Hope College, a small liberal arts school affiliated with the Reformed Church in America. [Note that De La Torre is currently teaching at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church.]

Doing Christian Ethics is divided into four parts. In part I (chpts. 1-3), De La Torre outlines his understanding of ethical theory, the major contours of which will be recognizable to those already familiar with liberation theology. Beginning with the premise that ethics is done from a particular social location, he points out that educated white males have traditionally dominated ethical discourse in academia. Consequently, their scholarship is not value neutral but reflects their position of privilege and power in society. Common pitfalls that characterize both historic and contemporary Eurocentric ethics include, amongst other things, the ethical dualism that emphasizes (1) spiritual concerns to the exclusion of social concerns, (2) individualism to the neglect of koinonia, (3) grace in favor of works, (4) heaven instead of the here and now, and (5) failure to generate life- and society-transforming praxis. Consciously or unconsciously, ethics done from a position of privilege only serves to reinforce ideologies of power that perpetuate unjust social structures such as racism, classism, and sexism. Because such ethics thwart Christ's mission "that they (the marginalized) may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10), De La Torre challenges his readers to embrace a system of ethics that is consistent with Christ's example of identifying and standing in solidarity with the oppressed.

For De La Torre, the starting point for doing such ethics is reflection on lo cotidiano or the everyday life experiences of the disenfranchised. On this point, De La Torre makes a significant yet welcome departure from typical liberation theologies. Even though he has elsewhere established his identity as a Latino theologian, he deliberately chooses not to limit his ethical reflection to the life experiences of U.S. Hispanics. Instead, he attempts to construct an inclusive approach to ethics that encourages marginalized groups to work together in their common struggle for justice while refusing to allow them to be pitted against each other by dominant culture. One significant omission is that De La Torre draws primarily from the work of liberation ethicists while ignoring the ethical reflections of disenfranchised evangelicals—a sizably larger group from the margins. While this is a perennial oversight of liberation theology in general, exclusion of such a large constituency compromises De La Torre's claim that his ethics are fully grounded in the experiences of the marginalized.

Part I concludes with an outline of De La Torre's own five-step version of the hermeneutic circle, an important tool which moves the reader beyond simply questioning the ethical discourse of the dominant culture or analyzing the social conditions of the disenfranchised. Rather, it encourages the reader to engage in society-transforming praxis. For the reader from the dominant culture, such praxis is not about exchanging social locations with the marginalized but completely leveling and dismantling racist, sexist, and classist power structures. By doing so, the reader moves beyond mere belief, which is inadequate for salvation in and of itself (Jas. 2:19), and embraces the deeds of faith (Jas. 2:17) that are required to work out his or her salvation with "fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12).

Parts II, III, and IV give the reader an opportunity to apply the hermeneutic circle to a variety of ethical case studies under the broad categories of global relationships, national relationships, and business relationships. Each section is four chapters in length, with the first chapter of each giving an overview of the topic and the remaining three chapters offering a series of case studies under specific subtopics. De La Torre's case studies differ from those in traditional textbooks in that they are not canned stories designed to elicit a theoretically "correct" answer to an abstract question (e.g., Is killing ever justified?) Instead, they are real-life stories, grounded in the experiences of marginalized people, which seek to move the reader beyond "spectator-type" ethics into society-transforming praxis. Only the first three steps of the hermeneutic circle are covered in each case study. They are followed with a series of discussion questions designed to help the reader arrive at a strategy for praxis by reflecting on the remaining hermeneutical steps through the worldview of the marginalized. For the most part, this is an effective pedagogical tool. But since many prospective readers may have little experience at viewing the world through the eyes of the disenfranchised, it would have been helpful if De La Torre had given two or three case studies where he shows how they have been resolved in his own classroom.

De La Torre's choice of case studies is interesting as it demonstrates how even something as simple as deciding what topics are worthy of ethical reflection is determined by one's social location. Not surprisingly, topics such as genetic technologies and human cloning—standard fare in most contemporary ethics textbooks—are omitted as they are issues far removed from the everyday experience of the disenfranchised. In contrast, De La Torre includes an entire section on business ethics, focusing on topics such as corporate accountability, affirmative action, and private property—concerns that directly impact the marginalized yet rarely, if ever, are addressed in mainstream Christian ethics texts. Most telling—perhaps a reflection of De La Torre's own social location as a middle-class male—is the conspicuous absence of case studies on topics such as prostitution, domestic abuse, abortion, and birth control—all of which are crucial for women on the margins. Nevertheless, De La Torre has succeeded in providing sufficient methodological background that creative instructors will find this book to be a good starting point for considering ethics from the margins in their own classes as well as writing additional case studies that consider the life experiences of marginalized people from other social locations.

De La Torre makes a compelling theological case that those from the dominant culture find their salvation by giving up their power and privilege so that those on the margins can live the abundant life. More importantly, he provides the necessary ethical tools for committed readers to engage in society-transforming praxis. Even so, this is a message that many in the dominant culture will find difficult to accept. And while some might readily give their theological and mental assent to the truth of his words, the real question is how many of us will actually engage in the praxis that De La Torre's method calls for.

This review originally appeared in the Denver Journal.

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