Update: The Rev. Virgilio P. Elizondo died on March 14, 2016.
The great challenge for Christian leadership is to help people go beyond fears of difference and experience diversity as God’s way of bringing about new creation, said the Rev. Virgilio P. Elizondo.
Elizondo has been recognized by Time magazine as one of the leading spiritual innovators in the U.S. for developing a Christian theology within the context of the Mexican immigrant experience.
He is professor of pastoral and Hispanic theology at the University of Notre Dame and also serves a parish in San Antonio, Texas. In 2007 he received the Community of Christ International Peace Award for his advocacy on behalf of justice and inclusion for immigrants.
Among his books are “The Future Is Mestizo,” “Galilean Journey” and “The Human Quest.” He earned his Ph.D. from the Institut Catholique de Paris.
Elizondo spoke with Faith & Leadership about the broad cultural implications of the mestizo experience. He was a speaker at the 2010 Summer Institute of the Center for Reconciliation. The video clip is an excerpt of the following edited transcript.
Q: How does your personal background affect your interest in the mestizo theology?
My background is Mexican, but I was born in the United States. My parents were immigrants. Being Latin American is basically being a blood mixture of European and Native Americans and somewhat African. The mestizo reality is that union comes through sexual intercourse and spirituality. It produces a new child, and that child is from different ethnic groups.
In that sense, Latin America was totally different from the U.S., where race mixture was prohibited until after World War II. In Latin America, it was kind of encouraged from the beginning. What emerged was a new human group, the mestizos of Latin America. We’re a mixture.
Because in the United States mixture was looked upon in a negative way, my own pilgrimage has been to discover something positive in it, something very beautiful, and I see it as the beginning of the global humanity.
Q: What do you mean when you say that the future is mestizo?
The global community is growing. People are mixing more and more. I had a beautiful student in my class. She was stunningly beautiful. Her father was from India and he was a devout Hindu. Her mother was Irish Catholic. She didn’t want to be Catholic one Sunday and Hindu the next. She wanted to find a way of bringing the two together. In her very blood she was Indian/Irish, and so she was a new creation.
When we can look at the difference as a gift rather than a threat, that your difference can enrich me and hopefully my difference can enrich you, and hopefully when I’m weak your strength can help me and when you’re weak my strength can help you, we see different groups not as opposing each other but as -- how can we build together a better humanity?
Q: You have spoken of mestizo as being at once both an insider and outsider. What are the theological ramifications of that?
Personally, as a Catholic priest, the gospels give me deeper insights into all of this. Jesus grew up in an area that was very much borderlands; Galilee was surrounded by different ethnic groups that were opposed. Jesus constantly breaks taboos to have contact with this group that these people are not supposed to have contact with. He’s initiating this border crossing -- that borders should not be separating borders but should be borders that define a humanity that can be shared with somebody else.
Difference can be humanizing. For example, I love to travel, and if everyone’s the same, why travel? You go to different regions of France and only in that region you can get a particular cheese. It’s great. Difference is beautiful if we don’t use it to segregate and kick people out. To be able to enjoy difference is a gift of God’s creation.
Q: I’ve read that you maintain that Jesus, in fact, was mestizo.
Well, at least culturally speaking, because the Galileans were constantly in contact with different groups. They couldn’t even speak correctly. That’s why Peter could deny Jesus but he couldn’t deny he was a Galilean. The moment he opened his mouth it was, “Hey, we know where you come from” because the Galileans couldn’t pronounce Hebrew correctly and therefore they were often ridiculed.
In that way, God grows up as a human in this land that’s constantly confronted with ethnic differences, and Jesus begins to initiate something new out of that. He’s constantly crossing borders because Christianity is a constant call to go beyond. To me, Christianity is more of a movement than an institution. It’s a movement of the Spirit to constantly go beyond humanly made borders of separation to create frontiers of new existence.
Look at the Acts of the Apostles: Constant border crossing, not to destroy anyone but to open up doors for communication and friendship and love. That’s Christianity, the community of love.
Q: In the Time magazine piece on you, there’s a quote: “Every generation tends to build an image of Jesus in response to its deepest quest. When they are writing about Jesus, they are really writing about themselves.”
That quote was inspired by Jaroslav Pelikan in his book “Jesus Through the Centuries,” where he says that Christ is so rich that every generation of Christians can discover in Christ the response to their deepest questions of what it means to be human -- and that’s a contribution of his generation. The genesis of a generation is to see how the image of Christ that they discover is a response to their deepest questions.
Q: What are some of the images of Jesus that are being held up in Christianity today?
Christianity is about humanity. Christianity is about God became human. Christianity is about the human being able to discover the divine within the human. Christianity is about discovering the deepest level of the human.
It’s in Jesus of Nazareth that we find the response to who is truly God, who is compassionate, who’s merciful, who’s just, but also who’s truly the human being that can relate to others in a relationship or friendship.
At the end, Jesus calls us friends and he calls us to be friends with each other through our friendship with God. I like the simple image that the closer we get to God, the closer we come to each other, because God is never a rival to our friendship or to our love. On the contrary, the closer we come to God, the closer we come to each other as human beings, and that’s the fullest of our humanity.
Q: Could you speak some about your interest in the significance of the Virgin of Guadalupe?
I’m Mexican -- I have a personal devotion to her -- but I think it’s one of the most fascinating symbols in religious history, not just for Mexico. A lot of things are miraculous in it. First of all, the very moment that it happened. It happens in 1531. It was 10 years after the conquest. Those 10 years is are probably the most brutal, painful period for the native Mexican people, where they had a collective wish to die.
They were begging the missionaries, “If you love us, let us die. We have nothing to live for.” It was a moment of total hopelessness. It’s at this moment that she appears in a site that had been sacred to the Native Americans. She appeared at the sanctuary of the mother goddess, Tonantzin.
She appears to an Indian and speaks an Indian language. At a time when the Indians were being told they were undignified, they were less than human, she dignifies them, and she tells the bishop to tell them to build a church in this area. Basically, she’s one of them. She appears in a way that would be understood by the Christians, by the Catholics that come from Europe, but she also appears as an Indian maiden, and she speaks the Indian language.
It’s amazing text. It’s written in hieroglyphics, and the image itself can be read -- the image is a hieroglyphic communication. She is the uplifting of the Indian nation, and she brings up people with a death wish to transpose it to a life wish.
The suffering continued, but now there was a reason to live. Now there’s a reason to struggle and to survive. She’s been the life giver who becomes present in everyone.
Now she has followers in New York City. She has followers in Paris, France. She has followers in Canada. She has followers in South Africa. They see her as the Mother of Unity that can bring unity amongst rival human groups.
For defeated people, it was really the resurrection of a new people, the birth of a new people. I call it the spiritual birth of the new people.
Q: What are the implications of mestizo theology for religious leadership?
I think in many ways we still live in a very divided country. In many ways, people still have their fears of one another. It’s very natural to have fear of difference. It’s very [natural] to have fear of somebody taking over our parish, our community, our neighborhood. I think there are some very profound, human fears that are functioning there. But I think Christian leadership can help people go beyond those fears to face a certain reality and say, “You don’t have to be afraid. You don’t have to be afraid. Because this is God’s way of bringing about the new creation where everyone will be welcome at the table, where everyone will be welcome to come to the table of concern, of fellowship, of fiesta, of celebration.”
So I think Christian ministry can help bring about a new understanding, a new appreciation of difference. And to see that people who are afraid are not bad people. They’re good people, but they’re scared. But they’re scared. They don’t see it as a blessing; they see it as a threat, and I think that’s where Christian leadership comes in to give a new alternative of understanding, to give a new alternative of vision, to give a new alternative of possibilities.
And again, if you want to bring it down to the very gutsy level, people love to eat each other’s foods. People love to go to festivals where they can try Greek food and French food and Italian food, and in San Antonio we even have the mixture of foods. One of our favorite mixtures is what we call -- you know tacos is a very popular Mexican food -- but we now have Polish tacos. Tacos Polacos. What it is is a Mexican tortilla with a Polish sausage and guacamole. Delicious! We have Polish-Mexican food.
To see that diversity can enrich us. I think we need spirituality. I don’t think we need laws in all this. I think we need spirituality. It’s basically the spirituality of creation of redemption. It’s basically a spirituality that God created diversity, and God didn’t make a mistake. God created diversity. It’s different because as they’ve tried to humanize the environment, they’ve created different cultures. I think sin made difference to be divisive.
I think Christ came to redeem and begin a new creation. I think this new unity in diversity is a sign of the new creation, and I think it’s going to be a movement of the Spirit to lead this. Rather than a chaotic disaster, to become a dramatic symphony of the new creation where the difference will harmonize, not disappear. I hope they don’t disappear -- but [also] not be seen as a destructive obstacle. And I think the leadership -- I feel the role of the leadership is to bring a new spirituality of an appreciation and even a gratitude and even to be invited to enjoy the differences.
I think that’s the role today, to me, of Christian ministry in the world.
Q: Anything else on this subject?
When you turn those fears into joy, when you turn those threats into new possibilities, it can be exciting, and people who get into it usually find it quite enjoyable, although they’re afraid at first. It’s important to face that natural fear and not say, “You’re bad people. You’re horrible people.” I think mostly they’re good people, but there’s natural human fears at play.
In this country at this moment, I’ve never seen it uglier. In this country, it’s painful for me -- I’m going to be 75 in a few weeks -- I’ve never seen it uglier in this country.
Q: The desegregation effort in the 1950s and 1960s got pretty ugly.
It was, but I sense something -- I remember civil rights, I remember a lot of these things, but I don’t remember this deep ugliness and hatred and demonizing somebody right away to say, “You’re trying to destroy America.” I really pray for our country, because I know that we’ve always had differences, and that’s good, but the way it is right now . . .
Look at the whole immigration question in Arizona. It’s ugly. And you read the letters to the editor, they’re not just disagreeing; they’re vomiting hatred. We have a great challenge in Christianity at this moment. We have a great, great challenge to be able to disagree without demonizing and destroying the one we disagree with. Legitimate disagreement is important, but this demonizing, it’s scary.
In Spanish we say, “No hay mal que por viene no venga”; “There is nothing bad that will happen unless God’s going to bring a greater good out of it.” And the Cubans have a saying, “ Lo bueno que tiene la cosa, es lo malo que se está poniendo.” .”; “The best thing about what’s going on is how bad things are getting” -- because some things have to get worse before they can become better.
In my Christian hope I can say, “Maybe as painful as this is, maybe this has to break the bubble so something good will emerge out of it.”