With the death of theologian José Míguez Bonino, the ecumenical movement has lost both a perennial ally and a prophetic critic.
Dr Míguez, a Methodist minister and a pioneer of Latin American liberation theology, not only served the World Council of Churches for over three decades as a member of the Faith and Order Commission, a regional President, a Latin American partner with the WCC’s Programme on Theological Education, and a Central Committee member. He also offered a critical perspective on the ecumenical movement and its ideal of unity and its practice of mission and service.
José Míguez Bonino was born in Santa Fé, Argentina, in 1924 and began his theological studies twenty years later at the interdenominational Evangelical Faculty of Theology, in Buenos Aires. Also there were such lights as Mortimer Arias, Julio de Santa Ana, and Emilio Castro; and there Míguez first became involved in the ecumenical movement through the WSCF. In 1955 Míguez returned to teach at the Faculty (later named ISEDET), and he received his doctorate in 1959 from Union Theological Seminary, New York City, with a dissertation that presaged key ecumenical themes of the Second Vatican Council, where he was an observer.
Dr Míguez is probably best known for his pioneering work in liberation theology. His was one of the first Protestant voices in the movement, and his 1976 work La fe en busca de eficacia (Faith in search of effectiveness) contained his characteristic emphases on contextual analysis, engaged faith, and political involvement. His Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation (1975) and Toward a Christian Political Ethics (1983) are considered contemporary classics. His convictions were tested in the period of Argentinian dictatorship, following his cofounding in 1975 of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights.
From his first attendance at WCC conferences in the early 1950s to his editorial work on the second edition of the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement in 2002, Dr Míguez brought his theological acumen and liberation perspective to the global scene. He helped create key ecumenical structures in Latin America; was a delegate to the New Delhi, Uppsala, Nairobi assemblies; and served from 1961 to 1977 on the Faith and Order Commission. His liberation perspective on the option for the poor dramatically reframed the classic ecumenical search for unity. As he framed it in a 1983 Watson lecture at the University of San Francisco:
"Unity” is one of those magical words which can, by its mere invocation, justify a discourse. Whatever produces unity is good; whatever destroys or threatens it is bad. In some areas of the world and some sectors of society, however, experience has taught us to ask questions about the frequent calls to unity that are addressed to us - who calls for unity? with whom? against whom? on what basis? for what purpose? for whose benefit? Such questions may sound impertinent, even narrow-minded and ungenerous. But such people - young people and women in the family, workers in industry, minorities in societies, dependent nations in the world, lay people in the churches, in general the poor and marginal, have so frequently discovered that such unity was simply co-option, for the sake of the economy, the authority, the comfort of the powerful, that they have become convinced that as often as not "unity" is a tool of oppression rather than of liberation. . . . The traditional Western answers, as articulated in the idea of "the responsible society" proved unsatisfactory. The questions of radical change, ideology, political involvement could not be postponed...
In the end, for Míguez, “Our differences - now specifically the questions of dependence and domination, of racial oppression, of poverty and economic justice, of human and social rights - are not adiaphora, issues peripheral to the life of the Church. They touch the very essence of the Church: the God we worship, the Christ we confess, the nature and task of the community of faith.”
With a commitment to liberation, he argued, a kind of theological colonialism is overcome and a powerful new vision of ecumenism emerges:
The unity that is created among Christians and non-Christians engaged in a common task in the world. . . . There - in the struggle for human rights, for social transformation, for political participation - Christians of different confessions participate with women and men of different ideologies, without claiming any special privilege, without hiding or watering down their own Christian convictions, and discover both their common humanity and their Christian identity as an unexpected gift. When the Church engages herself in this mission, she finds unity in her struggle for liberation and that unity strengthens and deepens her commitment to freedom. Such unity and such liberation, we claim, the Church can find today when she identifies with her Lord by committing herself to and participating with the poor in their own struggle for a new day for the whole of humankind.
Responding to news of Dr. Míguez’s death, WCC general secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit wrote,
We honour at his death a man of great impact and inspiration for the World Council of Churches, Prof. Dr José Míguez Bonino. He has a very special place in the work of integrating contextual theology and liberation theology into ecumenical theology, and for the coherence and integrity of the WCC.
He also had a significant influence on my own personal ecumenical journey and ecumenical theological positions. I met him first in Oslo in 1993, when I was the responsible staff person for a consultation on contextual theology in the ecumenical movement, March 1993. It was a significant event for the discussions on ecumenical theology in the Church of Norway. For me personally it became the moment Dr Míguez introduced me to an approach to ecumenical theology that really inspired my reflection and understanding of the ecumenical movement and of the WCC particularly. He reflected on the theme that later became the theme for my dissertation: Mutual Accountability. In my work for the ecumenical movement it has become a programmatic point for me, carrying the legacy and vision of the ecumenical tradition to which he contributed so much.
I would like to express my condolences and offer my prayers for his family and his church, and express my thanks to God for the gifts we share from this remarkable theologian and ecumenist.