The Common Good
April 2011

Disrupt and Rebuild

by César J. Baldelomar | April 2011

Latina/o Social Ethics: Moving Beyond Eurocentric Moral Thinking, by Miguel A. De La Torre.

LATINO COMMUNITIES throughout the United States face several challenges, such as soaring unemployment rates, subpar health care and education, high poverty rates, unjust immigration laws, and lack of adequate housing. Faced with these seemingly insurmountable trials, what ethical paradigms can Latinos rely on to transform their reality? In Latina/o Social Ethics: Moving Beyond Eurocentric Moral Thinking, Christian ethicist and prolific author Miguel A. De La Torre argues that Latino communities can’t afford an abstract ethics (e.g., virtue ethics) during these difficult times. In fact, such an approach to ethics is harmful to marginalized communities.

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In the book’s first part, De La Torre deconstructs the abstract Eurocentric ethical paradigms and methodologies prominent in our nation’s universities and government. Ethics in the ivory tower emphasizes abstraction over action, what one thinks over what one does. This abstract understanding of ethics is all too common among many academics, policymakers, politicians, and citizens from across the political spectrum, and can lead to hypocrisy. Thus, while the U.S. may be one of the “developed” world’s most religious nations, our actions and policies—excessive waste of resources and our broken immigration system that tears families apart—speak otherwise. We may think we’re moral and ethical by believing in a deity, but we’re behaving unethically as a nation when we blithely disregard the poor, hungry, and sick—who are disproportionately Latino and black.

De La Torre also decries what he considers the jingoistic, racist, colonial, and overly doctrinal aspects of the ethical models of prominent 20th century white male ethicists such as Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Stanley Hauerwas. He contends that they were complicit with the prevailing power structures of their times. He also urges Latinos to move beyond Eurocentric religious perspectives, such as those advocated by the Religious Right and Left, because they habitually ignore the Latino community’s needs. “Our salvation will not be found in a Euroamerican religious conservative or liberal approach to social issues affecting us,” De La Torre states. “Our liberation will be discovered only when we begin to construct our own ethical and moral foundation rooted within our social location and using our cultural symbols.”

In the second part of the book, titled “Reconstructing Ethics,” De La Torre summarizes past and current Latino ethical thought before proposing his own ethics. He cogently describes the main tenets of current Christian Latino ethical thought: It must originate from the everyday lived experiences of the community and represent their struggles, hopes, and fears. This praxis-oriented ethics is centered on Jesus the liberator, who worked to disrupt the social order that kept the downtrodden marginalized and the privileged in power.

De La Torre is convinced that the Latino community needs a new ethics, so he concludes his book by proposing an ethics “para joder.” “‘Joder’ is a Spanish verb, a word one would never use in polite company,” notes De La Torre. While “not the literal translation of a certain four-letter word” in English, it still is vulgar. It’s a word connotative of the trickster or jester’s rude disruption of established social order. His ethics calls the marginalized and their allies to disrupt the status quo to reveal the multifaceted expressions of power operating at various societal levels. Yet, ultimately this ethics prompts the marginalized to move “beyond civil disobedience toward civil initiative,” which requires the community to actively pursue justice on behalf of all marginalized groups through political means.

This type of ethics reminds U.S. Latinos that they inhabit the in-between, the liminal space that allows them to identify with various cultural traditions while fully belonging to none. Thus, the U.S. Latino community must forge a culture founded on an ethics of concern for society’s underdogs—an ethics that should awaken the community to action on behalf of justice, even when the odds seem too overwhelming.

César J. Baldelomar is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, where he focuses on liberation theologies and ethics from the margins.

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