When Church Language Fails Us, We Resist With Poetry | Sojourners

When Church Language Fails Us, We Resist With Poetry

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Note: A version of this essay was given as a talk at Women Doing Theology 2018, at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary on November 9, 2018 in Elkhart, Ind.

As a poet, I used to compartmentalize my poetry. Christian poetry, poetry of the body, and Spanglish poetry all had their unique boxes until I came across the term theopoetics in academic scholarship. We all know how language and scholarship work. While white men are busy naming theopoetics to utilize in scholarship, women, women of color, black women, and indigenous peoples have been theopoeticizing since before Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz to the time of Macuilxochitzin.

Theopoetics is a decolonial reimagining of the Creator, God, through creative expression when the language of the church and theology have failed us. When the church cannot supply the language for what our experience is and what our liberation looks like, we engage in theopoetics as resistance. When the church does not have the language to talk about children caged en la cicatriz de la frontera, our very own U.S. Borderland, we engage in theopoetics.

In my research, theopoetics was born from postmodern theology where we see the term liberation theology birthed from a movement that sprung from Latin@ America. Rubem Alves stated that in order to do the work of theology theopoetically, one must decolonize from dogmatic and systemic thinking.

Threatened with Resurrection: Prayers and Poems from an Exiled Guatemalan is a powerful example of theopoetics. My priest gifted to me these incredible prayers and poetry from Julia Esquivel, a Guatemalteca, poet, peace activist, theologian, and former exile. Esquivel’s use of the “Our Daily Bread” prayer is one of many examples where she utilizes the form of this prayer to illustrate the need for bread and peace amidst militarization and violence against Central American gente.

For Chicanx and Latinx gente, decolonization is done in community, through storytelling, having the artistic gall to create from nothing, and to hold a deep respect for our ancestors. The story of Jesus is one we can relate to because of the marginalization, attempted genocide, and militarization of the very ground Jesus stood on when he preached. It is a story that mirrors our own struggles, our own sacrifice, and ultimately, our own survival.

The first and most important education you will ever receive is in community (commun-unidad). Ours is the story of kin-dom, in the vein of Ada María Isasi-Díaz. No seminary degree can teach you that and no amount of scholarship can teach you how to live, learn, and be in community to engage in theopoetics.

The language of hope looks different for each of us depending on your socioeconomic and immigration status, among other factors. We hold the tension between hope and struggle within this new language of creative expression to allow for the gift of creation to begin to pull apart and dismantle trauma.

When the church cannot utter the words necessary to say, “Free Palestine,” theopoetics becomes the language from which to engage. When the church is too big and rich to feed the poor, when the church cannot rip off its veil to welcome a mujer or mujer-identifying woman to the pulpit, we create theopoetics in a language we can understand and utilize to testify.

Theopoetics speaks from our testimony where our lives become scripture. Theopoetics is an invitation to the lived experience of marginalized people as testimony and as scripture. Our LGBTQ family’s life is scripture. Every Central American fleeing for their lives is scripture.

Some say theopoetics is not theology. I challenge this. If creating art as an act of resistance moves us closer to a deeper understanding of God, then theopoetics is absolutely another way of conceptualizing theology. With every act of creative expression to loosen our sorrows, we elicit social movement and social change. When we create poetry, art, sustainable housing, a living wage, we are pulling light from the tension between hope and trauma.

What does balancing hope and struggle mean for me as poet? It means that language will often fail us in every capacity. Yet, the will to describe pain, to cry out, to create poetry that is bare and truth holds a powerful message of resilience in the face of destruction. Naming something is powerful. When we name ourselves, there is an incredible centering of self toward a decolonial reimagining.

Recognizing that our ancestors were the first storytellers and that poetry was first an oral tradition, liberation looks like creating words which suspend and dismantle canonical frameworks. Liberation is a relentless drive to decolonize. Theopoetics is the vehicle by which liberation is articulated in endless possibilities.