Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz: Justice, Emotions, and Aesthetics

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Spirituality of the Picket Line

In her monograph, La Lucha Continues: Mujerista Theology, arguably her most mature and impactful work, mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz uses personal narrative to both ground and propel her discussion of the ethical implications of Latina experience.  Frequently, Isasi-Diaz’s work reads like a biography, an account and reflection on significant life events that have shaped her as a person and a thinker.  She successfully dodges a self-centered and personally glorifying account of her own accomplishments by framing her experiences in terms of her faith, conveying her belief vividly and honestly.  Using this narratival approach, Isasi-Diaz draws connections between her particular experiences of conversion, exile, exclusion, protest, personal and social devastation, and cultural tension to gesture towards theoethical concerns for grassroots Latinas working en la lucha for peace, justice, and participation.  She is not swept up into her own story, but constantly strives to relate her experiences, and those of the grassroots Latinas with whom she converses, with Biblical scripture and various theoethical topics (love, justice, reconciliation) that simultaneously explain suffering and struggle in her particular community while critiquing the “dominant group’s” situated understanding of these categories.  Her concern for relating Latina experiences to the Biblical witness robustly centers her in the Christian theological tradition.

While narrative and story-telling is a common approach for Latina/o theologians in the United States[1] it is Isasi-Diaz’s extensive use of narrative and other aesthetic genres as both the method and content of her reflection that distinguishes her work from other U.S. Latina/o authors I have read.[2] Michelle A. Gonzales, for example, develops a systematic scheme for truth, goodness and beauty to help us better understand justice; Isasi-Diaz employs the experiential, affective, and aesthetic elements of the struggle for justice to elucidate the traditional categories of being.  She argues that there is a relationship between emotions and justice, or that human beings cannot fully comprehend the demands of justice without affective engagement.  She explains:

“Our emotions play a leading role in our moral lives, attaching us to what is good and causing aversion for what is wrong.  If it is true that reason judges and tutors emotions, it is also true that emotions need to test and tutor reason.  This leads to a moral life in which emotions, thoughts and decisions are integrated into the whole.”[3]

Our emotions, then, are not a threat to our reason, but seek harmony with the intellectual aspect of moral discernment.  Thus, the attempt to bifurcate reason and emotion is dangerous to all of our moral endeavors, but especially to justice, which Isasi-Diaz claims strongly relates to the affective element of our knowing.  This sort of false division is evident in the tendency of justice theories to accent the necessity of an “objective” approach to justice:

“What can we say about the relationship between emotions and justice?  The old portrait of justice, a blindfolded woman holding a scale, say it all.  Justice has been made to depend on objectivity, on being apart from any individual point of view, from any particular way of understanding, or specific situations… In mujerista theology we have repeatedly pointed out how so-called objectivity is nothing but the subjectivity of those who have the power to impose their own point of view on others.”[4]

Here, Isasi-Diaz works against a Rawlsian[5] understanding of justice as fairness, where society aims to make decisions from behind a “veil of ignorance” that glosses over historical and material inequality.  To be fair to Rawls, it is important to note that he attempts to account for social disadvantage by emphasizing the necessity of social and political organization to take place from a hypothetical “original position” where the participants are not aware of their own power or privilege.  If everyone acts as if she will be the least advantaged person in society, then she will act in a way that does not promote unjust inequality.

Still, Rawls acknowledges that the original position is a purely hypothetical construction; a useful thought experiment to help orient policy discussion towards equality, but not an accurate description of reality.  It is precisely the hypothetical nature of this construction that Isasi-Diaz would reject.  For Isasi-Diaz, partiality is not the problem.  Every human being, by virtue of our particular, material, and historical reality, is already partial to something, someone, or some idea.  Instead of fighting an uphill battle against partiality, Isasi-Diaz suggests that we ought to be partial to the poor and disadvantaged, in this case, grassroots Latinas struggling for survival.  She explains:

“In mujerista theology we have insisted on partiality instead of impartiality and, together with other liberation theologies, we have privileged the poor and the oppressed, valuing their way of dealing with reality as important to all who seek justice.”[6]

Said differently, Isasi-Diaz challenges us to reorient our affections towards disadvantaged persons in society.  Thus, we are partial to those who need partiality, rather than impartial regardless of historical circumstances.

In light of Isasi-Diaz’s conception of justice, how might engagement with the aesthetic assist us in recognizing and enacting justice?  The experience of beauty, through stories, poems, song, dance, liturgy, fragrance, human contact, etc. ignites our discernment of emotion and reason.  Standing by a warm fire on a cold night, we may come to understand the necessity of warmth for sustaining human life and want to help those who do not have sufficient access to this resource.  Watching an extraordinary play about the 1960’s African-American civil rights movement may elicit strong emotions that compel us towards political action.  Hearing a human cry may remind us of suffering in a way that resonates with our own deepest pain and longings for comfort.  The aesthetic elicits a response, a response that issues in deeper understanding of a particular truth and, if understood correctly, a desire for concrete action towards enacting that truth.  By simply sharing her stories, Isasi-Diaz evokes a theological response from her reader, urging us to recognize the truths that she speaks.

There is much to love about Isasi-Diaz’s thought, from her compelling portrayal of her experience to her cogent theoethical arguments grounded in these experiences.  At the same time, I remain unclear about the operation of the concepts of “dominant group” and “subordinate group” in her thought.  By setting up her work in terms of the undefined dominant against the marginalized, she leaves me wondering whom she is really opposing.  In my brief 29-years of human experience (even during my interesting forays at Yale University), I have yet to encounter a person who truly embodies the identity and interests of the amorphous “dominant group,” let alone an entire group or institution that embodies “dominant” traits wholesale.  Given the exceedingly complicated dynamics of race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, moral status, and embodiment, I am not entirely convinced that this group exists outside of abstraction.  Thus, I think Isasi-Diaz’s opponent in this work is too broadly defined.

Conversely, Isasi-Diaz’s emphasis on the plight of grassroots Latinas may also be too narrow.  By her own admittance, not even all Latinas are accurately encompassed by this term.  Yet, as I read Isasi-Diaz, her work gestures to moral truths that are relevant to the Church universal and across the academy.  While I think it is very effective to reflect on the experience of a particular group to identify broader implications, this approach can be taken too far, unhelpfully excluding rather than fostering the inclusive society that she wants to promote.

I do not, however, want to take this critique of Isasi-Diaz too far.  Oppression, marginalization, and exploitation are real.  Injustice is rampant across the globe.  Isasi-Diaz’s conception of the relationship between emotion and reason moves towards recognizing, understanding, and dislodging structures that limit human freedom.  This is a vital contribution, indeed.


[1] See Virgilio Elizondo, Roberto Goizueta, and Justo Gonzales, among others.

[2] See Michelle A. Gonzales, Sor Juana: Beauty and Justice in the Americas, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003)

[3] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, La Lucha Continues: Mujerista Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), 214.

[4] Ibid., 212.

[5] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press), 1971.

[6] Isasi-Diaz, La Lucha Continues, 212-13.

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