Ten liberation theologians you should know: Women doing theology in Abya Yala

Yenny Delgado provides context for further exploration of ten Indigenous and Native female theologians in Abya Yala – the lands of the Western Hemisphere.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

While sitting in church, attending a seminary class or reading a theological article, have you ever wondered where the women theologians are and why they are not cited? This article highlights women liberation theologians of Abya Yala so the next time you are in a theological discussion, preparing a Bible study or writing a sermon, you can reflect on and add the voices of women forging a path through today’s most critical issues.

In the 1970s, Native activists, historians, politicians and theologians adopted Abya Yala as the unified name of the continents of the Western hemisphere instead of calling them North America (English-speaking) and Latin or South America (primarily Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries) — names that perpetuate colonial divisions. Abya Yala comes from the Guna language, spoken by the Guna peoples, who lived between present-day Panama and Colombia. It means “land in full maturity and land of vital blood.” This name for the combined continent focuses on the land and its Native people, rather than on colonization and invasion.

Women theologians of Abya Yala see the land and shared experiences as part of a longer arc of history, one that is not overshadowed or forgotten but rather is incorporated into their reflections. Theologians of Abya Yala present not only a unified collective of women doing theology on the continent, but also a liberation theology that focuses on the role of women who suffered colonization, forced migration, enslavement and the oppression of women’s bodies.

In the overarching narrative of society and of Judeo-Christian theological belief, men are at the center of power, society, culture and religious practices. After many struggles and battles, women have mobilized against laws that have sought control over women’s political participation and theological reflections. As the arc of society slowly bends closer to equality, the Christian church has experienced changes that also have affected the establishment. Women leaders have arisen as theologians, pastors, bishops, ruling elders and moderators, among other vital roles.

The theologians I introduce in this article aim – in their work and reflections – to decolonize women and liberate their lived conditions through understanding our historical experiences.

Colonization also brought patriarchal structures and White supremacist ideologies, which have often marginalized and subjugated Native and African-descended women in both society and ecclesiastical spaces. Overall, this marginalization hurts the community and leads to the fracturing of women’s identity, a lack of clear leadership opportunities, oppression in the family structure and assimilation to cultural domination. These all affect social dynamics, legislation and theological reflection by and on women. Unfortunately, the implications of these harmful practices and theories still linger in society.

Women theologians, beginning in the 1960s, have understood women’s conditions needed to be visualized and their voices heard. Womanist theologians have highlighted how foundational texts were written predominantly by male theologians descended from Europeans and how these texts failed to consider the perspectives and insights of women. Womanists, most of whom are African descendants in the United States, have created a methodological approach to theology that centers on the experience and views of women. Native women have incorporated a womanist theology of decolonization and women’s contribution to liberation from a Native perspective.

Women’s work in the theological and pastoral world is diverse and significantly contributes to the discourse. However, women’s work is often made invisible by a patriarchal system that focuses on the contributions of male theologians and, geographically, on a more European, Anglo-Saxon and White vision put forth by seminaries, the theological studies faculties of universities and church educational programs. Knowing this situation, as a theologian of Native ancestry, I recognize the lack of readings from women theologians who reflect at a liberating level. I have investigated women authors and theologians, many of whom I have had the pleasure of meeting in person as teachers and guides in this journey of doing theology from and in Abya Yala.

The following list of influential women theologians of Abya Yala addresses and makes visible the contributions of women from different countries of the Western hemisphere, reflecting the breadth of Christianity and filling the current gap of silence and knowledge over women’s perspectives, contributions, thinking and ways of doing theology in Abya Yala.

Elsa Tamez is a Mexican theologian and a New Testament biblical scholar. I first encountered Tamez’s work and reflections when I studied theology in Costa Rica at the Latin American Biblical University, where she served as an emeritus professor and was the former rector. Her reflections and analysis resonated and inspired me to continue in my theological studies. Tamez earned her doctorate in theology from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. She specializes in hermeneutics and contextual biblical studies from a woman’s perspective. She has brought critiques and new perspectives to these fields of study. Tamez is now retired and resides in Costa Rica, where she continues to dialogue with the current and next generation of young women theologians.

“Cuando la injusticia se manifiesta en todos los aspectos de la vida de una nación, necesariamente inferimos que las estructuras de violencia están siendo toleradas por las autoridades o por personas influyentes como gobernantes, profetas, sacerdotes y los ricos.”

“When injustice manifests itself in every aspect of a nation’s life, we necessarily infer that the structures of violence are being condoned by the authorities or by influential persons such as rulers, prophets, priests, and the wealthy.”

Emilie Townes is an inspiration in my work as a womanist theologian from a Native perspective in Abya Yala. Townes, a social ethicist theologian from the United States, is a pioneer in womanist theology and its adoption as part of theological education. In womanist theology, the historical and current ideas of U.S. women of African descent highlight Christian theology’s critical engagement and traditions. Townes has developed a keen interest in critical thinking about women’s perspectives on health care, economic justice and literary theory. She is the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Chair in Ethics and Society and distinguished professor of womanist ethics at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School, where she researches women and health in the African diaspora in both Brazil and the United States.

“I don’t think there is anything normal or natural about the way we continue to countenance evil as acceptable.”

Agustina Luvis Núñez inspires the new generation of scholars who do critical theology from a liberation perspective. A Puerto Rican theologian, she actively writes and reflects from a decolonizing perspective, in open dialogue with the work of women doing theology as African descendants. She obtained her doctorate in systematic theology from the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. Her work includes Pentecostalism, Caribbean theology and gender studies. She writes about women and their pastoral work in the church. Luvis is currently dean of the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico. I have been empowered by hearing her journey and how her story has inspired her reflections and articles.

“El lenguaje nunca es neutral. Nuestro idioma puede dar vida y puede causar la muerte. Usar el término ‘ilegales’ para referirse a personas indocumentadas es una táctica que influye en el debate sobre la inmigración y alimenta el odio y la violencia.”

“Language is never neutral. Our language can give life and can cause death. To use the term ‘illegals’ to refer to undocumented people is a tactic that influences the debate on immigration and feeds hatred and violence.”

Sofia Chipana, a Bolivian and Aymara descendant, is a prominent voice of Native theologians in Abya Yala. She is known for bringing ancestral knowledge from the Andes and its people’s reflection on a Native cosmic worldview. Chipana has a degree in theology from the Latin American Biblical University in San José, Costa Rica. Currently, she is studying for a master’s degree in socioreligious studies, gender and diversity at the National University of Costa Rica. Her work is recognized as decolonial and liberational. In her writing she values dignified and sacred living with the earth and respect for all life forms. She also has worked with networks dedicated to theological reflection, knowledge, wisdom and spiritualities. She is a member of the Community of Indigenous Theologians of Abya Yala and the Andean Theological Community, which fosters dialogue among the Andean peoples and beyond.

“En los contextos de pueblos colonizados de Abya Yala, la Biblia ha sido utilizada como instrumento colonizador para enajenar nuestras identidades, avasallar nuestros territorios y confinarnos a vivir como extranjeros/as en nuestras propias tierras.”

“In the contexts of colonized peoples of Abya Yala, the Bible has been used as a colonizing instrument to alienate our identities, subjugate our territories, and confine us to live as foreigners in our own lands.”

Ivone Gebara, a Brazilian theologian and philosopher, heavily influenced my own work as a student at the Universidad Biblica Latin America in Costa Rica. Her foundational work showed how it is possible to build an inclusive community of faith, and she continues to influence my writing and analysis. Gebara denounces violence against nature and connects the natural world and its ideological, anthropological, and mythical relationship with women. She has two doctorates: one in philosophy from the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, and another in religious sciences from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium.

“Para los hombres, el mal es un acto que uno puede deshacer. Pero para las mujeres, el mal está en su propio ser.”

“For men, evil is an act one can undo. But for women, evil is in their very being.”

Virginia Azcuy is an Argentinian theologian who works at the community level to foster participation in projects and programs that promote the voices of women. Azcuy is the founder of Teologanda, a group of Argentinian theologians that promotes research, publications and open spaces for women theologians to share their work. Her theology centers on spirituality that focuses on the dignity of women. Currently, she works in the theology faculty of the UCA as a member of its academic council and has served as the chair of spiritual theology since 2003.

“Si Cristo pobre es el que lleva sobre sí el pecado del mundo, la mujer pobre o que sufre opresión –de algún tipo o más de uno– es su sacramento en la medida que carga sobre su cuerpo con la cruz de la dominación masculina, sexista y étnica.”

“If the poor Christ is the one who bears the sin of the world, the poor woman or woman who suffers from oppression – of some kind or more than one – is his sacrament to the extent that she carries on her body the cross of male, sexist domination and ethnic.”

Maricel Mena, a Colombian of African descent, is a theologian, biblical scholar and researcher. Her work inspires African-descended women in Abya Yala to reflect critically on the diaspora and on women’s role in the community. She has done post doctorate work in feminist hermeneutics for the Superior School of Theology in Brazil. Mena currently serves on the faculty of philosophy and theology at Saint Thomas University and does comparative research on Abrahamic religions. Her work ensures that the full diversity of insightful theological work embraces all the continent.

“La hermenéutica bíblica negra rescata a la mujer negra del rol de pobre, sirvienta y esclava, rol inventado por los estudiosos que formaron el imaginario socio-religioso y la sitúa como protagonista de una historia de lucha y resistencia.”

“The black biblical hermeneutics rescues the black woman from the role of poor, maid, and slave, a role invented by the scholars who formed the socio-religious imaginary and places her as the protagonist of a story of struggle and resistance.”

Luzmila Quezada is a Peruvian theologian who reflects on the role of women in faith communities. She was the first women theologian I encountered in the seminary in Peru, and she encouraged me to continue my studies. She has a doctorate in history and theology at Escola Superior de Teología and holds a master’s degree from the Methodist University of São Paulo, Brazil. She has been dedicated to teaching systematic theology and gender studies. Besides her academic work, Quezada is an ordained pastor of the Wesleyan Church.

“La teología de las mujeres es el resultado de una reflexión crítica que desafía la teología tradicional. Es una teología que parte de la vida cotidiana como respuesta, superando todas las formas de marginación, de exclusión.”

“Women’s doing theology results from a critical reflection that challenges traditional theology. It is a theology that starts from everyday life in response, overcoming all forms of marginalization, exclusion.”

Sandra Arenas is a Chilean Catholic theologian. Her work in ecumenism and ecclesiology inspires me to do ecumenical and ecclesial work and critically reflect on my own work. She received her doctorate in systematic theology from the faculty of theology and religious studies at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. Her specialties are the history and theology of the Second Vatican Council, ecclesiology and ecumenism. She has published individual and collected works in these and related areas, such as the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. Currently she is dean of the faculty of religious sciences and philosophy of the Catholic University of Temuco in Chile.

“La iglesia sinodal implica la inclusión de voces diversas.”

“The synodal church implies the inclusion of diverse voices.”

Violeta Rocha is a theologian and biblical scholar from Nicaragua whose leadership has affected the role of women in the church. She has worked as a professor of New Testament for many years and was the principal in the Biblical Latin American university for a decade, where I took classes with her. She is a laywoman of the Church of the Nazarene. She completed her Master of Theology at the Protestant Institute of France. She has a doctorate in Latin American studies from the National University, Costa Rica.

“Las últimas décadas han mostrado que lo religioso desbordó del ámbito privado para encontrarse una vez con las limitaciones propias de una sociedad que cambia, coyunturas que se agudizan en la que la pobreza, la exclusión y las paradojas son el pan de cada día.”

“The last decades have shown that the religious overflowed from the private sphere to find itself once with the limitations of a changing society, situations that are becoming more acute reality in which poverty, exclusion and paradoxes are everyday bread.”

Indisputably, women in the theological world have made incredible contributions. Women write and practice their faith in their communities and local congregations, their reflection answers everyday questions for many women in the church and society. These women theologians from Abya Yala are a source of inspiration and theological thought from a womanist, feminist and biblical perspective. Their contributions mark a new time for the Christian Eurocentric theology to give way to a more contextual theology on the continent.