The work of Luis León in recent years has proven to be signally important in fostering a discourse of ethno-“spirituality” as the linchpin of a genuine Latino political theology.
León’s The Political Spirituality of Cesar Chavez extends the concept of religious poetics he introduced in La Llorona’s Children, offering a “case study” with the mythical persona of Chavez. He argues: “through myth and ritual performance, Chavez scripted a political spirituality and a spiritual mestizaje that transmuted La Causa into a religious movement; this is what I call religious poetics” (12).
More pointedly, by the end of his book he claims, “Chavez’s ethics and philosophy speak to the current state of emergency in the United States and globally: the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the spiritual line” (176). His multidisciplinary method and idea of religious poetics are discursively helpful for political theological discussions.
Of course, in the quotation above, León is echoing Dubois’s historically pregnant statement in The Souls of Black Folk that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” In focusing on Cesar Chavez’s spirituality in addition to his status in civic religion, León’s argument obscures the clean-cut boundaries between religion, the state, and politics in ways that are not merely nostalgic for static and transcendent notions of religion that David Chidester has effectively located as the drama of late nineteenth century colonialism. He implicitly critiques the Habermasian idea that secular must “translate” religious ideas into secular while simultaneously accomplishing the liberal work Habermas calls for.
“Chavez went further than poesis,” León writes, “he announced his political agenda and mapped a direct revolutionary plan. He deployed homiletics as a rhetorical method of organizing – that is, as political speech” (29). León takes the term ‘political spirituality’ from Michel Foucault’s heuristic of the ‘spiritual’ as “that which precisely refers to a subject acceding to a certain mode of being and to the transformations which the subject must make of himself in order to accede to this mode of being. I believe that, in ancient spirituality, there was identity or almost so between spirituality and philosophy” (11).
He then combines Foucault with Theresa Delgadillo’s concept of “spiritual mestizaje,” as “a transformative renewal of one’s relationship to the sacred through a radical and sustained multimodal, self-reflexive critique of oppression in all its manifestations and a creative and engaged participation in shaping life that honors the sacred.”
León focuses on excavating the myth of Cesar Chavez, rather than attempting a concrete history. He says, “By myth I mean narratives that make truth claims, establishing worldviews and identities not verifiable by historical, modern, or scientific methods” (13). In a sense, his argument is similar to William Cavanaugh’s claim in The Myth of Religious Violence that “a story takes on the status of myth when it becomes unquestioned. It becomes very difficult to think outside the paradigm that the myth establishes and reflects because myth and reality become mutually reinforcing” (6). León’s focus on Chavez accomplishes this difficult task.
León’s work focuses on the making of mythic status with respect to transnational and borderlands cultures, invoking the Nahuatl term neplanta as used by Gloria Anzaldúa. León’s tracking of poetics in-the-making is echoed in the work of other scholars of Latin@ religious cultures such as Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesus’ Electric Santería and Desirée A. Martín’s Borderlands Saints. Hybridizing literary, historical, anthropological, and religious studies scholarship, these scholars indeed point to the rigorous nature of working on religion in the twenty-first century.
They also offer an important reactive stance in relation to Cavanaugh’s claim that “religion-and-violence arguments serve a particular need for their consumers in the West” (4). Cavanaugh’s argument focuses on the competition between nation-states and religion over sacrificial violence.
Tracing a history of racializing discourse along with the development of nation-states, León’s study of Chavez offers insight into reclaiming spirituality from the taxonomic divisions of Enlightenment modernity. Focusing on Chavez’s critique of machismo masculinity – a critique echoed in Chicano literature more broadly – and his openness to gay and lesbian sexual identities, León argues that while Chavez the man may have been imperfect, his spiritual poetics offer us an ethical imago for a more inclusive society.
In a broader view of poetics, however, León is echoing an argument made by Sir Philip Sidney in his Defense of Poesy around 1580. For Sidney, “the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.” As Pelagia Goulimari summarizes his conclusion, “In The Defence of Poesy the thread of poetry as invention or creation is interwoven with a second important new thread. This is the thread of poetry’s force and authority, and it emerges out of conventional material […] Sidney’s Plotinian argument at this point is that poetry alone illuminates the incorporeal” (68-69).
A strictly secularist narrative of humanism misses the transference of authority through poiesis, as Victoria Kahn’s The Future of Illusion illuminates with respect to the motivations of twentieth century intellectuals who returned to Renaissance poetics in times of crisis. While I am encouraged by León’s and other scholars’ use of poetics to track emergent myths and the broadening of political theology beyond religio, we do well to attend to Fortuna’s force which drives virtue.
León’s tracking of Cesar Chavez’s critique of masculinity is all the more important here because of Chavez’s recognition that the force that unites – perhaps what Carl Raschke calls Force of God after Derrida’s “Force of Law” – is a power beyond gender, a power harnessed by Empire for producing categories of gender, race, religion, etc.
If León is as accurate in his conclusion as Dubois was in The Souls of Black Folk – and I believe he is – we ought to indeed attend more deeply to Cesar Chavez’s ability to harness such force outside the State and in-between categories of Protestantism and Catholicism and Pentecostalism and citizen and non-citizen and gender hierarchy. Certainly, the idea of religious poetics is a helpful tool in thinking about political theology today.
Roger Green, PhD, is a Lecturer in English who teaches composition and rhetoric at Metropolitan State University in Colorado. His recent professional work brings political theology into conversation with the field of aesthetics. He is the author of “Aldous Huxley, in the Aldous Huxley Annual: A Journal of Twentieth-Century Thought and Beyond (Ed. Bernfried Nugel and Jerome Meckier (vol. 14, 2014 / 2015) and several other related articles. In 2011 he received a certificate from the Cornell School of Criticism for the work he did with political theorist Victoria Kahn. He is also a performing musician and a composer.