Decolonizing Theology: The Case of Puerto Rico


[1] An article recently published by Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan[1] in the Huffington Post raised once again what for the people of Puerto Rico have been an ongoing dispute of more than a century with the United States regarding its sovereignty. The article claims that two recent incidents first, the Supreme Court’s decision in Puerto Rico vs Sanchez Valle, and second, the US Federal Control Board approved by Congress known in full as Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA), make evident the persistent and impenitent display of supremacy and influence of colonialism. These two instances clearly show, the author argues, that “all branches of the federal government have made it explicitly clear that in case you believed otherwise, Puerto Rico is in fact a colony of the United States, despite colonialism being illegal and immoral.”[2]

[2] The irony of this condition lies in the reality that, while the General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) of the United Nations declares granting independence to colonial countries and people stating that “subjugation and domination of a people by a foreign nation violates their fundamental human rights and the United Nations Charter;” the United Nations Special Committee on the Situation with regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples continues to affirm in its resolutions each year (as it has done in 33 independent previous resolutions), the right of the people of Puerto Rico to self-determination.[3]

[3] In 2010, an ecumenical representation of religious leaders and social activists in Puerto Rico gathered in an organization by the name, Mesa de Diálogo Martin Luther King, Jr. to facilitate a conversation on the legacy of Dr. King and its relevance to the challenges faced by Puerto Ricans in the island.[4] On October 6, 2012, the group met at the Seminario Evangélico de Puerto Rico to explore the church’s responsibility in the decolonizing process of Puerto Rico.[5] A number of presentations were made by secular and religious figures on the topic. In this article I will focus on the biblical, theological and ecclesiological dimensions explored by some of the main speakers.

Biblical Foundations

[4] Luis N. Rivera Pagán, one of the main religious figures at the event began his presentation by asserting the relevance of the Christian faith in responding to the challenges of empires, colonial settings, and liberation struggles. For him, all the crucial historical incidents reported in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures take place in the context of an imperial conquering power whether it is called Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Babylon, Macedonia, or Rome. It seems practically impossible to avoid the ubiquitous presence of imperial conquests that seriously challenge the survival of the people of Israel, or the small Christian community in the Bible. From the chronicle of Exodus, to the apocalyptic and anti-Roman visions of the last book in the New Testament canon, only a hermeneutical strategy of evasion could disregard the importance of imperial hegemonies and the hope for liberation of those oppressed by them. How could one overlook that the first great biblical narrative is the liberation of a people captive by the imperial Egyptian oppression; and that the representative of the Roman Empire was the one who determined the torment and crucifixion of Jesus?[6]

Theological Foundations

[5] From a theological perspective, Dr. Jorge L. Bardeguez emphasized his conviction on the power of Latin America liberation theology as the ground for developing a decolonizing theology in Puerto Rico.[7] From the liberation of the cosmic chaos described in Genesis, to the liberation of the socio-political chaos in the book of Revelation, the God of the Bible rather than being a pantocrator legitimating oppressive forces manifests of Self as liberator. While cosmic liberation always takes place through historical mediations such as the experience of Exodus, a comprehensive expression of liberation was exhibited by the preexistent Christ who made himself a reality through the incarnation and crucifixion of the Son of Man in Palestine, the Roman colony.

[6] In the Old Testament God is the Goel (redeemer, liberator) of the orphan and the widow, God defends their cause (Proverbs 23:11; Jeremiah 50:34, Isaiah). God is the faithful protector that never fails. This is supported by the fact that the liberation of Israel from its enslavement in Egypt through the Exodus coincides with its establishment as the People of God. From there on, all other acts of liberation are a confirmation of that liberating and foundational experience. In the New Testament God’s actions in Christ are acts of liberation (Luke 4:16-30) by which God’s glory is historically mediated through the proclamation of the “Good News” to the poor and the respective “bad news” to the powerful. The reality of Jesus as the liberator in our case―the struggle for decolonization―is affirmed from the very beginning by the significance of his Hebrew name: Jeshua, which means God will save, or as Philo used to say, “the salvation of the Lord.”[8] The parallelism between the Joshua that directed the ancient Israel through the Jordan to the Promised Land and the Lord Jesus who brought the new Israel through the baptismal waters to their celestial heritage was surely recognized by the Fathers of the church. Furthermore, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead becomes the fulfillment of our liberation from the kingdom of death. To be sure, Christ’s resurrection becomes God’s most powerful insurrectional act against death and all its historical mediations. God’s reign and sovereignty is confirmed by the continuous exodus of the poor and destitute from their enslavement to become a “people” (1Peter 2: 9-10, 1Corinthians 1: 26-30), that is, from exodus to their true and full liberty.

Ecclesiological Foundations

[6] At the 2012 meeting held by the Mesa de Diálogo Martin Luther King, Jr. already mentioned, a resolution was approved to build on the proposal made in 1981 by Francisco Reus Froilán, then Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Puerto Rico (1964-1989), regarding the colonial status of the island of Puerto Rico. In his prophetic formulation Reus Froilán challenged not only Christian communities in Puerto Rico but also our brothers and sisters in the United States and all over the world, to support resolution 1514 (XV) of the General Assembly of the United Nations denouncing the colonial status of Puerto Rico. He added a need to request from the Congress of the United States, even unilaterally if considered necessary, to put an end to this colonial condition. The development of a decolonizing theology in light of the bitter colonial experience is a condition that Puerto Rico shares with many other countries all over the world. Up until now, our theological reflection has been forcibly imported from the northern and industrialized countries. Such theological perspective is based in the encounter between the believer and non-believer. Our particular context is defined by the encounter between the oppressor and the oppressed. Therefore, our task is to forge a theological perspective and witness from the framework of the dispossessed and in solidarity with them.[9]

Final words

[7] In June 17, 2013 Rev. Heriberto Martínez, Secretary General of the Puerto Rican Bible Society presented to the United Nations’ Special Committee for Decolonization a position statement generated by an Ecumenical and Interreligious Coalition of Puerto Rico, in which one of the co-signers was the Caribbean Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In the statement the signers shared the tragic consequences of the pervasive colonial condition of Puerto Rico and requested, based on the same principles and values stated by the founding fathers of the United States of America in their declaration of independence, a final resolution of the centennial and immoral condition of colonialism to which Puerto Rico has been subjected. The statement ends with a reference to a biblical narrative expressing the present and intense outcry found in the deepest part of the Puerto Rican soul. The narrative describes the moment in which Moses and Aaron facing the Egyptian Pharaoh declare: This is what the Lord, the God of Israel says: ‘Let my people go.’ (Exodus 5:1).

[9] While the condition of colonialism has not yet found resolution in the island of Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans in the island and abroad, as well as people of faith in God’s liberating promise all over the world continue to move forward in our mission and liberating witness of faith claiming: “Let my people go.”


[1] Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan is a human rights lawyer who works on the intersection of racial and gender justice in both domestic and international contexts. She has advocated before international and regional human rights bodies on issues including sexual violence in armed conflict, femicide, reproductive rights violations, hate crimes, as well as human rights violations in Vieques, Puerto Rico. As Associate Counsel at Latino Justice PRLDEF, a national civil rights organization, she works with low-wage Latina immigrant workers seeking workplace justice and fair labor conditions and addresses the discriminatory targeting of Latinos in the criminal justice system. Natasha clerked for the Hon. Ronald L. Ellis in the Southern District of New York and previously worked at the Center for Reproductive Rights. She graduated from CUNY School of Law, where she was Editor-in-Chief of the CUNY Law Review, and also holds a M.P.A. from New York University. In addition to serving as President of the National Lawyers Guild, she co-chairs the NLG Subcommittee on Puerto Rico. Natasha has authored several articles on gender and human rights. See,


[3] Ibid.

[4] In 1962, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited the island of Puerto Rico. In his various public lectures, he addressed the topics of Racism, Freedom, and Decolonization.

[5] The main lectures and proceedings of this event were later published in the book edited by Luis N. Rivera Pagán, Fe Cristiana y Decolonization de Puerto Rico (Cayey: Mariana Editores, 2013).

[6] Luis N. Rivera Pagán, “Prólogo,” in Fe Cristiana y Descolonización de Puerto Rico, 12-13. To reinforce a biblical foundation leading to a decolonizing liberating ministerial praxis for the context of Puerto Rico, Rivera Pagán introduced a valuable exegetical and theological reflection on the biblical notion of Jubilee. See, Ibid, 41-61.

[7] Jorge L. Bardeguez, “La Teología de la liberación: Una declaración personal,” in Fe Cristiana y Descolonización de Puerto Rico, 27-40. In his presentation, Dr. Bardeguez also mentioned the increasing recognition and appropriation of liberation theology by European theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann and Johan Baptist Metz in their own context. See, Ibid, 29.

[8] In addition, the concept the church of Mathew had of Jesus’ person and mission, “he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21) corresponds to this assumption. Ibid, 32.

[9] Francisco Reus Froilán, “El papel histórico de las iglesias en la autodeterminación de Puerto Rico,” in Fe Cristiana y descolonización de Puerto Rico, 17-25. Reus Froilán’s proposal covered many other recommendations. The same can be said by other speakers at the event. However, given the proposed length of this article we need to limit our report of these recommendations.

José D. Rodríguez

José D. Rodríguez​​ is the Augustana Heritage Chair of Global Mission and World Christianity at the Lutheran School of Theology Chicago.​