Feminicide in Ciudad Juarez: A Theological Challenge to the Church

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By Kate Riney

The brutal sexual assault and murder of hundreds of young women near the Texas-Mexico border is an on-going perplexing crisis. In her essay, “Feminicide and the Reinvention of Religious Practice,” Nancy Pineda-Madrid names how gender-based violence in Ciudad Juárez is not only a social issue, a “Mexican problem,” or a crisis of criminal violence, but a critical theological issue for the church today.[1] Feminicide in Ciudad Juárez has prompted a prophetic public response, though largely unnoticed, that speaks to a new kind of soteriology we must take seriously.

Beginning in 1993, young women by the hundreds have gone missing from Juárez. Many corpses with signs of severe sexual torture have been dumped in public spaces; in all cases, the victims have been young, usually poor, brown women.[2] The criminals are unidentified, attacks are unrestrained and met with total impunity, allowing terror and chaos to govern Juárez, while also implicating the government's complicity in the systemic violence.[3] Pineda-Madrid calls this misogyny acted upon women because they are women: “feminicide.” In short, these women are desecrated and executed because of the political, cultural, and global economic structures which normalize violence against women. Women are not valued for their inherent worth or seen as sacred life. Instead, they are resigned to the worth of their bodies, which are barbarically used “to mark territory and demonstrate power” when economically advantageous, politically expedient, or sexually rewarding for the conqueror.[4]

The Ni Una Más (Not One More death campaign) was organized by women in Ciudad Juárez in 2002 to publicly protest the violence and grieve the loss of their daughters, sisters, and friends. The movement consisted of  “organized marches, rituals, protests, and public memorial installations.”[5] In a prophetic act, protesters created a six-foot-tall cross from railroad ties, and carried it through the desert to the streets of Juárez; “they stood against 'Pharaoh's rule' in challenging the imperial power of their circumstance—namely, local, state, and federal government authorities who have refused to take the ritualized sexual torture and widespread serial killing of women seriously.”[6] Through their exodus march they would be seen, they would be heard, and they would mark the loss of the women who had been counted as nothing. Soon, many protesters erected pink crosses at sites where bodies have been found with the name of the victim painted on the crossbar. Others painted telephone and electric poles pink with a black cross: “black for death and pink for the promise of life and youth.”[7]

Why the use of crosses? These pieces of wood were more than a Christian tombstone marker; the bright pink and black cross is a symbol of solidarity with Christ, both in his suffering and in the sacredness of his life. They mark the importance of Christ's two thousand year-old crucifixion for the present day. For today, Juárez's daughters are suffering mass crucifixion. These protesters experience crucifixion as gendered. They invoke God into the human story of on-going suffering and thus, prompt theological questions regarding resurrection and salvation. Juárez's female protestors grasp and demonstrate a highly developed and embodied sense of redemption and soteriology.

Like the women at the empty tomb, these protestors' actions witness to the final reality that God eclipses even the most tragic and unjust death and suffering. God secures hope for a future; the tomb is empty, the cross is bare! Their protest and demand for justice and love is a salvific process, through which they offer a picture of grace and the kingdom of God, while standing for truth and righteousness. They choose to “publicly cry out against death and to cry out for life.”[8] They attempt to prevail over the forces of evil at work, begging God to intervene in the process present in history. They are not developing theology that makes sense, normalcy, or memory of the past, but transforms and redeems it, creating a better future than even the imagination of the past.

These women form a “praxis of salvation” in which human thought and action acts upon the conviction of God's salvific work in the past, present, and future. The exodus and cross symbols enact and represent these realities.[9] While knowing and living through pain and tragedy, these women believe in and look to a resurrected future. Their salvation concept, Pineda-Madrid argues, is not solely personal, encompassing an individual salvation from the bondage of sin and evil, but a whole, social, communal deliverance that embraces the reign of God for the community as well as the individual.

Our task as the church today is to form such a practical and embodied salvific response to gender-based violence. Too often we leave the issues of gender equality, anti-violence, and sacredness of life to politicians, moral commentators, and the criminal justice system. Theologians, pastors, and laypeople alike have a calling–a responsibility–to speak and act on behalf of the preservation, protection, and flourishing of life, however, when confronted with such vast evil and injustice we feel overwhelmed and yield our theology to the secular meaning and culture-makers. Whether the response is political protest, pastoral care, or public commentary, the church has a prophetic voice to steward concerning gender-based violence. The women of Ciudad Juárez offer us an example of a hope and grace-filled response to utter despair that recognizes the immense potential of the cross and resurrection for our present and future. Today's church needs to pick up its cross and follow these women to the empty tomb. Perhaps then we will find a theological response to match the needs of violated women hidden in all corners of the world.

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Nancy Pineda-Madrid. “Feminicide and the Reinvention of Religious Practices,” in
Women, Wisdom, and Witness: Engaging Contexts in Conversation, 61-74. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2012. Ibid., 63. Ibid., 65. Ibid., 65. Ibid., 68. Ibid., 69. Ibid., 70. Ibid., 72. Ibid., 73.

Kate is the managing editor for Tableaux and an anti-trafficking advocate. She is a third-year MDiv student at McAfee in the nonprofit dual-degree track. In her spare time, Kate loves cooking meals for friends, taking in the outdoors and drinking good joe.