European empires no longer have full control over nations in the global south. But a damaging colonial mindset remains, even in some parts of Christianity, a Mexican Dominican theologian told a Portland audience Oct. 16.

“We need to decolonize theologies,” said Father Carlos Mendoza-Alvarez, professor of religious studies at Jesuit-run Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. “God dismantles power.”

Father Mendoza-Alvarez was delivering the annual Collins Lecture sponsored by Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, an organization that includes the Archdiocese of Portland.

Speaking at First United Methodist Church in Southwest Portland, Father Mendoza-Alvarez urged society to move beyond oversimplified colonial and class enmities to the realization that at any moment, anyone can be an oppressor and anyone can be a victim of oppression.

Theology, he said, must recognize the human dignity of all. And though God clearly can bring good out of bad if people bring their suffering to prayer, a theology that overemphasizes suffering and makes it a value can dampen human dignity, he explained.

The priest said his perspective comes from pain in his native Mexico, where more than 33,000 people of all classes were murdered in 2018 and thousands have gone missing. Much of the violence is fueled by drug cartels empowered by the U.S. hunger for narcotics.

As a young friar in the 1990s, Father Mendoza-Alvarez was called upon to minister to the widows and orphans of insurgents in Chiapas killed in battle with Mexican troops. The experience made him want to move beyond words of comfort to explore how the wonderful theology he had been studying in Europe could be put into practice to alleviate human hardship.

Like St. John Paul II in Poland, he became convinced that Christians have a duty to apply the teachings of Jesus to social systems, whether in Gdansk, southern Mexico or the streets of Portland. He urged members of the largely U.S.-born Portland audience to consider their own drive to achieve and evaluate the communal effect of their zeal for success.

To encounter those on the margins, as Pope Francis has asked, it is important for people to honestly assess their own weaknesses, Father Mendoza-Alvarez said.

“Vulnerability is part of our existence. It is important to talk about our wounds. . . . We are all survivors,” he said, explaining that such a realization can have a powerful unifying effect.

Theme of the daylong Ecumenical Ministries summit was “Listening at the margins.”

The Rev. Linda Jaramillo, chair of EMO board of directors, told listeners that the Spanish word encuentro means more than the English word encounter. “Encuentro means the space between us breaks down,” said Rev. Jaramillo. She urged people to view the globe differently, suggesting one of the maps that inverts the usual perspective, bringing South America and Africa to the top.

“Then we can turn ourselves inside out so our hearts will be exposed,” she said.