The "Christian-Activist Borderlands" and the Brown Church

Angel was raised in an immigrant Latino community in Santa Ana, California.  He grew up in church and was the leader of his church youth group throughout his high school years.  His working-class parents were elders and deacons, and church provided one of the few social spaces where they were treated with dignity.  As a Chicana/o Studies major at U.C. Berkeley, Angel learned about the many injustices experienced by Latinos in Latin America and the United States over the past 500 years.   He learned about the Spanish Conquest that led to the decimation of 90% of the indigenous population of Central Mexico—more than 20 million people.  He discovered that the conquest was justified by many in religious terms, based upon the belief that God had ordained for the Spanish to slaughter the indigenous people so that they might become converted to Christianity.  

Angel was also taught about the unjust Mexican-American War which led to the violent seizure of half of Mexico and which was justified by Anglo-Americans based upon a belief in “manifest destiny.”  He learned that these same settlers created a segregated American society in which those legally defined as “white” received special socio-economic and political privileges, while Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans were segregated and treated as second-class citizens.  Angel also studied the structural inequalities in education, healthcare, and law which persist to the present-day in many Latino communities and which have their roots in this historic discrimination.   As his “praxis,” Angel got involved with the activist student group MEChA and became a leader in the struggle for undocumented student rights.  

While home for summer break, Angel tried to talk with his pastor about all that he was learning at Berkeley.   He hadn’t gone to church in six months and was struggling to reconcile the faith of his family with what he was learning about the historical abuses of Christianity.  He was also greatly angered by his church’s apathy toward the unjust deportations of millions of undocumented immigrants.  In response, his pastor told him, “Don’t worry about those things.  Those professors and students are liberals.  The ‘gospel’ is about a personal relationship with God and doesn’t have to do with that so-called social justice.”  Unsatisfied with his pastor’s response, Angel walked away from church and declared himself a Marxist.

As reflected in this critical race counterstory, Latina/o millennials who care about faith and justice occupy a “Christian-Activist Borderlands.”   In many institutional religious spaces they feel out of place because their concern for social justice issues is not understood and rejected as “political” and unspiritual.   On the other hand, in the world of Chicana/o Studies and social activism, their faith is usually discouraged or criticized as well.  They are told, “You can’t be a Christian and care about issues of racial and gender justice.  It’s the white man’s religion and it’s a tool of colonization.  It’s racist, classist, and sexist.”  As a result of such hostility, many Latinos keep silent about their faith in activist circles for fear of persecution or ostracization.   Others, like Angel, lose their faith after some struggles.  Some cling tenuously to a personal relationship with God but abandon institutionalized Christianity altogether.  

This negative perspective of Christianity within Chicano/Latino Studies is understandable because it is grounded in centuries of historical and contemporary misrepresentation of the teachings of Jesus.  In a very real sense, the history of Latinos in the Americas is one of systemic racism perpetuated by white individuals claiming to be Christian.  From the Spanish Conquest, to 19th century Manifest Destiny in the United States, to Jim Crow segregation and Operation Wetback, to the present-day evangelical movement that helped elect Donald Trump, many individuals continue to perpetuate the stereotype that Christianity is a racist, classist, and sexist religion. 

This is just half the story, however.  Over the past five centuries, in both Latin America and the United States, Latina/o followers of Jesus have risen up to challenge the most horrific injustices of their day.  They have fought such great evils as the Spanish Conquest and Spanish colonialism, the “sistema de castas,” Manifest Destiny and U.S. settler colonialism in the Southwest, Latin American dictatorships, U.S. imperialism in Central America, the oppression of farmworkers, and the current exploitation and marginalization of undocumented immigrants.  In every instance of racial and social injustice in Latin America and the United States over the centuries,  Latino Christians—both Catholic and Protestant—have arisen to challenge the religious, socio-economic, and political status quo.  Collectively, they may be called the “Brown Church.” 

Next week we'll look at the spiritual praxis of César Chávez as a stirring example of the Brown Church.

Robert Chao Romero


FB:  Jesus for Revolutionaries