Brown Theology: “The Spiritual Borderlands”
Chican@s and Latin@s who care about faith occupy a “spiritual borderlands.” In institutional religious spaces we often feel out of place because our heart for race and social justice issues is not understood. When we share our concerns about issues of educational equity or comprehensive immigration reform we are met with blank stares or even out right opposition. We are told, “those are political issues which are separate from faith.” As a result, we often walk away from church and formal religious institutions. We may cling tenuously to a personal faith, but our activism becomes divorced from institutional Christianity.
In the world of Chican@ Studies, Latin@ Studies, and activism our faith is usually discouraged or criticized as well. We 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.” I have heard numerous stories of Latin@s who have become hurt and wounded because of hostility to their faith in activist and classroom settings. I remember vividly one doctoral student of education who cried when she met me because she felt so persecuted for her faith in the classroom; I remember meeting another Chicana student who was experiencing clinical depression because of this tension between the faith of her youth and what she was being taught at her elite educational institution. As a result of such negative experiences, many Latinas/os keep silent about their faith in activist circles for fear of persecution or ostracization. Others lose their faith. Some tenuously cling to a personal relationship with God but abandon institutionalized Christianity altogether.
This negative perspective of religion within Ethnic Studies is understandable. It is grounded in centuries of historical and contemporary misrepresentation of the teachings of Jesus. In a very real sense, the history of Latino descent peoples in Latin America and the United States 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 Operation Wetback of the 1950’s, to the present day Tea Party movement, many individuals continue to perpetuate the stereotype that Christianity is a racist, classist, and sexist religion. And so, understandably, the Chicana/o movement continues to reject Christianity as part of its party platform.
There are a number of harmful consequences that result, however, from the rejection of Christianity in Chicana/o Studies and Latin@ Studies:
First, thousands of students experience severe emotional damage. A common trajectory is that Latino students learn about faith from their family. In the words of Latino theologian Virgilio Elizondo, we are raised in “Abuelita Theology” and come to know God through our families, mothers, and grandmothers. We then come to the university and learn about systemic injustice; we get exposed to negative perspectives of Christianity in our classes and in activist circles; this leads us into a a period of deep spiritual and emotional wrestling. We are forced to choose between Faith and Activism; between our families and the disciplines of Chican@ Studies and Latin@ Studies; between being Chican@, Latin@ and a person of faith. Deep emotional turmoil, even depression, is the result.
Another consequence is that thousands of potential students are unnecessarily turned off to the disciplines Chican@ and Latin@ Studies. If asked to choose between becoming a Chican@ Studies major and their family’s religion, they reject Chicano Studies. I can understand this decision, and it keeps thousands of Chicanos and Latinos from coming to study Chican@ and Latin@ Studies at the university.
A third painful consequence is that objective research about faith and activism, and the role of faith in Chicano/Latino communities is squelched.
Although the founding documented of the Chican@ movement, El Plan de Aztlan, asserts freedom of religious expression within its membership, Chican@s of Christian background have been historically marginalized from the academic discipline of Chican@ Studies. Microaggressions against Christianity and Christian Chicanos is common in the context of various academic settings, including the classroom, disciplinary conferences, and faculty gatherings. In its most insidious forms, such microaggressions take the form of viewpoint discrimination and violate highly held principles of academic freedom.
Because of the inherent bias against Christianity in Chican@ Studies and Latin@ Studies, the objective study of religion is squelched despite the fact that faith is central to our families and communities and has been key source of community organizing for centuries. Although Latinos are transforming the landscape of religion in the U.S., Chican@ scholarship on this topic is severely lacking.
About a third of all Catholics in the U.S. are Latino; this will continue to increase. Latino Catholicism is distinctive and will bring about significant changes to the Catholic Church in the U.S. About one half of Latino Catholics identify themselves as charismatic vs. 1/8 of non-Latino Catholics. Pope Francis, our first Latino, and Liberationist Pope, is transforming the global landscape of Christianity.
With respect to Protestantism, we find similar things. More than ½ of Latinos identify with the charismatic practice of religion. Nearly 1 in 4 Latino adults in the United States are former Catholics, and 25% of Latinos are Protestant of some stripe or variety (PEW: “The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos ”).
The rejection of Christianity by Chican@ and Latin@ Studies is regrettable because it ignores not only the contemporary religious landscape of the Latino community, but also the central role that Christianity has played in social justice movements among Latinos in Latin America and the United States. From Bartolomé de las Casas, to César Chávez, to the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980’s, to contemporary organizing among undocumented Latinos, faith has been at the center. Despite the central role played by faith in the life of César Chávez and the broader Chican@ civil rights movement, the role of religion as a motivating factor for social change has been largely neglected by the fields of Chican@ and Latin@ Studies.
With few notable exceptions, including the important work of Professors Mario Garcia, Lara Medina, Felipe Hinojosa, Elisa Facio, Irene Lara, and Luis Leon scholarly examinations of the role of religion in the Chican@ movement are few and far between.
For example, a review of all publications from Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Studies from 1970 to 2014, revealed very few articles directly dealing with religion as the main topic of examination. Some articles mentioned religion, but very few focused exclusively on the subject. A significant number discussed religion with a negative connotation. Several essays called for a reclaiming of indigenous spirituality and the rejection of Christianity as a western religion. None offered an objective discussion of the positive role played by Christianity in the Latin@ community over the past 500 years.
Curricular offerings on the role of religion in Chicana/o communities is also quite limited. In my own department of Chican@ Studies, only one permanent course offering exists with respect to religion.
Community Cultural Wealth: Latin@ Spiritual Capital
Critical Race Theory scholars Tara Yosso and Danny Solorzano developed the concept of Community Cultural Wealth in the context of urban educational studies. Instead of approaching Latino educational achievement in terms of “cultural deficit” models which depict Latino students as deficient in so far as they are unlike white suburban students, Yosso and Solorzano argue that scholarly analysis should begin with an understanding of the unique community cultural wealth possessed by Chicanos/Latinos. Building upon this approach, Lindsay Perez Huber found that “spiritual capital” was a major component of the community cultural wealth of undocumented student activists. Her interviews with “Dreamers” revealed that faith served as critical “spiritual capital” for their educational success.
Drawing upon the important theories of my colleagues Yosso, Solorzano, and Perez Huber, I assert that Spiritual Capital has served as a crucial component of Latin@ community cultural wealth from Latin American colonial times to the present. From Guaman Poma de Ayala (whose artwork is featured in this blog post), Garcilaso de la Vega el Inca, and Las Casas, to the iconic civil rights movement of César Chávez, to the sanctuary movement of the 1980’s, and the contemporary immigration reform movement, spiritual capital has been a central component of Latin@ community cultural wealth. As such, it merits significant study within the fields of Chican@ and Latin@ Studies.
The “Brown Church” and “Brown Theology”
It is my contention that these many Latin@ Christian social justice pioneers and advocates over the past 500 years form what may be called The Brown Church. In In every instance of racial and social injustice in Latin America and the United States over the centuries, the Brown Church has arisen to challenge the religious, socio-economic, and political status quo. Collectively, the Brown Church has challenged 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. The Brown Church has done all of this in the Name of Jesus. It’s also worth noting that the Brown Church has been comprised of an ecumenical body of both Roman Catholic and Protestant followers of Christ.
As a natural outgrowth of its prophetic advocacy efforts, the Brown Church has developed a unique, consistent, and systematic body of theology based upon the Christian Scriptures. I call this Brown Theology. In the months ahead, this blog series will chronicle the history of Brown Theology. But, to start, Brown Theologians over the centuries have highlighted the holistic and comprehensive nature of the Kingdom of God and of Christian salvation. This might be called Brown soteriology.
Brown Theology rejects the narrow presentation of Christianity as eternal “fire insurance” which leaves most of life untouched by God’s love and redemption. According to this narrow conception of Christianity which has been around since colonial times, we believe in Jesus so that we can be forgiven and so that we can go to Heaven after we die. This is the narrow version of Christianity presented in a twisted way by many Spaniards during the conquest of the Americas: “It’s ok for us to decimate and enslave millions of ‘Indians’ and thousands of African slaves because we are saving their souls by sharing Christianity with them. Without us they’d just go to hell.”
Brown Theologians throughout the centuries— including, Francisco de Vitoria, Bartolome de las Casas, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Cesar Chavez, Virgilio Elizondo, and Justo Gonzalez to name a few—have challenged this narrow and unbiblical view of the Gospel and have proclaimed that Jesus came to save, redeem, and transform every aspect of our lives and the world. His salvation extends over all of God’s good creation which has become twisted and corrupted as a consequence of sin. This includes everything messed up and broken in our world–whether personal, familial, social, or global. It includes our personal emotional brokenness and dysfunctional family relationships, poverty, racism, slavery, human trafficking, oppression of immigrants, warfare, lack of clean water, AIDS, gang violence, and lack of educational opportunity. No aspect of life is untouched by the love and redemption of Jesus!
Jesus’ salvation also encompasses our fractured human family. Because we have turned our backs against God, we have also turned our backs against each other. Women and men are separated by sexism and machismo; ethnic groups are divided by selfishness, materialism, and pride; fair skin Latinos look down upon brown and black Latinos; multi-cultural individuals are divided against others because of the social construction of race; and, the so-called documented are divided against those without papers because our country desires cheap labor but does not want to recognize the full humanity of immigrants; Jesus came to reconcile all human beings to Himself and to one another.
Thank you for taking the time to journey with me through this first in a series of essays about Brown Theology. Please write to me and let me know your thoughts. My prayer is that, over the next year, we might come together to learn, shape, and define the meaning of “Brown Theology.” I can't do it alone. As other Brown Theologians have said, any work in Latin@ theology is, of necessity, “teología en conjunto.”
Robert Chao Romero