Carlos was raised in an immigrant Latino community in Santa Ana, California. He first came to know Jesus when he was a child at a local church in Orange County. As a Chican@ Studies major at UCLA he learned about the many injustices experienced by Latin@s in Latin America and the United States over the past 500 years. He learned about the Spanish Conquest which led to the decimation of 90% of the indigenous population of Central Mexico—more than 20 million people. He learned that the conquest was justified by many (though there were notable exceptions) 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. Carlos 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.” Manifest Destiny was the idea that it was God’s will for Anglo-Saxon Americans to conquer and colonize North America from “sea to shining sea” in order to spread democracy and Protestant Christianity. Carlos 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. Carlos also came to learn about the structural inequalities within education, healthcare, politics, and law, which have their roots in this historic discrimination, and which persist to the present-day. Sadly, Carlos fell away from the faith of his youth because he came to understand that many of the injustices just described were perpetrated by self-professed “Christians.” As a result, he believed that Christianity was a “colonizer’s religion” and that it was a tool of oppression used by white men to perpetuate social, economic, and political hegemony.
Elena, a Chicana single mom, was another student of mine with a similar experience. As part of a faith-based inner city training which we led for students, she confessed her internal wrestling with God: “The need to be a part of urban justice is huge to me. Being a Chicana/o Studies major many injustices have been brought to light for me. I’ll be honest, I have cried many times in class while watching videos or reading books and I have often asked God why…I would like to understand through His words/teachings. [I hope to gain][u]nderstanding and hopefully an answer to the many ‘why’s’ I have. I can cry all I want but my tears won’t bring understanding nor change. I recently started going back to church so I’d like to be surrounded by others who also have faith in Christ.”
Francisco was a student in a small Christian liberal arts college in the Midwest. He came from a mixed-race Guatemalan-Middle Eastern background. Similar to Carlos and Elena, Francisco was passionate about promoting change for the socially marginalized. Being a natural leader, he made the decision in his junior year to run for student body president of his predominantly white Christian campus. Tragically, Francisco’s main opponent, a white male, opposed him on racist grounds. His racially-tinged rallying cry against Francisco was: “don’t vote for Francisco; if you do he will do all these radical things for minorities.” These scare tactics apparently worked because Francisco lost the race. As you can imagine, Francisco was also deeply wounded by the hateful rhetoric which was waged against him. Unfortunately, the hostile racial campus climate did not stop with that election. To make matters worse, the following year one of his professors devoted an entire chapel session (a weekly church gathering on campus with students, faculty, and staff), to challenging the findings of an outstanding Christian book called, Divided By Faith. This path-breaking and well-researched book by professors Michael Emerson (Rice University) and Christian Smith (Notre Dame) examines the different perceptions of white and African American Christians with regards to race. Drawing upon extensive interviews and solid methodology, they found that, although most African American Christians recognize the existence of racism in contemporary U.S. society, most white evangelical Christians do not.
When I met Francisco at an annual meeting of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), he was actually preparing to hold a public debate with his professor! In a unique act of divine providence, Francisco got a chance to meet with author Michael Emerson at that CCDA conference, and Emerson gave him some coaching to prepare him for the debate! Despite this encouraging turn of events, Francisco was quite demoralized when I met him and it took great effort on his part to hold on to his faith and remain enrolled at his Christian college in the face of such racial challenges.
Carlos, Elena, and Francisco have all had their belief in God shaken because of what they’ve learned about history, and because of the present-day misrepresentations of many self-professed followers of Jesus. They’ve learned the hard cold truth that many of the worst acts of oppression against people of color over the past 500 years have been committed by “Christians.” Sadly, they’ve had this message reinforced through encounters with living and breathing Christians who, intentionally and unintentionally, perpetuate racism through their actions. Tragically, they are not alone. Thousands of students in the United States and throughout the world have had the same experience and have lost their faith in Jesus.
I’m sympathetic to this negative perspective of Christianity. For reasons that will be explained in upcoming blogs, I don’t agree with it, but I do understand it. In fact, if I had not had my life totally transformed by Jesus 16 years ago, I’d probably feel the same way. This view of Christianity as a racist, classist, and sexist religion is unfortunately backed up by about 1700 years of historical misrepresentation on the part of many self-proclaimed followers of Jesus. As a person who supports his family as a historian, and as an avid watcher of cable news, I am all too familiar with these kinds of misrepresentations. Almost every day I hear about someone somewhere in the U.S. who claims to be a Christian but who says racist things or publically advocates for some sort of social policy which has a discriminatory impact upon people of color and the poor.
As a historian, however, I know that sincere followers of Jesus have also led some of the most transformative social justice movements of world history. This inspires me and makes me hopeful. I’ve also found an encouraging principle at work in global history: Every time Christianity has been misrepresented to the world as a racist, classist, and sexist religion, sincere followers of Jesus have forcefully challenged the misrepresentation and declared emphatically that God is a God of justice and compassion. Just as important, they have acted upon these convictions and changed the world. An important aim of this blog is to highlight some of my Christian heroes who have championed racial, socioeconomic, and gender justice over the past 2,000 years.
This blog is for Carlos, Elena, Francisco, and the thousands of students and individuals of conscience like them who have never received a proper introduction to Jesus, the Ultimate Revolutionary. This blog is intended to be a manifesto and concise manual for them and the many others who care passionately about issues of race and justice, but do not know how to reconcile faith with a deep concern for social change. It is also my bold hope that this blog will launch a global student movement of faith, justice, and racial reconciliation.