Teaching Christianity is useless if it is restricted solely to the classroom.
A relationship needs to develop between the disenfranchised and intellectuals aware of the structural crises people of color face. The danger facing scholars is that they can become intellectual elites disconnected from the everyday struggle of the marginalized, having little or no impact upon the community. There should be a three-way connection between the pastoral work done by ministers serving disenfranchised communities, the academic work done by intellectuals and believers within the local marginalized congregation.
These ministers and scholars can learn from the disenfranchised while serving them as organic intellectuals, that is, intellectuals grounded in the social reality of the marginalized.
Thus the scholarship discussed during the academic courses I teach are more pertinent to the larger community than when they are simply confined to a constructed bubble on any academic campus. For example, the community in which my school is located is called Holland, settled by the Dutch in the early 1800s.
Located on Lake Michigan, one finds in Holland wooden-shoe factories, a windmill imported from the Netherlands and a yearly festival called Tulip Time, which attracts over 100,000 visitors during the month of May, all of which celebrate Dutch heritage.
But not all are Dutch. On the underside of Holland, we discover Hispanics who comprise approximately 22.2 percent of the overall population (and if those who were undocumented are counted, the numbers would hover at 30 percent).
Yet in spite of these demographics, our marginalized members are seldom seen walking, shopping, or eating on the same streets frequented by whites, even when Latinos live a few blocks away. It is a town where many from the dominant culture may wish to live in a more just and equitable society, but also find themselves trapped within social structures once created to protect their privilege by masking racism and classism. Consequently, those who are oppressed by these structures, along with those who benefit, are in need of salvation.
To bring about liberation as salvation, Christianity must become a pro-active way of life, rather than merely a doctrinal belief. If simple belief is all that is required for salvation, then complicity with structures which perpetuate oppression is inconsequential to the Christian life. Besides, do
not the demons themselves believe Jesus Christ is Lord of all (Jm 2:19)?
The Christian ethical perspectives from the margins of Holland are crucial toward establishing a more just society. For this reason, my role as a Christian must include participation with the faith community and the overall society.
Most ethicists of color do not write only to express their views in the marketplace of scholarly opinions. They write to give voice to the voiceless–to shout from the mountaintop that which is commonly whispered among disenfranchised people–to put into words what the marginalized are feeling.
No doubt, such writing will usually anger those who are accustomed to viewing their power and privilege as a birthright. Still, at the risk of being misunderstood, the liberation rooted in the gospel message of Jesus Christ must be proclaimed in the hope of bringing those who insist on benefiting from racism, sexism, classism and heterosexism into repentance, and through
Yet, as can be imagined, my implementation of this type of pedagogy in a conservative religious and political environment like Holland, Mich., would lead some to question my sanity, for only a madman would fight insurmountable forces bent on maintaining the status quo. Wouldn’t it be easier to avoid the constant questioning of one’s scholarship and research by those who disagree,
or misconstruing one’s words for the purpose of demonizing. Wouldn’t it be easier to simply conform, and remain silent in the face of racism, classism, sexism and heterosexism?
I confess that the temptation to hide and write De Mi Torre (from my ivory tower), quietly cash my paycheck, and turn my back on the oppression that surrounds me becomes, at times, an attractive and peaceful way to live an idyllic life along a blue lake surrounded by blueberry fields.
As alluring as this might be, I have chosen instead to construct praxis with those of the dominant culture who have a vision for a Holland that provides services and opportunities for all, regardless of their race, gender, class, national origin, sexual orientation or religious affiliation.
As a Christian who recognizes that every individual is endowed with the Imago Dei, the very image of God, I move beyond a faith based on the “right” interpretation of doctrine toward a faith based on the “right” manifestation of Christ’s actions–recognizing that faith without works is dead.
I have little patience for those from the dominant culture who choose to remain blind to the glaring injustices existing within our community. Or for those from the margins unwilling to labor toward justice, choosing instead to protect parochial serfdoms.
For this reason I remain grateful for those from both sides–rich and poor, white and Latino, Christian and non-Christian–who envision a community where the worth and dignity of all its citizens is respected and celebrated.
Miguel De La Torre, a Cuban American, is professor of theologies of liberation at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a former Baptist pastor in Kentucky. His column also appears in the Holland Sentinel.
Order Miguel De La Torre’s book Reading the Bible from the Margins now from Amazon.com
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.