When the pope made a papal visit to Miami in 1987, delighting Miami’s large Hispanic community, a local enterprising Euro-American shirt-maker decided to capitalize on the event. He made thousands of shirts which in Spanish were suppose to read “I saw the Pope.”
Unfortunately, he didn’t bother to check his quip with those who knew the language. Rather than using the masculine definitive article “el,” the shirt-maker used the feminine definitive article “la.” Hence the shirts instead read, “I saw the Potato.”
The shirt-maker’s mishap is often repeated by churches within the dominant Euro-American culture. Although attempting to reach out to the Hispanics of their community, a lot gets is lost in the translation.
In an age of political correctness, many predominate Anglo churches are scrambling to erase centuries of exclusion by now appearing to be multicultural, making diversity the church buzzword of our time.
Three hundred-year-old German hymns are quickly translated into Spanish and flashed on the overhead screen. Sermons are preached instructing Euroamericans why it is their Christian duty to reach out to their less fortunate Latino/as with the gospel message of salvation. Attempts are made to appear culturally sensitive by offering Taco Bell dinners at the congregational fellowship meal.
I do not question the sincerity of those Euro-American churches who wish to see their congregations better reflect the diversity of humanity. Still, for many, their approach attempts to include Latino/as without necessarily changing the cultural milieu of the congregation.
All too often, when the predominately white, middle-class congregation wrestles with issues of inclusiveness they unwillingly revert to a multicultural facade for the sake of political correctness.
All are welcomed, as long as the church power structures that privilege the predominant Euro-American congregation remain intact.
The underlying meaning of politically correct congregations is that Hispanics can join, as long as they first convert to Euro-Americanism, and respond appreciatively to whichever way their culture gets “translated.”
One of the first challenges faced by the early church dealt with the inclusion of non-Jews. Must these Gentiles convert to Judaism to become Christians? More specifically, do they first need to be circumcised before becoming a follower of Jesus?
Acts 15 records the controversy which took place at Antioch. “Unless you are circumcised in the tradition of Moses, you cannot be saved,” cried out those who came from Judea to disrupt the mission of Paul. Even the most faithful to God can reveal the prejudices lurking in their hearts for Peter too refused to eat with the Gentiles.
This is the same Peter who faced criticism for visiting the home of the Gentile Cornelius, a Roman centurion (Acts 10-11). Still, some time later while in Antioch, when certain men of Jerusalem arrived to insist that Gentiles must first be circumcised before being saved, Peter withheld eating with the uncircumcised Gentiles (Gal. 2:11-14).
The controversy was eventually settled in Jerusalem in favor of the Gentiles. They could become Christians without first having to become Jews.
Nevertheless, the circumcision controversy still exists today. The debate no longer centers on cutting off one’s foreskin. Instead what Hispanics are often called to do is cut off their identity, their culture, the symbols by which they perceive the divine.
In many cases, Latina/os (as well as all other people of color) must first become Euro-American before becoming Christians. They must adopt Euro-American theology, hermeneutics, philosophy, liturgy, politics and most importantly church structures.
They must prove their Christianity by describing their faith in the cultural symbols of the dominant culture. To insist in believing through one’s own Latino/a symbols only proves (like the uncircumcised Gentiles of old) that they are not really believers, and even if they are, it is a more primitive and backward form of faith than that of their Euro-American superiors.
Unfortunately, the Christ presented to these uncircumcised Hispanics is wrapped within Euro-American cultural structures. Christian theology assumes the superiority of Euro-American paradigms and methodologies, even when they directly contradict Hispanic culture and identity.
However, any understanding of faith based on the individualistic characteristic of Euro-Americans will be destined to fail among a people who places greater emphasis on the communal. Latino/as are insisting in perceiving the divine through their own Hispanic eyes. To do otherwise becomes blasphemous for us. But what about the pressure to assimulate to the dominant culture?
Paul’s rather earthy rebuttal is worth noting. He tells those Gentiles who are being hounded to become circumcised so that they may be saved not to be concerned. Specifically, he writes, “I wish that the ones causing you to doubt would castrate themselves” (Gal. 5:12).
What else can I add?
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.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado.