Clement of Alexandria is reported as saying that “God saved the Jews in a Jewish way, the barbarians in a barbarian way.”
Likewise, God will save Euro-Americans in a Euro-American way and Hispanics in a Latino/Latina way. Nevertheless, there is an insistence by well-meaning progressive Euro-Americans to accept a Christ created in their image so that Hispanics can be saved in a Euro-American way. This is problematic.
The question that Latinos/Latinas must ask themselves is if the Jesus of the dominant Euro-American culture is the same Christ who can provide Hispanics with a salvific gospel of liberation based on how he lived his life, by the actions he undertook, and by the words he preached as a reflection of those actions.
Unfortunately, the answer is no. The Euro-American Christ has historically been used (or muted) to divinely justify societal actions that have contributed to the marginalization of Hispanics. The Euro-American Jesus is the Christ of President James K. Polk who, following the quasi-religious ideology of Manifest Destiny, led the United States in the military conquest of northern Mexico.
The Euro-American Jesus is the Christ of Theodore Roosevelt, who instigated a “gun boat” diplomacy that denied Latin American nations of their sovereignty and provided U.S. corporations the freedom and protection of extracting the cheap labor and natural resources of a people.
The Euro-American Jesus is the Christ of present-day presidents and politicians whose main purpose is the maintenance of U.S. global hegemony.
It really doesn’t matter how progressive Euro-Americans understand Jesus or how liberally they attempt to interpret his words.
As long as Latinos/Latinas bow their knees to a Christ who is silent about what it means to live at the margins of Euro-American power and privilege, and as long as this Christ refuses to motivate action among Euro-American churches to speak out about the marginalization faced throughout the barrios of this nation, and as long as this Christ does not elicit Euro-Americans to stand in solidarity with the thousands who die in Arizona’s Sonora desert because of unjust immigration laws, then those Hispanics insisting on worshipping the Christ that looks and acts like the dominant culture would, in fact, be worshipping the symbolic cause of their oppression.
This is more than simply worshipping a Jesus that looks Hispanic, whatever looking Hispanic means. We are insisting on worshipping a Christ that understands what it means to be Hispanic and thus has something important to say to the marginalized, a message indecipherable to those accustomed to their power and privilege.
In order to sever the link between power and disenfranchisement, between privilege and marginality, Christ must be recognized as ontologically Hispanic. Just as Euro-Americans have for centuries worshipped a Christ in their own image, it becomes significant for Latinas/Latinos to see the Divine as an ethnic Hispanic.
Why? Because the white Christ of Euro-American history has been the Christ who justified the historical reality of colonialism, slavery, racism and oppression. It was in the name of this white Christ, the Christ who symbolized the protection of white Christian civilization from so-called Hispanic inferiority, that the marginalization of Hispanics became normalized and legitimatized in the eyes of white America.
Christ’s Latino-ness is not due to some simplistic attempt to be “politically correct,” nor to some psychological need existing among Latinas/Latinos to see the Divine through their own cultural signs. Jesus is Hispanic because the biblical witness of God is of one who takes sides with the least among us against those who oppress them.
In a white racist America, Hispanics, along with other communities of color, were the ones being oppressed, the ones who were hungry, thirsty, cast out, naked, afflicted and incarcerated.
The white Eurocentric Christ is not only detrimental for Hispanics, but also impotent in bringing salvation for Euro-Americans. In the famous biblical parable of the sheep and the goats as recorded in Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus divides those destined for glory (the sheep) from those destined for damnation (the goats).
The salvation of those with power and privilege is contingent upon how they treated those who were starving, thirsty, aliens, unclothed, ill and imprisoned. Usually, Hispanics occupy this space. The dominant culture finds its life (salvation), when it struggles along with those who are oppressed by attempting to alleviate, if not eliminate, the structures which cause death.
Crucial to the understanding of this passage is the radical revelation made by Jesus. He ends the parable by stating (Matthew 25:45): “Then [the Lord] will answer [the condemned], saying, ‘Truly I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do for one of these, the least, neither did you do it to me.'” To “see” Jesus within U.S. history is to see him within God’s crucified people, those oppressed by structural racism and ethnic discrimination.
Not only is the Latina/Latino Christ salvific for Hispanics, but also salvific for Euro-Americans. As Euro-Americans attempt to base their theology and ethics on a “thick” Jesus, it is crucial to ask: Who is this Jesus they want to thicken? If the answer is the same Eurocentric Christ of the dominant culture that is responsible for spiritually justifying much of the oppressive structures faced by Hispanics and other non-white groups, then Euro-Americans are at risk of worshipping a false messiah with no ability to save or redeem them, or anyone else for that matter.
For the sake of their own salvation, Euro-Americans must put away their Euro-American Christ, whether he be “thin” or “thick,” and learn to walk in solidarity with the Christ of the oppressed and the people with whom Christ identified in the parable of the sheep and the goats.
Professor of Social Ethics and Latinx Studies at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, and a contributing correspondent at Good Faith Media.