DECOLONIZING CHRISTIANITY: Becoming Badass Believers. By Miguel A. De La Torre. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2021. 232 pages.
I will confess up front that Miguel De La Torre’s latest book made me uncomfortable. That probably means I’m not a “Badass Believer,” but I’m willing to listen. Listening isn’t easy if you are, like me, a white male straight highly educated reasonably well-off Christian. The discomfort one feels reading the book is rooted in De La Torre’s unrelenting critique (that is to put it nicely) of white Christianity, which presumably includes me. This word about “decolonizing Christianity” pushes buttons, but here’s the thing, De La Torre isn’t really speaking to me, at least not directly. That is, he knows I’m listening in, but his true audience, the badass believers, are Christians of color. In this book, De La Torre invites them to speak their minds, and not hold back (understanding that white Christians are there in the audience).
Decolonizing Christianity is a follow-up book to De La Torre’s earlier book: Burying White Privilege: Resurrecting a Badass Christianity. I didn’t read the book, but according to the author, the earlier book received mixed reviews. Some readers appreciated the candor, but others pushed back. Some critics even demonized the author. As I said, I didn’t read it, so I can’t speak to its contents. But for those of us who enjoy white privilege reading a book that seeks to bury it might lead to pushback.
Though I didn’t read the earlier book, I did read the sequel. Whatever the earlier criticism of the book, that doesn’t stop him from reiterating the message. So, here he does his best to hold the feet of white supremacy to the fire. Now, De La Torre, who is a professor of social ethics and Latinx studies at Iliff School of Theology and author of a number of books, knows that white Christians are not monolithic. But that’s not the point. By painting in broad strokes, he can make clear the concerns/complaints of persons of color who have suffered under white supremacy. He doesn’t feel any compulsion to let us off the hook or offer us a solution. That’s for us to discover. Thus, what we have here is a strongly worded prophetic statement calling for Christians of color to decolonize their minds, that is, set themselves free from the message drummed into them by white supremacist Christianity.
Written in late spring of 2020 when COVID was in its early stages — little did he know that the pandemic would be showing no signs of going away as we begin the year 2022. When the book was written, the nation was early in an election season that has turned the country upside down. Thus, when the book was written De La Torre didn’t know whether Donald Trump would win reelection or if a Democrat won, who that person might be. While Trump lost, Trumpism continues to stand at the center of the national conversation. The fact is, an overwhelming number of white Christians, even mainline Christians, voted for Trump. We’re still living with the aftermath as he won’t go away, and white Christianity continues to degenerate as a result.
Having laid out why he wrote the book in answer to his critics, he writes in chapter 2 about “the day of judgment.” Here he calls white Christianity to account. That is, he takes white Christianity to court to examine how white Christianity helped erect and undergird a system in which white Christianity is deemed superior to all others. A belief system that has led to the oppression of those who are not white. Part of this conversation deals with revealing the fear among many white Christians that they are losing power and even heading toward becoming a minority. In other words, they fear a reversal of fortunes. That is why Trump has been hailed as a hedge against this threat symbolized by the election and reelection of a black President.
Having laid out the charges against white supremacist Christianity that is epitomized by Donald Trump, in chapter 3, which is titled “Accompanying the Least of These,” De La Torre asks questions about the relationship of white Christians, especially white liberals, with those who have been marginalized. He explores biblical texts dealing with the “least of these” and proposed solutions, including “color-blindness.” As you might expect he calls these solutions into question. He reminds us that racism isn’t individualized prejudice or even ethnic discrimination. No, it is “the institutionalization of uneven power relationships based on ethnicity or skin pigmentation” (p. 104). As we’re seeing, there is a lot of unease in the white community regarding raising questions about systems. We may be well-meaning in our personal relationships but are we complicit in the systems? The truth is, we are. So, De La Torre, who confesses his own privilege as a straight male, needs to make use of our privilege to dismantle these structures.
All of this leads to a more apocalyptic conversation in chapter 4. By that De La Torre speaks of the future and how we deal with the fear and hatred running rampant in the nation. He asks us to consider how healing can take place if we continue to ignore the realities of our day. Thus, “the tenets of nationalist Christianity need to be slain.” The form this has taken is embodied by the proclamation that Donald Trump is a modern-day King Cyrus, anointed by God, to defend and liberate oppressed white Christians. He notes that the reason Christians have hailed him as King Cyrus is that this gives them the rationale to overlook Trump’s lack of Christian virtues. While De La Torre does not believe that a literal Antichrist is set to emerge, as many apocalypticists would suggest, signaling the end of days, Donald Trump does fit with the description of the antichrist found in Revelation 13:1-10. I must say, this section was fascinating, and an important use of this imagery. While this is unsettling, there is in its midst a word of hope. For that is the purpose of apocalyptic visions!
De La Torre concludes the book with a chapter titled “Badass Prophets.” Here he makes use of Jonah as the protagonist. While many of us have used Jonah’s attitude and God’s grace as a signal that some in the Jewish community sought to move away from a narrow ethnocentric religion, a move that is epitomized by God’s forgiveness of the Assyrians. De La Torre takes the image of Jonah in a very different direction. While many of us have envisioned Jonah’s sullen reaction negatively, De La Torre suggests that Jonah has a point. He suggests that “Jonah’s God demands that the disinherited go to the very thieves who stole their basic human rights and dignity to tell them they should seek out salvation.” (p. 160). Shouldn’t there be justice along the way? Should these folks who will conquer eventually conquer Israel be required not only to repent but change their way of living in the world? In other words, Jonah is right in not being ready for reconciliation just yet. So, work must be done, and De La Torre isn’t ready to let us off the hook (by us I mean white Christians, including me). Though he holds the feet of white Christians to the fire, he acknowledges that while he might be a person of color, he is also male, cisgender, and straight. Thus, he has his own realities to deal with. The question is, how will we respond, for we are at a crossroads? Will we follow a path that leads to liberation or retrenchment, protecting our privileges?
As I said, Decolonizing Christianity left me uncomfortable, but then that was its purpose. May we heed the call of the prophets to act justly. If we do so, then Miguel De La Torre will be one of the voices calling us to account.
You can learn more about this book and Miguel De La Torre by listening to his discussion with Brian Kaylor on our Dangerous Dogma podcast:
Robert D. Cornwall is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Now retired from his ministry at Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan, he serves as Minister-at-Large in Troy. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of numerous books including his latest books: Called to Bless: Finding Hope by Reclaiming Our Spiritual Roots (Cascade Books, 2021) and Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, 2nd Edition, (Energion Publications, 2021). His blog Ponderings on a Faith Journey can be found at www.bobcornwall.com.