The Latino Church and Racism

August 14, 2021

      Racism is an individual and institutional sin that is evident in various forms and ways in our society, and the Latino church is no stranger to this distortion of the image of God in human beings.  In recent years, a conversation that began in some academic circles in the 1980s and has now found a welcome among grassroots community groups, the mainstream media, elected officials and religious leaders, has re-emerged in the public narrative: what is known as critical race theory, a theoretical conception of society and culture as it relates to the categories of race, law and power.

Racial events in the United States over the past few decades have heightened awareness that the public policy issues of mass incarceration of African American youth or discrimination against Latinos in housing issues, for example, are direct legacies of the white slave enterprise toward blacks and mestizos.

What does this issue of racism have to do with the Latino evangelical church?

Whether we like to admit it or not, we as Latinos are the result of the Spanish, Portuguese, French and Anglo-Saxon colonizing action in our continent and although the Roman Catholic tradition arrived first in the south and the Protestant tradition in the north, it is evident that in the evangelization of our continent there was a strong presence of racism on the part of some of the missionaries, European culture was considered superior to the indigenous culture of our continent and to the culture of the Africans men and women who were brought by force on slave ships through the slave enterprise that operated in the United States from 1776 until the approval of the thirteenth amendment to the constitution in 1865.

The development of Spanish, Indian and black miscegenation (mestizaje) did not eliminate, but rather nuanced the cultural racism imposed by the colonizers in the north and south of the continent, while in the north erroneous theological concepts of white superiority were imposed.

In the book of Genesis, it is narrated that Cain murdered his brother Abel and God as part of the punishment placed “a mark” on Cain that some Anglo-Saxon and European interpreters erroneously and unscrupulously taught that the mark was the darkening of the skin of Cain and his descendants. (Genesis 4:9-15). The curse of Cain was used to support the prohibition against ordaining black people to the ministry in most Protestant denominations in the United States until 1960.

In Puerto Rico from 1508 Ponce de Leon used the Taino Indians for forced labor and they were quickly exterminated by disease and slavery imposed by the Spanish, this together with the elimination in 1542 of indigenous slavery increased the demand for African slaves. The business of buying and selling indigenous slaves between 1670 and 1715 and the tribal wars to capture slaves destabilized the English colonies, Spanish Florida, and French Louisiana.

In colonial Latin America a racial caste system was established where the origin and identity of an individual was officially assigned in the baptism register, of course whites were in first place, in second place, there were individuals with mixed European and indigenous race considered as mestizos, in third place, individuals with mixed European and African race considered mulattoes, (mulatos) and lastly, indigenous and blacks.

Christians believe that God in Jesus Christ reconciled man and woman to himself as the evangelist John declares:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”(John 3:16 NKJV).

But as the Apostle Paul points out, this reconciliation also has to do with the different races and even genders:

“There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28 NKJV).

That is to say that in the new Christian communities new race relations based on dignity, equality and justice would be the norm. However, the book of Acts narrates an episode that was the first evidence of racial tension in the church:

“In those days, as the number of the disciples increased, there was a murmuring of the Greeks against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.

“Then the twelve called together the multitude of the disciples, and said, it is not right that we should leave the word of God, to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good report, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this work. And we will persevere in prayer and in the ministry of the word. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch, whom they set before the apostles, whom they presented to the apostles; And they brought them before the apostles, and when they had prayed, they laid their hands on them. And the word of the Lord increased, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem; and many of the priests also were obedient to the faith”.(Acts 6:1-7 NKJV).

Who were these Greeks who complained that their widows were not cared for by the Jews?

Most historians agree that they were Hellenists, i.e. Jews who used Greek as their mother tongue, since they had lived most of their lives in cities where Greek was the most widely used language and had returned to Jerusalem for a variety of reasons, including retirement after living most of their lives as slaves. Up to that time church growth had been primarily among Jews, but now former returned Jewish slaves and a large number of Hellenistic widows had believed the gospel message and joined the nascent church. Evidently a linguistic and cultural barrier was a factor of tension between the two groups, the dynamics of the “murmuring” of the Hellenists against the Hebrews indicates a degree of suspicion and even hostility.

What was the response of the Apostles?

The church responded by electing the seven deacons to be in charge of “serving tables” implying that they were willing to share the power of the apostles (Jews), with the deacons (all Hellenists), according to the Greek names Luke describes. It is very interesting that the apostles did not decide hierarchically who would be the deacons, but that the whole community (Jews and Hellenists) participated in the election and the result was a diaconal board composed exclusively of Hellenist candidates. The recognition and empowerment of a community on the margins of society that did not have much power in the nascent church would later serve as the bridge by which the new Christian community composed mainly of Jews could reach the Gentile world.

At Mission Talk we are working to recover the image of God among us and in our fellow human beings and prophetically denounce how issues of race and power influence the structures of injustice that still persist in the United States and that are manifested in public policies that marginalize and oppress entire populations because of the color of their skin, the style of their hair, the language they speak, the area where they reside or the country in which they were born.

For some years now we have been enabling a multiracial coalition in the state of Florida, where Latino evangelicals can make alliances with our African American, Native American, Anglo-Saxon, Middle Eastern and Asian, brothers and sisters. And all together raise our prophetic voice in the public sphere to combat and dismantle racism in both individuals and institutions that need to be redeemed and transformed by a new culture of the Kingdom of God.

Mission Talk Editorial Team