Burying White Privilege: Resurrecting a Badass Christianity
Reviewed by Nicole Saint-Victor, Director of Multicultural Engagement, Trinity Christian College
To the brown body, fear is gifted like a birthright, poured generationally onward, originating from the stench of the transatlantic. The non-white body composes reformulated versions of “I’ll Fly Away,” joining Albert E. Brumley’s (1929) stuttered tribal emblems we long to reach the by and by. “O that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest” (Psalm 55:6, NRSV). Recognizing these realities, Burying White Privilege: Resurrecting a Badass Christianity, by Miguel A. De La Torre, needs to be used as a contemporary and multifaceted resource for institutions of higher education. This is particularly true for institutions who externally embrace the name of Jesus Christ, but are complicit in supporting the melodic bloodshed producing red ink, dripping through the broken brown body, attempting to meet the white 4/4 time signature, and hoping for wings to escape the cinderblocks holding them to earth’s foundation. I think it is important for higher education because De La Torre is creating a strategic argument for diversity and inclusion alongside passive racial systems that we still endorse in higher education. And as I hear in music, and my framework comes from an artistic place, De La Torre’s metaphors and imagery connect to my work and experience in a powerful way.
In terms of higher education today, I believe the landscape is changing and that the majority of folks populating our Christian campuses will soon be of color. At the same time, many of our structural systems that are in place, systems that apologize for racism or try to put a band-aid on how we interact with our brothers and sisters of color, are no longer sustainable. Administrators, staff, and faculty need to take a risk for the sake of another. De La Torre starts the book by expressing this necessary vulnerability: “If I were to undertake this project, I wanted to engage in a difficult conversation based on my pain, my delusions, and my hopelessness—a prevailing mood I detect in our society, especially among communities of color” (x). This risk will underscore institutional commitment for both those who are employed by the institution and those who are willing to make that institution their home, their family, and their community for the college years in which they are being formed. If Christianity includes the whole person, it requires a redefinition of itself that is not rooted in a white nationalism, and this will require us to find ways to probe our academic, social, and economic structures to name the “haves” and the “have nots.” This process, as described by De La Torre, is one that goes against “These Jesus-creators, and their cosmic fight against whomever they have designated to be the enemies of Christ, implement oppressive structures that politically protect their accumulated privileges” (6).
De La Torre lays out Burying White Privilege under four descriptive chapter headings, each weaving together issues of a Eurocentric Christianity into the current social, religious, and political landscape. In chapter 1, “Let the Dead Bury the Dead,” he exposes the privilege of Eurocentric thinking in connection to present-day culture through relevant statistical documentation. In doing this, he provides what feels like a bridge toward intentional change by noting the interconnectedness of religion, spirituality, social justice, atheism, and apathy in our culture. This also introduces an avenue within higher education through which to push the margins of candid conversations around race and privilege. Chapter 2, “The Fallacy of Whiteness,” is where De La Torre brings in more of a historical component by naming contemporary participants in white privilege and connecting them to the Eurocentric historical landscape. He provides a definition that does not focus only on current white privilege, but places this cloak of privilege on a broader Eurocentric definition of Christianity as a whole. Chapter 3, “Maintaining and Sustaining Self-Deception,” is an indictment of what De La Torre defines as Christian nationalists in the United States and Christians’ complicity in selecting governing officials who continue to practice overt racism and motivate through fear by placing stereotypes on minority cultures (such as the image of Latinx persons swarming over the borders into the U.S.). De La Torre’s condemnation of American Christians who have chosen to deceive themselves about the realities of political racism coming out of the White House is encapsulated by his statement that “the mask has been ripped off to show the hatred and racism beneath the Trump façade. Our nation is divided. Our nation has a history of promoting hatred for the other.” He argues that this American self-deception continues despite incident after incident coming from Washington, D.C., that negate any of the arguments that were made for why voting against the opponent in 2016 was the better choice.
After three chapters of outlining the problems, De La Torre underscores the possibilities of hope for the future rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ in chapter 4, “Badass Christianity.” His warning that “whenever patriotism replaces justice, we’re in mortal danger of idolatry” is a mirror of Habakkuk 2:4, “Look at that man, bloated by self-importance—full of himself but soul-empty” (The Message). This chapter asks readers to go beyond the Eurocentric culture that we have taken on and to rewrite the narrative, to make the truth of the gospel the center point of how we deal with Christianity, life, structural systems, and social justice issues in the United States.
A resource like this one, similar to a complex musical composition, can be foundational to recognizing that in living into our collective Eurocentric Christianity as a church, as institutions, and as people of God, we have actually lived into the system of exclusion, rather than living out Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (NRSV). If this is our true biblical response to injustice, is it possible that our institutions and their foundational roots are starting to erode, exposing a “good ol’ boy” system? Is that why we are not bearing fruit like John 15 calls us to? Is that why individualism trumps our communal call? Put simply, “As long as Jesus remains a merely personal savior, Christianity can be tamed, demanding no action to implement Jesus’ public teachings on how to live justly” (26).
This makes it clear that Miguel De La Torre is saying what needs to be said in an academic environment in which we appreciate poetic metaphors and yet Judas still lives among us. The divisive systems that he highlights keep brown bodies pigeonholed to some areas of success connected with artistic and athletic abilities, which counters the hymn, “My friends, may you grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior.” There is a kind of twisted piece of art being put together here. In this way, those maintaining these power structures are distant from God’s character and acting as pretenders, in both naming who they are and what they bring to the table. De La Torre tracks a positional authority that is in step with white Christianity by highlighting a biblical backing that keeps people of color hoping for the second coming because they are forced to be spectators today, excluded from any sense of shared belonging. Or, as De La Torre puts it, “The White Jesus is damning to the disenfranchised” (13).
We have all these resources that talk about diversity and inclusion and who gets to be in the inner circle and who stands on the outside to look in, and De La Torre highlights the disproportionate resources for people of color across varied contexts. Our Christian institutions feel that same pulse of disingenuous honor, but if we’re willing to risk our social strata of power, then maybe we can hear this call from the brown bodies named by Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me: “perhaps being named ‘black’ had nothing to do with any of this; perhaps being named ‘black’ was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah.”1 I appreciate that De La Torre, like Coates, also deals very particularly with bringing a whole body into his writing, and so there are terms of healthy bodies and broken bodies, neurological references, questions of whose body is up for offer, and recognition of how fear is given as a gift against a particular culture. De La Torre helps us to hold out this Eurocentric posture, operating under a divine stupidity, as responsible for these broken bodies. Where is the lie? Where is the ownership? De La Torre takes this head on:
To save Jesus from those claiming to be his heirs, we must wrench him from the hands of White Christians who forged a nationalist Christianity, constipated with hate and fear—fear of Muslims, fear of the undocumented, fear of blacks, and fear of everything queer. Hate of course is a strong word implying severe loathing to the point of desiring or instigating extreme harm to the object hated…but willful praxis. (27)
As I continued to enter into Burying White Privilege, I started to ask myself questions: What actually matters? And who’s invited to the table? And why does political agenda and reverence create a kind of a partnership, but at the same time celebrate things like slavery and refuse to recognize generational structural systems put in place to reduce the brown body? In that way, I started to connect with Matthew 6:24 and what it means to have a split mind. Of course, De La Torre is countercultural, but not necessarily in a “nice” way. Rather, he deals with racism, classism, economic constraints, and feminism. He cuts deep by stating that “since the foundation of the republic, White Christians have reigned supreme in North America by using invasion, genocide, and slavery as instruments of political control” (12). He continues by demonstrating how there has been created this kind of Western justice that excludes minorities, but also defines being a minority as inclusive of the white population that is at the bottom of the class structure. His condemnation addresses the issue that
White Christians elect and support politicians who are detrimental to their own wellbeing. Bought and swapped like baseball trading cards by wealthier whites, these politicians may give the impression when they campaign that all white lives matter, but their actions reveal that certain white lives matter more than others. (56)
Throughout this book, De La Torre ably interacts with a biblical narrative and with the social concepts that we are dealing with today, such as Trump’s slogan “Make American Great Again,” which disguises itself as WWJD (6). And in this mindset, rather than making all bodies of all colors great again, “Instead, they pass the blame downward, accusing those who are marginalized of stealing their jobs and depressing wages and thus preventing the true heirs of the American dream from achieving their rightful place in society” (58).
In the end, De La Torre makes it clear that to encounter bearing white privilege is to experience layers of juxtapositions. He does this with an in-depth, yet quick, historical timeline of injustice, and the image of death as the anchor is repetitive and sings throughout the text. He reminds those of us in Christian higher education that in our institutions, we often live out a narrative in which all are mentioned, but in the narrative of white Christianity, all are not named. And this to me, a brown person working in this space, for whom fear is woven into the fabric of my DNA in a way that feels like a praying-without-ceasing suffocation for my brown son, my family, my brown brothers and sisters, resonates my cry of “How long, O Lord?” De La Torre enters that space with me, telling the truth of who we are as Christian institutions, helping us uncover and heal, and teaching us to learn to use the voice of privilege to help restore brown brothers and sisters in academic and student engagement contexts. And De La Torre’s gift is a witness, a shema, that we need to keep moving forward toward a world of justice and mercy for all bodies.