Miguel A. De La Torre – Burying White Privilege [Feature Review]

March 15, 2019 — Leave a comment

 

Reading the Signs of the Times
 
A Feature Review of
 

Burying White Privilege:
Resurrecting a Badass Christianity

 
Hardback: Eerdmans, 2018
Buy Now:  [ Amazon ] [ Audible ]
[ Hearts & Minds Books ]

Reviewed by Sr Rhonda Miska
 
Christian social ethicist-activist Miguel De La Torre’s dust jacket bio describes him as “a modern Amos-like prophet.”  Burying White Privilege is a powerful tour de force which indeed echoes the social critique and righteous indignation of Old Testament prophets, offering a raw and unflinching analysis of Trump’s presidency and the religious leaders who distort the Gospel to support Trump’s political agenda.  The book is an expansion of De La Torre’s November 2017 essay “The Death of Christianity in the US,” published on the Baptist News Global website, which went viral on social media.  That essay opens with the provocative line, “Christianity has died in the hands of Evangelicals.” He goes on to write that “Evangelicalism ceased being a religious faith tradition following Jesus’ teachings concerning justice for the betterment of humanity when it made a Faustian bargain for the sake of political influence.”   

Burying White Privilege further develops the ideas in his essay, arguing that a fear-driven white Christianity which baptizes US exceptionalism and legitimizes atrocities against minorities is dying and needs to be buried so that an authentically liberating badass Christianity can emerge.  In the preface, De La Torre states he wrote the book in thirty-two days; the fastest he has ever written. As a reader, it is easy to imagine this cri de coeur pouring out of De La Torre onto the page.  He draws deeply from the well of his own social location as a Latinx academic seeking to decolonize his own mind as well as on the rage, outrage, fear, disbelief triggered by the ongoing lies and abuses of Trump’s disastrous presidency and the religious institutions which seek to legitimize it.  De La Torre goes on to write in the preface that his “hope was to disengage the filters and be as real as possible,” and challenges the reader to keep “an open mind and heart” as they take in his heartfelt message delivered in blisteringly strong language.

De La Torre is careful to define white Christianity as being about ontological whiteness, that is, “a way of believing, thinking, and reasoning morally,” not the actual pigmentation of one’s skin.  Regardless of our race and ethnicity, though certainly for those of us who are literally white, De La Torre offers a compelling challenge to recognize and denounce any portrait of Jesus which promotes a prosperity gospel; blesses capitalism/neoliberalism; ignores, minimizes, or even blesses historical and contemporary abuses of power by the white majority; and is based on fear instead of love.  

While much of the book focuses on those who embrace explicit white nationalism, white liberals do not go unnoticed in De La Torres’ analysis.  In a challenge reminiscent of Dr King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, De La Torre critiques white liberals who claim to be colorblind and use buzzwords like “multiculturalism” and “diversity” without being willing to truly adopting a “badass Christianity.”
 





In analyzing the alarming statistic that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump, De La Torre builds a clear case that Trump’s election is not an anomaly but rather the natural conclusion of the nation’s systemic oppression of people of color and the long-standing white evangelical allegiance with the Republican Party.  De La Torre contextualizes current evangelical support for Trump and white nationalism by referencing Billy Graham’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act and criticism of Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, and the Moral Majority leaders of the 1980s who worked to build a solid allegiance between the evangelical church and the GOP (“God’s Own Party”).   

After three chapters of De La Torre’s searing critique of white Christianity and evangelicals’ infidelity to Jesus’ vision and values, the book’s final chapter, “Badass Christianity,” proposes a ten-point constructive vision of subversive, disruptive, Christian faith for both disenfranchised communities as well as those who seek to stand with them.  Readers looking for a practical list of next steps to subvert white Christianity, either individually or collectively, may be disappointed. His ten points offer broad strokes (for example, “a commitment to radical solidarity,” and “a rejection of Eurocentric theological thought”) but De La Torre leaves it to the reader how to live them out. De La Torre closes with a liberationist revisioning of the old-fashioned evangelical altar call, inviting the reader to “resurrect the badass Christianity Jesus modeled.” (145)

There are readers – most likely racially white, class-comfortable readers like myself – who may be discomfited by De La Torre’s stark proclamations that “if you are a white Christian, your salvation depends on nailing your whiteness to the cross” (144), “our very survival requires us to dig graves for this Trumpish Christianity” (39), and that “the crucial first step toward saying yes to God…is to say no to oppression masked by a nationalist Christianity draped in the Stars and Stripes” (13).  De La Torre anticipates this resistance when he recognizes that “to reject Eurocentric Christianity is often to be labeled a heretic, to be labeled and angry person, or to be labeled a hater” (24). After recounting an encounter with a white colleague who cautioned him to speak gently about racism, De La Torre asks with his typical rhetorical flourish, “Am I, a person of color, expected to meekly approach the master’s table and politely discuss the nature of which particular scraps that have fallen to the floor might be available for me to gratefully devour?  Yet in the face of policies designed to eradicate us, I am expected to be nice, mild, loving, and encouraging.” (43)

There are other authors who offer similar critiques of the US political reality and proposals of an authentic Christian response to systemic injustice but use a more conciliatory tone and less provocative language.  But this is clearly neither De La Torre’s intention nor his effect. Not unlike Jeremiah smashing jars or Jesus upending the tables in the Temple to startle their audiences and make a prophetic statement, De La Torre intentionally and masterfully puts his own subversive spin on religious language and imagery to shock, surprise, provoke, and ultimately challenge his audience and call us to conversion.  

We are inhabiting a particularly disturbing historical moment which urgently requires all thoughtful Christians to “read the signs of the times” and uniquely requires those of us who are white and privileged to listen closely to marginal voices while resisting the urge to “tone police.”  As James Cone offered a necessary and incendiary theological contribution during and after the Black Power movement, De La Torre offers a provocative and important theological critique and challenge in this moment of Muslim bans, Tiki-torch wielding neo-Nazis chanting “blood and soil” in Charlottesville, family separations at the southern border, and blatant scapegoating of immigrants as “bad hombres.” De La Torre’s jeremiad against white Christianity and his clarion call for badass Christianity should be required Trump-era reading for all those seeking to stand in Gospel-inspired solidarity with those on the margins.    

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Bio:  Sr Rhonda Miska is an apostolic novice with the Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters currently ministering at Dominican University in River Forest, IL.  Her writing has appeared in Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table (Paulist, 2015), Pope Francis Lexicon (Collegeville, 2018) and various print and online publications including US Catholic, America, and Global Sisters Report. Read more of her work at www.clippings.me/rhondamiska


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