Like many Christians, and plenty of others, I wrestle with biblical texts, some of which can be hurtful or shocking.
So I was intrigued when I heard that Rev. Dr. Miguel De La Torre, an acclaimed Southern Baptist minister, author and professor of social ethics and Latinx studies at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, would be delivering a sermon titled: “Was Jesus a Racist?”
De La Torre was born in Cuba just months before the Castro Revolution and immigrated with his family to the United States as a refugee when he was still a baby. The U.S. government viewed him as an “illegal alien” and attempted to deport him. He grew up in Queens, New York, and moved with his family to Miami as a teenager. Eventually, he grew to become a successful real estate company owner, throw his hat into a Florida state representative race, and become a professor and a pastor.
In 2005, De La Torre wrote a column titled: “When the Bible Is Used for Hatred” for The Holland Sentinel. In the piece he used satire to criticize then-Focus on the Family leader Dr. James Dobson’s homophobia and selective “family values” for outing SpongeBob SquarePants. Backlash from the column eventually caused De La Torre to resign from his tenure track position at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.
Now a well-known scholar activist who explores the intersection of faith, academia and activism, De La Torre gives voice to Christians who live on the margins of society and illuminates how religion has been twisted by the white nationalist movement and patriarchal forces to justify oppression.
But mostly, he’s a fierce opponent of American immigration policies that have long heaped abuses on our neighbors to the south while robbing them of their resources. He helped create the award-winning documentary Trails of Hope and Terror to illuminate the crisis on the border.
“When we as a nation build roads into another country for the express purpose of stealing their natural resources and their cheap labor, why should we be shocked that those people take those same roads following everything that has been stolen from them?” he asked the audience at a sermon at the First Congregational Church in Colorado Springs.
The church invited De La Torre to speak several times over the Mother’s Day weekend for its lecture series. He spoke on topics ranging from “embracing hopelessness” to activism against white supremacy — even if it means turning to “trickster” ethics.
He drew a sizable crowd.
And part of that, surely, was the initial part of the sermon I referenced, his discussion of whether Jesus was racist. De La Torre started off with Matthew 15:21-28. This is the passage in which a Canaanite woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter. But she is not one of Jesus’ people, and Jesus (before healing the girl) responds harshly to the woman, even calling her a dog.
Sound familiar? Imagine going to a hospital and being told that medicine was only for “real Americans,” not Latinx “dogs,” De La Torre told the audience. People of color are reminded, sometimes daily, of their dog-like value in a Euro-centric culture, De La Torre preached. And those attitudes have impacts: disparities in health-care outcomes, education, the criminal justice system and other institutions of power.
People of color, De La Torre told the crowd, see themselves more in the Canaanite woman than in Jesus in that passage.
De La Torre goes on to explain that even though theologians say Christ was 100 percent deity and 100 percent human, his humanism came with social constructs. Thus, De La Torre says, Matthew 15:21-28 is a defining moment in Christ’s ministry, with a valuable lesson for the human Jesus that we all can learn from. Perhaps in this story, there is the seed that eventually propelled Jesus to command his disciples to spread the good news of liberation to all nations.
The reverend stressed that the message of the Gospel is not for those living in ivory towers; it is for those who have faith and are struggling.
“For those of us who call ourselves Christians, rooted in a Gospel message of liberation, I have no choice but to be among those who are thirsty, those who are naked, those who are the immigrant among us, those who are ill, and those who are in prison.
“... The message of the Gospel is written to the community of faith for those who are struggling, not just to academics like myself.”