A few days ago I shared an example of a white evangelical student using the rhetoric of Christian unity to silence the concerns of black students. Today I offer an example of a Hispanic evangelical student writing about Christian unity in a very different way. This time the example comes from the Spring of 1994. At this particular college, chapel had become controversial. As the student body became increasingly diverse, the chapels continued to reflect a white middle-class culture. This was a big problem considering that chapels were mandatory daily gatherings meant to unite the community in worship. It also was a symptom of broader problems, this student believed. She wrote:
The Bible does not call us to love and accept each other when we become like each other and when there are no differences. Rather it calls for love and unity in spite of our differences.
As Christians we should strive, not only to tolerate each others differences, but to embrace them as our own, and it can be done. Many students, such as myself, have done it when we came to [this] College from a strictly Spanish-speaking church where hymns are not the norm. Although at first I found this worship style awkward, as I was exposed to it I grew to love it as my own…
One of the deepest convictions that I have is that actions speak louder than words. The actions taken this year by the administration speak loudly, they scream. They say that the Asian, African-American, and Latino student have not yet been embraced in every way in [our] College, and will not be embraced until the lies which say that we are inferior people and we need to become “Europeanized” or “Americanized” are accepted. Minorities have two deeply significant choices to make early in their…experience [here]; either we go through our four years frustrated, with the understanding that we are receiving a “half-truth” education, or we kill off any trace of our heritage in order to fit in or feel that we have progressed. You can find evidence of that among our students.
Believers need to understand that Christian colleges are doing this all over the country to “minorities” time and time again. We then wonder why so many are despising the Gospel. I wish I could say that it is only because of man’s depravity but I think that it is also due to the fact that for too many Christians, the Gospel is something that is more political and American than anything else. I fear that it has become a means for political and economic gains which do not take the poor and oppressed of our backyards into consideration. The Gospel has been made irrelevant to the oppressed…
The easy way out of this is to tell “minorities” that if they are not happy here they should leave. However, to ask someone to choose between (1) a higher education which might affirm one’s cultural identity while attempting to destroy one’s spiritual foundations or (2) an education which affirms one’s spiritual foundations but degrades cultural identity is not an easy choice. It is also not a choice which a Christian should ask a brother to make.”
This is often what it looks like when evangelicals argue about race and culture. Their Bibles are never far away. They bring their theology to bear. The discussion may become overtly political. But it is almost always ecclesial too. People are wrestling with what the “Body of Christ” is actually supposed to look like.
Both this student and the white student I wrote about the other day are talking about what it means to be united together in Christ. But their conclusions are dramatically different. For this student, unity means reckoning with real differences and sharing power. For the colorblind student, very similar unity language becomes a tool to deny the power dynamics involved.
We might also think about the boundaries of evangelical identity in the context of this letter. Here’s a Hispanic student who wanted the evangelical theological training she was receiving, but felt that the cultural cost of the education was extremely high. Even as she embraced an evangelical world, she received the message that good evangelicals didn’t act or think like she did. As a result, she and others faced the horrible choice of submerging “any trace of our heritage” just to belong.
White evangelicals often wonder when evangelicals of color will stop “complaining” and we can stop talking about these things. That misunderstands the project. The discussion is permanent, because our differences are real and unity will always be hard work. That’s not to say things can’t get better. One measure of change would be this: when the costs of belonging to the Body of Christ are equally borne by all.