Robert Chao Romero, Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and Identity, IVP Academic.
Romero’s eminently readable book whisks you through five hundred years of what he calls the “Brown Church,” a Christian community of Latinos “that has contested racial and social injustice in Latin America and the United States during that period.
Romero is an academic in the University of California, the son of a Mexican father and a Chinese immigrant mother, who discovered himself in a spiritual borderland because, on the one hand his concern for integrating faith and social justice was at odds with many traditional Christian environments where more spiritual approaches are preferred, and on the other, his wanting to root his seeking of justice in Christian faith made him suspicious to activists and Chicano/a writers and academics. Here Christianity is viewed as a white person’s religion, a colonial tool.
Romero, then, sets out to show, the way in which the Brown Church, over centuries has consistently challenged colonialism, oppressive religion and injustice, and in doing so, has shown the tight integration of the gospel, faith and seeking justice. Furthermore, he outlines his case that this Brown Church has developed a theology, biblically based, which rejects a simplistic individualistic, saved-and-going-to-heaven gospel in favour of a broader, more expansive sense of salvation, which affects all of life in the here and now.
Romero says, that in writing the book, he wanted to “articulate a new social identity for Latina/o Christians who are…passionate about God’s heart for social justice.” In doing so, however, he has presented a challenge to the wider church about what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus.
He begins by outlining the holistic nature of the gospel in a short chapter on Jesus’s ministry which, he suggests, launched “an empire challenging, global transformative movement.” We might quibble with the retrofit of rabbinical education into the early first century, but his point is well made that the gospel has a broad scope.
Romero dates the birth of the Brown Church to a particular Sunday in 1511 with the condemnation of the Spanish Conquest by Friar Antonio de Montesinos on Hispaniola. He goes on to track Christian protest against Spanish colonialism and its brutalities by Bartolomé de Las Casas, Garcilaso de la Vega El Inca, Felipe Guaman Poma and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, along the way telling the story of La Virgen de Guadelupe, who he suggests, “symbolizes the fact that God did not overlook the grave injustices of the conquest.”
Romero then moves on to discuss the Brown Church in the context of the United States and Mexico. Calling the US-Mexico an “avaricious land grab,” he details the injustices suffered by Mexicans in the US, including a “cultural massacre” by the Catholic Church, and then points to the resistance of Padre Antonio José Martinez.
I confess I was not entirely convinced by Romero’s decision to include César Chavez as one of the heroes of the Brown Church. He has a reputation as a civil rights activist, to be sure, but his purging of perceived opponents and the personality cult he built around him would beg a question about how deeply rooted in faith was his life.
Romero brings us right up to date with a discussion of Latin American Liberation Theology and the holistic gospel preached by René Padilla and Samuel Escobar, which was widely influential amongst evangelicals around the world, before discussing recent social justice theologies of US Latina/os, including Pentecostal theology.
It’s a fascinating trip through five centuries of South American and Latin American church experience, viewed by means of well-told stories of brave individuals who defied the status quo, often at great risk, and provided the inspiration for others to live out more fully the implications of their faith in terms of justice and love.
Such resistance, Romero points out, is still required in the United States where the Latina/o community is still “exploited for our cheap labor and vast economic contributions to the GDP of the United States,” and suffers from racism and a range of injustices. He hails the goal of the Brown Church as “no less than the loving and liberating reign of the kingdom of God, the good news of Jesus of Galilee.”
Brown Church will be of interest not only to the Latina/o community in the United States, but to all Jesus followers in the US and elsewhere – there is much to learn from this history, powerfully stated, of the Brown Church.