Learning about systemic injustice is a spiritual discipline, a formational practice of social energies. – Dominique Gilliard (Rethinking Incarceration, p 118)
In the past six months, I’ve had distinct experiences where I saw the Imago Dei both dehumanizingly oppressed and beautifully expressed in similar contexts.
At the end of September, I was able to visit to the Ursula Processing Center & the Port Isabel Detention Center in McAllen, Texas with Welcome an initiative with World Relief and the National Immigration Forum. (See the short film Eyes to See about my trip along with a discussion guide.) In January, I visited Walker County Faith & Character Based Prison in north Georgia. The juxtaposition of visiting these two institutions reveals how important the Imago Dei is for those on the margins of society.
Port Isabel Detention Center embodied what we often think of as justice, and what I call American Justice: locked doors, laws, rules, bars, cages, dehumanizing language, portable bathrooms with a door that only covers shoulders to knees, trauma, clear distinctions between Border Patrol and immigrant, silent immigrants with blank stares who rarely looked me in the eyes, fear evident in the eyes of those who did make contact, basic necessities and nothing more, orange and blue jump suits. Some Border Patrol officials confessed that they must turn off their emotions in order to do the job. Phrases like, ‘human being’ or ‘fellow’ or even ‘immigrant’ were not once used by BP. Instead I heard ‘alien’ and ‘illegal’. “The aliens also get $1 a day if they choose to work,” said the BP tour guide. A can of coke cost $1.75 in the vending machine nearby, reminding me how certain systems are built for transactions only, not for relationship. (Many more details of this event can be found in my upcoming book, Separated by the Border, to be published October 29, 2019 with InterVarsity Press.)
I came away from that experience with the thought engraved on my heart: If justice is what I seek for myself, I must become more and more aware that my justice is intertwined with the justice of all of humanity. Indeed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. words from Strength to Love came more alive within me.
Walker County Faith & Character Based Prison in north Georgia embodied what I know of as Biblical justice: no locks on lockers, rules that differ by levels depending on how long one has been at the prison, no bars, no cages, no dehumanizing language—in fact, without the [white] uniforms, I would have been confused as to who was staff and who was incarcerated, lots of eye contact (and I saw no fear in their eyes), education, education, and more education. The chaplain and the incarcerated spoke to each other and to our group as if they were old friends. Everyone I spoke to at Walker spoke to me with amazing public speaking skills, and each had several passions they were pursuing: painting, music, graphic art, theological studies, etc. I honestly forgot I was in a prison while being there. Each man (there are no women there) spoke about how much time he had already served and how much more he will have to serve. They spoke of church services, seminary classes, choral concerts, conflict resolution, families, and what they did to help those who didn’t have families supporting them. There was a sense of communal shalom behind those walls that I was not expecting to see—not only behind prison gates, but on this Earth ever.
In his book Rethinking Incarceration: Advocating for Justice that Restores, Dominique Gilliard maps out what Biblical justice is:
“Biblically, justice is a divine act of reparation where breached relationships are renewed and victims, offenders, and communities are restored. Justice, therefore is about relationships and our conduct within them. Justice asks, How is righteousness embodied and exuded in how I live in relation to God, neighbor, and creation?” (Rethinking Incarceration, 139)
I discuss how injustice begins with dehumanization in the first chapter of my book A Smoldering Wick. Believing in the Imago Dei imprinted on every human being means we must actively fight against dehumanization: which can be in the form of lowering another’s God-given self worth and in the form of exalting another human to demigod status. In both instances, the dehumanizer is taking away the humanity of another human being. In both instances, the dehumanizer is playing God and marring the identity of the other.
“Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness.” (Genesis 1:26)
As Christians, working toward the reconciliation of people (including ourselves!) with God, with self, with each other, and with creation involves coming face to face with dehumanization in all its forms. For example, it’s quite easy for me as a writer to dehumanize successful writers. I imagine them living their easy lives and being fed publishing contracts and speaking opportunities and it’s just so easy in that moment to both negate their humanity and to justify my jealousy. What areas can you easily justify dehumanization?
Being a Christian means we recognize the areas we dehumanize others, and we hold captive those thoughts and submit them to our God who says every human being was made in His image. Being a Christian means we also call out dehumanization when it is happening to others. We cannot be lukewarm bystanders.
Gilliard brings to light the call of the prison chaplain. “Responsible chaplaincy entails holistic ministry: caring for the soul and body.” I saw this embodied so well at Walker. The faithfulness of the chaplain we met with was evident not by what he was telling us, but rather by what the men around him would say about him. Gilliard continues, “The best chaplains take time to learn about the systems and structures funneling people into their parish. They educate themselves about systemic injustice—not to condone or encourage a victim mentality, nor to excuse criminal behavior—because this equips them to do contextualized ministry.”
I was asked recently how people can get involved in the issues surrounding immigration in the United States. While I will be devoting a whole section in my book to address this, I think it’s important to see what Gilliard says here. For those looking to get involved in the ministry of reconciliation among immigrants, one very important step is to learn about the systems and structures that are funneling people to the border. I won’t say this is the first step or even the best step, but it is an important one that must come alongside a self awareness that says we are not immune to dehumanizing forces.
It’s easy for me to say I’d never speak to an immigrant the way I saw Border Patrol doing so, but if that was my job and I couldn’t find another and I had children to feed and house, well, who knows? I have to be careful not to dehumanize those who seem to be clear dehumanizers, and remember that I am as prone to wander as my Border Patrol brother is.
“The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. . . Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of starts. Darkness cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” said Martin Luther King Jr. in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
Darkness is within us as much as it is in the unjust systems we often unwillingly perpetuate. But light is also within, and seeing Walker County Faith & Character Prison is a beautiful reminder that community is capable of bringing out the light within us. And community is capable of calling our systems to what Paul calls “a more excellent way” — the way of love.
If I speak 20 languages, or even 2
but let go of my first Love,
I am all noise.
If I call out false prophets
but let go of Love,
I am nothing.
If I hate what God hates
but have not love,
I am my own enemy.
If I endure patiently
& work tirelessly for God
but have forgotten my first Love,
I gain nothing.
If I take a vow of poverty or simplicity
& sacrifice tangibly
but have not love,
The Spirit is not upon me.
(1 Cor 13 | Rev 2)
As we reflect in this season on eagerly waiting for the Prince of Peace to come, I wanted to offer a few ideas on how to move toward advent. I must confess that Christmastime hasn't lately been one I've looked forward to. The consumerism gets me down. The planning overwhelms me. The familial logistics and drama drive me nuts.
So this year, I'm intentionally working on moving toward a Spirit of Advent, and in doing so, trying to bridge the gap that exists in my head between the Christmas season and the Advent season. Although I grew up as an evangelical, I never knew about the Christian calendar. Never followed along with the seasons of my faith. I've never once been a part of an in-person Christian community that does that.
Having just moved to a new city, I am not yet a part of a Christian community I can call my own. (So feel free to send up a prayer about that.) So if you find yourself longing for Advent, but not sure where to start, here's an idea of things you can do on your own (if you're like me) or with a group (if you're where I hope to one day be!)
1. Listen to First Snowfall by Michael W. Smith while driving on a sunny day through a wooded area and watch the shadows dance like ballerinas bathed in sunlit glory rejoicing over what has been glorious in this world, what is currently glorious, and what will one day be glorious.
Emmanuel has come, God is with us.
2. Read Carolina Hinojosa-Cisneros' words about everyday Hope:
Hope looks like crashing on someone’s couch who welcomes you with open arms into her beautiful home.
Hope looks like sharing sacred stories barefoot, on a couch, in an intimate living room, surrounded by light.
Hope looks like an unexpected welcome.
Now go, and unexpectedly welcome someone.
(and really read all of Carolina's words that you can. They often usher me straight into reminders of how I can experience the glory that currently exists in the world.)
Emmanuel has come, God moved into our neighborhood.
3. Explain to a 3-year-old why we have Christmas trees and why Christmas is celebrated, and reimagine the magic of Christ coming to Earth through her eyes.
Emmanuel has come, God is our neighbor.
4. Read Ryan Kuja's Modern Mary: What a Pregnant Refugee Minority Teenager Would Sing Today at MissioAlliance. As he says so perfectly, "Marian doxology invites revolution."
Go read the whole thing, but make sure not to miss this:
I can’t contain my excitement about this!
Out of all people, he noticed me, a poor, pregnant teenager!
Everyone will call me blessed from now on.
God’s love is so much greater than I can even imagine.
He showed his love for everyone, even those society despises,
the LGBTQIA community, immigrants, refugees, the addicted and shamed.
God knows black lives matter; refugees and immigrants are his beloved.
All the people who are seen as less than human, he knows and loves.
He lifts up those who are preyed upon by corrupt politicians,
the hungry, the ones brutalized by the police and ICE, and families without healthcare.
He invites each of us to the table to speak and tell our story, to be heard and known.
The power-hungry perpetrators who care only about their agendas don’t have the last word!
I can sense his presence, holding me and all his children close, faithfully liberating us.
Just as he promised he would.
Emmanuel has come, God fills up the hungry with good things.
5. Recite this blessing prayer from Mujerista Liturgy:
The power of the seed from which the wheat grows.
The power of the earth nurtures the seed and makes it flourish.
The power of the sun that gives warmth and light to the wheat.
The power of the campesinas, campesinos, who care for and harvest the wheat.
The power of the yeast that even if it is small in quantity makes all the dough to rise.
The power of the bread which sustains us and without which there is no life.
The power of this community which in breaking this bread renews its commitment to the people who struggle for their liberation.
This is the milk which comes from our bodies and nourishes life. It is mixed with honey, for milk and honey was the symbol for our ancestors of the promised land, of a better future, of liberation. We bless it by drinking of it for it will sustain us in the struggle.
The gifts of God for the people of God, come and eat joyfully, with the resolution and understanding that we will continue in the struggle and that God will always sustain us if we sustain one another. Come and feast.
(Taken from Mujerista Theology by Ada María Isasi-Díaz)
Emmanuel has come, God invites us to the feasting table.
6. Break bread with someone you never have before. Remembering as you do the prayer above: that God will always sustain us if we sustain one another.
Emmanuel has come, God is with us in our eating and our drinking.
7. Read Rachel Held Evans' Mary, the Magnificat, and an Unsentimental Advent.
"This is the stunning claim of the incarnation: God has made a home among the very people the world casts aside. And in her defiant prayer, Mary—a dark-skinned woman, a refugee, a religious minority in an occupied land—names this reality."
Rachel confesses to being angry and frustrated, and although she wrote this last year, that anger is still there, maybe even ignited even more over the events of 2018.
Emmanuel has come, God is with us in our anger and our frustration.
8. Listen to Dave Matthews' Christmas Song
"Father up above, why in all this hatred do you fill me up with love?" Jesus asks in the song. Indeed with the blood of His children all around us this year, with hate so easy to grasp hold of, may we be full of love, love, love.
Emmanuel has come, God is with us as we soul search.
9. Listen to Lauryn Hill's song To Zion
And be reminded that the joy of our world is in Zion. May we be beautiful reflections of His grace.
Emmanuel has come, God is.
May we be pregnant with hope, expectant with the promise of shalom coming to earth fully and finally with Advent.
This is an excerpt taken from To Save Many Lives: Exploring Reconciliation between Africans and African Americans through the Selling of Joseph
This is a unique look at the story of Joseph and the ways in which reconciliation can be found through its study. For more about Nilwona, visit her website or her Facebook page.
This has been one of the busiest summers I've ever had, and I have not been faithful with weekly posting a new WOCwithPens feature.
I assure you I have been working hard to elevate voices of women of color, but it hasn't been in the way I thought. A lot has come up/out over the summer, and I am going to work hard to be better about staying committed to featuring someone new each week.
Tomorrow, come back for a new #WOCwithPens feature.
This is an article I tried to get published in May of 2018, right after Gen. Kelly was interviewed by NPR where he said that the children separated from their parents at the border would go into "foster care or whatever."
Recently the President of the United States called some illegal immigrants “animals”. The dehumanization of this administration is rampant, and as the Church body, we must be pro-life, including being pro-immigrant life.
In a recent interview with NPR, General John Kelly admitted that family separation could be a tough deterrent for illegal immigration. The interviewer asked, “Even though people say that's cruel and heartless to take a mother away from her children?”
Mr. Kelly responded, “I wouldn't put it quite that way. The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever. But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.” Again, as the Church body, we take issue with this type of talk.
As a current foster mom of an immigrant child, I find Mr. Kelly’s statement devoid of humanity and perpendicular to the purpose of foster care.
In light of this month being national foster care awareness month, I think it is important to understand first and foremost the purpose of foster care. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Children’s Bureau, the foster care “program’s focus is children who are eligible under the former Aid to Families with Dependent Children program and who were removed from their homes as the result of maltreatment, lack of care, or lack of supervision.”
Foster care is meant to serve children whose parents have been charged with dependency, abuse or neglect. Those families then get about 12 months (depending on the state and the courts) to rehabilitate by taking parenting and anger management classes, finding safe and appropriate housing, and proving they are clean from drugs.
The Department’s intent is always to reunite the children with their family as long as it is in the best interest of the child. Social workers and foster families see the lasting effects of biological families being torn apart. It is hard on everyone involved. It is not something anyone wants. If Mr. Kelly would sit in family court, interview a foster family, or speak to social workers, he would understand that splitting apart families is only done for the protection of the children. It is never done to punish the parents out of spite. That would be cruel. That would be heartless.
While I cannot give details of my own foster child’s case, I can say that there are language and cultural barriers that must be overcome in these situations. Even though my husband and I can speak Spanish because we lived in a Spanish-speaking country for over four years, there are still major cultural differences between us and our foster child. Praise God for avocados and tortillas. Additionally, the child’s dialect of Spanish is different than ours. Speaking two languages in our home involves translating rules on the spot, making sure every child understands what to expect, and often involves us speaking the wrong language to a child because we get jumbled up in stressful moments. When one child disregards our directions, we have to think back and ask ourselves: did I give them those instructions in both languages? It has proven to be an even deeper layer of exhaustion than our previous foster care placements.
In fiscal year 2016, nearly 28,000 unaccompanied minors (17 and under) crossed into the United States. If ORR’s sponsorship families that take these children in cannot care for them or worse, do not care for them by abuse or neglect, the children move to foster care. Nothing is simple about that process.
Additionally, there is an increasing national demand for foster parents. A Washington Post article from July 2017 says, “State budgets are stretched, social workers are overloaded, and not enough families are willing to provide children with temporary homes. American foster care, experts say, is in crisis.”
It’s an invisible crisis that literally happens behind closed doors. “There is no national foster care movement, no viral social media campaigns or crowds of protesters taking to the streets to battle for these children. No household name like Teach for America or AARP devoted to fighting for kids in foster care. Foster youths are, by definition, wards of the state, but when was the last time you heard any elected official talking about them?” said Sherry Lachman in an New York Times article. “As more Americans struggle with opioid addiction and find themselves unable to perform their duties as parents, children are pouring into state and county foster care systems. In Montana, the number of children in foster care has doubled since 2010. In Georgia, it has increased by 80 percent, and in West Virginia, by 45 percent.”
Families coming to the United States seeking asylum from violence and economic oppression, especially Central American women and children seeking to escape the femicide that plagues what is called the Northern Triangle, should not be targeted as parents that have abused or neglected their children. So many are leaving their own homes and countries to flee abuse. Doctors Without Borders calls the emigration of the Northern Triangle a “neglected humanitarian crisis” and in 2016 the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) called the Central American immigration issue a protection crisis. “‘We are particularly concerned about the rising numbers of unaccompanied children and women on the run who face forced recruitment into criminal gangs, sexual- and gender-based violence and murder,’ [UNHCR spokesperson Adrian] Edwards told journalists. U.N. High Commissioner has called it a refugee crisis.”
It seems Mr. Kelly’s idea is for one crisis to envelope another; and for those fleeing abuse to suddenly be guilty of abuse themselves.
I am for immigration reform; specifically, I agree with what World Relief has laid out in their letter to President Trump and Congress. I am also for more Christians—like myself—getting involved in foster care and immigration reform. But as a Christian, as an American, and as a foster mom, I cannot and will not stand for politicians dehumanizing these issues and throwing around ill-thought ideas on how to support the crises at hand. These issues have faces, names, identities, and stories. If Mr. Kelly would like to come jump on the trampoline with my foster child and actually hear the story that brought the child to our home, maybe, just maybe, he would recognize that punishing parents by splitting them from their children is a horrible idea for an immigration policy from a nation that claims to be Christian.
Over the past several months of advocating for the reunification of my former foster daughter and her mother, I felt a burning fire within me that was too wild to stay inside. But being a foster mom to an undocumented girl meant staying silent on a lot of details for the sake of protecting identities until reunification could happen.
For someone who writes her heart out, often to be published to the public, this was incredibly tough to do. So when I read Kathy's words toward the end of her book #RaiseYourVoice (Go buy it today on Amazon!) it clicked why I felt the need to cut my hair.
"Another way to wear your heart and voice on your sleeve is to dress a certain way," Kathy wrote in Raise Your Voice.
My friend Leah made reference to it when she first saw it. "You are on the battlefield," she said. And I shook my head, grateful someone understood. Even my foster daughter thought I looked ridiculous. "That's a boy's haircut," she told me.
But she was totally unaware of what felt like a long, hard road of advocating on her behalf to get her back to her mom in Central America. The two were separated at the border, and about two weeks after shaving a chunk off the side of my head, my husband and I boarded a plane with her and journeyed back to her hometown, making our way back to the arms she belonged in.
It was as though all that was within me had to come out somehow, so it came out in the form of a crazy asymmetrical haircut: a protest to myself and to the world that I would fight for justice for this little girl and for those like her.
When I cut it, I was reminded of those who would wail publicly in times of lament. This was my visible lament toward the 3,000 children who had been separated from their families at the border. Most of the time, I love the hairdo, other times I don't. But mostly it reminds me that one way or another the fire deep within my bones must come out somehow, even if not in words.
Thank you Kathy for your words and for reminding me of mine.
The following is an excerpt, taken with permission, from Raise Your Voice by Kathy Khang. Preorder your copy today!
I believe that Christians desire and can handle more complexity. Race and reconciliation can no longer be framed solely as a justice issue but rather as core to the gospel, theologically grounded in the imago Dei (the image of God). As Christians, if we truly believe we are all created in God’s image, and that God the Creator had a hand in developing, creating, and shaping not just our embodied souls but also the places and spaces we steward and have dominion over, then reconciliation with one another is not merely an option—it’s part of God’s mandate. It requires us to speak up and speak out.
In order to do so, we need to address personal development, which happens within the context of community. In some communities, certain voices are erased and suppressed while others are amplified and elevated. The concept of “voice” isn’t only what is said or written but also includes how identity is expressed in words and deed. Voice is not limited to what comes out of my mouth but out of my being.
“The Latin word vox, meaning ‘voice,’ and the related word vocare, meaning ‘to call,’ give us the root voc or vok. Words from the Latin vox or vocare have something to do with the voice or with calling. Anything vocal is produced by the voice. A vocation is the work that someone is called to do as a job. To evoke is to call forth. To invoke is to call on for aid or protection. To provoke is to call forth another’s anger. The word voice also has vox as its root.” (Word Root of Vocation, Merriam-Webster Dictionary)
The challenge to raise your voice is about doing the good work of the good news. It’s about calling forth others: an invocation for all and a provocation to some. Our lives should affect the world around us if we are bearers of God’s image as well as an embodiment of good news. Living as a Korean American Christian woman, there is something critical about speaking from a place of wholeness and uniqueness that makes my voice part of a community but also uniquely mine. It fills in the blanks left in others’ stories. When more of us from different intersections and margins raise our voices, we live a fuller picture of the good news.
Last summer, I started a twitter chat about missions called #JustMissions. After writing my book A Smoldering Wick, I began connecting with like-minded people in the world of missions. But they were few and far between. To be very honest, it’s been a hard book to sell. Most people who ‘do’ missions don’t like to be told they are doing things wrong. Nonetheless, I still feel a deep desire to continue the conversation on mission practices with a more informed approach that lends to actually listening to the Majority World church. It is something I am passionate about, and I don’t think that passion will ever go away.
The first chat was done with Kent Annan and Bryan Entzminger, and you can find it here. Please check out Kent’s work which includes his book Slow Kingdom Coming and his new book on refugees that will be released soon. Also listen in to Bryan’s podcast, Engaging Missions, where he interviews missionaries from around the globe and works hard to highlight their work in the field and connect them to listeners.
The last chat was with Peter Rowan of OMF United Kingdom and we discussed colonialism and paternalism. It was a beautiful moment for me, talking to a missions agency about a topic many agencies do all they can to avoid. I’m so grateful for Peter’s outlook and the way in which he is working hard to bring voices from the margins into the spotlight.
In-between the first and the last chats, there were amazing discussions with Faitth Brooks, Honest Missionary, Mekdes Haddis, Ryan Kuja (PLEASE PLEASE check out his new book From the Inside Out which discusses many of the topics we covered in our monthly chats), Jean Johnson (check out her book We Are Not the Hero and note that she has a study guide now), Nathalia Barros Lewis, Greg Millsaps, CJ Quartlbaum, and Bryan Benz from the International Wholistic Missions Conference (in 2019 it’ll be in Kansas City and I hope you’ll come!).
I never got around to it, but I deeply wanted to have Beth Watkins as a guest on the chat. Please check out her Engaging Missions podcast, and her website. Also grab a copy of her free e-book For the Moments I Feel Faint.
As much as I have enjoyed this monthly chat, it has taken a certain amount of time and preparation. As many of you may already know, I am a foster mom. The last several months fostering has brought a whole new realm of experiences for this white American [struggling] evangelical. I have since decided to write a book on these experiences. In order to do so, and maintain my life as a mom, employee, and involved member of my church, I need to make space.
If any of you feel so inclined to pick up the JustMissions chat and run with it, I’d be happy to see that happen. It has taken a concerted effort to not just get cynical about missions. I must admit sometimes I fall into that. But I believe in hope, not necessarily hope in ‘missions’ per say, but hope that Christ moves us beyond cynicism and provokes us to work with Him toward shalom. That is where my hope is. I have hope that more missions agencies will see the need for shalom rather than colonialism, and that more missionaries will see that without intentionality, their work can be the work of colonialism.
Missions has brought me to where I am today: fighting for the rights of undocumented parents to be with their undocumented children. For that, I am and always will be grateful. I believe as more and more of us who are interested in missions, those of us who are or were or one day will be missionaries can usher in the alternative consciousness of missions, the world can actually be a better place: not because we bring Jesus wherever we go, but because Jesus is brought deeper and deeper into the crevices and silos of our profound hearts, bodies, and souls, as we connect deeper and deeper to our global neighbors.
Goodbye #JustMissions. But that doesn't mean goodbye #JustMissions participants. Please keep conversing with me, stay in contact. Keep pushing me to be more enlightened in how I look at missions.
Book Excerpt: Chapter 8--From the Inside Out
In 1492, Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the Bahamas while searching for a sea route from Europe to Asia. The indigenous Arawak people who had inhabited the Caribbean for centuries, “emerged from their villages onto the island's beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts.” They presented parrots, balls of cotton, spears and other items. According to Columbus himself, “they were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features . . . They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane . . . They would make fine servants . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
Columbus and his men wasted no time in getting to their task of exploring for gold and spices: “On the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts.” From the outset the colonizers used violence to control and subjugate the Arawaks, who “faced Spaniards who had armor, muskets, swords, horses. When the Spaniards took prisoners they hanged them or burned them to death. Among the Arawaks, mass suicides began, with cassava poison. Infants were killed to save them from the Spaniards. In two years, through murder, mutilation, or suicide, half of the 250,000 Indians on Haiti were dead.”
A Dominican friar who participated in the original conquest of the West Indies, Bartolome de las Casas, eventually began speaking out against the subjugation by the Spanish. He became a potent voice for social reform and outspoken advocate for indigenous rights. Las Casas wrote, “our work was to exasperate, ravage, kill, mangle and destroy; small wonder, then, if they tried to kill one of us now and then . . . The admiral, it is true, was blind as those who came after him, and he was so anxious to please the King that he committed irreparable crimes against the Indians.” The Spanish, continues Las Casas, "grew more conceited every day" and rather than walking, "rode the backs of Indians if they were in a hurry. . . they also had Indians carry large leaves to shade them from the sun and others to fan them with goose wings." The newly arrived colonists, Las Casas goes on, "thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades." He narrates an account of when "two of these so-called Christians met two Indian boys one day, each carrying a parrot; they took the parrots and for fun beheaded the boys."
Imperial Jesus had been brought by Columbus and his compatriots to the so-called New World. In the midst of this brutality, Columbus wrote in a report back to the Spanish crown, “"Thus the eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow His way over apparent impossibilities." The Spanish visitors had instigated a reign of terror in the name of Jesus Christ, the Messiah who had ushered in a reign of justice, freedom, and flourishing for all.
The cross and sword went hand in hand, literally and metaphorically, each escorted by the other in fulfilling the colonial task—both wielded in the name of the One who had lived and taught the way of forgiveness, nonviolence, and peace. The Christian symbol that signified the suffering Messiah, the Prince of Peace, had been co-opted by European imperialists and reverted back into a symbol of power, dominance, and colonial rule. It had once again become a Roman cross, returning to its past as a symbol of humiliation and shame. The vision of peace and prosperity through the sword entered a contemporary manifestation in the Americas. The way of empire was renewed, allegiance pledged to the crown of Spain rather than the kingdom of God. Western colonialism robbed the cross of Christ, the non-violent Prince of Peace, and returned it to its original imperial means of controlling the subjects of the foreign throne and bringing about expansion of its territory.
The violence of the sword had muted out the message of the reconciling love of the cross. The Way modeled and taught by Jesus was replaced by the way of the imperial ego. The potential expansion of God’s kingdom and the missio Dei taking root through expressions of cross-cultural shalom was aborted.
The crack in the foundation of global mission began to appear. In 1493, a year after Columbus’ first voyage to the New World, Pope Alexander XI wrote a document, known as a Papal Bull, declaring that lands not inhabited by Christians were free to be “discovered” by Christian rulers on behalf of their European monarchs. He declared “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” This document was one of the centerpieces of the “Doctrine of Discovery” which authorized European claims in the Americas. Indigenous brown and black skinned people across the world—anyone who was not Western, white, and Christian—were theologized into uncivilized, uncultured, and regressive nonpersons and labeled enemies of Christ. Violence toward indigenous persons was codified by papal decree, ethnocentrism sanctified through holy writ.
The first wave of European colonization, supported by the church’s doctrine, led to the eventual conquest of the whole of the Americas. The living out of this theology was practical, egregiously so. The church had institutionalized racism and ethnocentrism through theologizing colonialism into doctrine.
Imperial Jesus continued to grow up. The fissure in the foundation of mission widened.
Ryan Kuja Bio
A global citizen with a background in international mission, relief, and development, Ryan Kuja has lived in fifteen cities and rural villages on five continents. He holds an M.A. in Theology and Culture from The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology as well a Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance from Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. A spiritual director and writer, his first book, From the Inside Out: Reimagining Mission, Recreating the World, released in June 2018. Ryan is currently serving as the Field Director of Word Made Flesh in Medellin, Colombia, where he lives with his wife. You can find him online at ryankuja.com and on twitter as @ryankuja.
Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 6.
 Is 9:6.
 Alexander VI, Inter Caetera.