In Nicaraguan anabaptist churches, we generally have envisioned Jesus as a white man. What impact has this image had on us, whether we are mestizo (mixed Indigenous and European ancestry), Indigenous or Afro-descendants? Can we talk about colorism in our churches? We rarely do.
I visited a friend at her Mennonite church. She introduced me to her mother and her pastor. The pastor called my friend’s mother the “dark sheep” of the Christian family — a clear reference to her skin color.
Later I asked my friend’s -mother how this made her feel. She said, “That’s just the way he is.”
Such comments are common in Mennonite and evangelical churches here in Nicaragua. It’s a reflection of our colorist society. We define beauty and intelligence by European standards.
The image I inherited of Jesus in my Anabaptist circle was stern and a little frightening. I remember a painting in my aunt’s house of a blond-haired, blue-eyed man staring into the void, with flowing clothes in pastel shades, pointing to a heart with a crown of thorns that emitted rays of light. A cousin told me I should not pass near this painting, because Jesus would get angry and look at everything I was doing.
This image of Jesus — distant, -deified, stoic — remained with me.
Nicaragua is a multiethnic and multi-lingual country, though many people claim Nicaraguans speak only Spanish and are mestizo. Yet Nicaraguans speak Spanish, English, Creole, Miskito, Sumo and Rama. Mestizos are likely to distrust Indigenous or Afro-descendant people. We remain silent in the face of massacres, banishments and land colonization of Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. Settlers have invaded the territory of Indigenous communities. Miskito leaders have been assassinated.
Colorism persists. Even in Mennonite churches, people discriminate and bully because of skin color. This happens every time someone tells an Indigenous or Black girl she should be whiter to be prettier or when we say “race should be improved.”
We perpetuate colorism when we make fun of a Black person or laugh at the way Indigenous or Afro-descendant people talk or dress, comparing them to animals and saying, “Don’t be a native.”
Latin American Anabaptist churches are no strangers to this behavior.
Where does the idea come from that mestizos are superior? The biggest reason, perhaps, is that we have a colonialist vision of our identity. Colonialism says one group is better than another. It says the strong should hold power over those considered weak. The colonizing of the Americas by Europeans hundreds of years ago persists in this prejudiced way of thinking.
We privilege the mestizo — descended from a white Spaniard and a raped native woman — as the normative Nicaraguan. We forget the Indigenous peoples who resist losing their identity. The Mayan, Inca and Aztec peoples survive, but colonialism exploits them.
Latin American Anabaptists cannot remain silent. We must abolish the systemic racism in which we are rooted. We need to recognize our Indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples and give them the voice they deserve.
In the 1980s, there was an attempt to build a more just society. With the emergence of liberation theology, many Christians, especially Catholics, began to reflect on the reality of the peasant and all who are oppressed. But our Anabaptist churches lost a great opportunity. Our biblical institutes, serving a population scourged by war and the conscription of young men, promoted a theology of peace but not of greater justice. I believe this was partly because Anabaptism was imported from North America.
Listening to peasant music inspires me for the cause of justice. This song, by Nicaraguan singer-songwriter Carlos Mejía Godoy, brings us closer to the historical and human Jesus:
You are the God of the poor, / the human and simple God, / the God who sweats in the street, / the God of the weathered face.
You are the working God, / the working Christ. / You go hand in hand with my people. / You stand in line in the camp / to get paid your wages.
I have seen you in a company store, /
installed in a street vendor’s shack. /
I have seen you selling lottery tickets / without being ashamed of that role.
I have seen you at the gas stations / checking the tires of a truck / and even oiling highways / with leather gloves and overalls.
You are the God of the poor.