The Significance of the Cross in Latino/a Perspective

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal 6:14, ESV)

Where I Stand in the Story of the Cross

The cross of our savior Jesus Christ is not a matter for speculation among Latin American and Latino/a theologians, at least not in a western way. There are historical, political, cultural, and theological reasons for this. Put bluntly, the birth of Latin America is tied to the imperial program of the proclamation of the cross of Jesus Christ. The crucifix was used as God’s signature, authorizing the Iberian campaign of invasion, cultural devastation, appropriation of the land, colonization, massacring, and evangelization of the Americas during and after the European Conquest. This reality inescapably shapes our approach to the cross of Jesus Christ and sets it apart from the Christological theories, debates, and motifs that have occupied western theology across the centuries.

Among Latin American and Latino/a theologians one finds a variety of trends when doing theological reflection and mission work. Some limit themselves to mimicking western methodologies and transplanting western ideas, models, and ambitions into a nonwestern environment, be that Latin America itself or its global diaspora. Others move in a counter-western direction or position themselves in a postwestern horizon, in the interest of a theology that acknowledges the rupture between the old western ways and the new nonwestern ways. They see the urgency of autonomous reflection and contextual mission, but due to the dominance of western theology and the contextual overdose and acute localism present in their views, find themselves theologically segregated. Yet others, including myself, are thinking in transwestern ways—that is, working to foster transcontextual, transcultural, transclassical, interdisciplinary, and ecumenical conversations.

We are in a new time. Now that the Global South has emerged as the new center of Christianity, the western theological community appears to be ready to listen more attentively to voices previously ignored. Several of us, who might fit under the rubric of transwestern theology, are doing theology in a way that shows an interactive spirit. While rejecting the mythical west—which portrays western culture as a cohesive, privileged center from which the true and best Christian theology emerges—we find it important to treasure the heritage vested in western Christianity for almost two millennia and to maintain a dialogue with western theologians from the past and present. We see this as a way to embody a global conversation that is long due and urgent as we all share the gospel of the global God.

Christological Developments in Latin American and Latino/a Contexts

The Conquest—The Cross as the Beginning
At the beginning of the Americas there were two crosses1—the historical event of the Conquest and the theological meaning of that event in light of the biblical Jesus. This conundrum shapes the theological imagination of many Latin American and Latino/a theologians when doing Christology. Leonardo Boff captures this understanding fairly well: “We all carry on our shoulders . . . or in our hearts some cross. And every cross, as little as it may look, is onerous, but can be lived as a tribulation or a liberation.”2

No matter where one stands in the wide spectrum of Latin American Christianity and its global diaspora, whether among Protestants (liberals, evangélicos, Pentecostals, ethnic)3 or among Roman Catholics (official religion, popular religion, liberationist movements), Christology faces two crosses. One will take us right to the Conquest, to deal with its historical consequences in our time. The other will takes us to the reality of Jesus Christ, our source of life, hope, healing, and salvation.


In a campaign that lasted from 1492 to 1898, Spanish explorers, soldiers, and Roman Catholic priests and friars used a form of CONQUEST CHRISTOLOGY to justify the oppression of indigenous populations of Mexico and Latin America. Seeing their mission as a natural extension of the medieval crusades, they opened trade routes and made converts to Christianity by any means necessary. Mural paintings of Diego Rivera from the Palacio Nacionale in Mexico City (begun in 1929), documented this history and influence of religion. An avowed atheist, Rivera considered religion a form of “collective neurosis” and was critical of the early church’s complicity with the Spanish conquistadores.

The birth of the Americas was traumatic and violent. The cross and the sword arrived as inseparable pieces of a “shock and awe” Spanish campaign to get the gold of the land in order to fund the crusades in the Holy Land. At first, the conquistadores attempted an evangelization-by-assimilation strategy. When this did not work, they moved to the evangelization-by-massacring strategy. This worked a little better. Let us be clear that the Spanish Catholicism of the time was by no means representative of the rest of Europe. Eight centuries of Islamic influence over Spain and an intense appetite to keep the Crusades going could not have left Catholicism in Spain intact.

When thinking about Christology in Latin America, John A. Mackey’s work is a good place to start. Mackey was a Presbyterian educator and evangelist who lived in South America and whose pioneer Christological work in the 1930s paved the way for contextual Christology in Latin America. He argued that the “Christ” who embarked to the Americas with the Spanish conquistadores, that is, the Christ known by the original cultures and who gave birth to Christianity in the Americas, was a tragic and lifeless figure. Through Miguel de Unamuno’s eyes, Mackey poetically depicts his christological critique against the docetic Christology he found embedded in South American Catholicism during his time.

Christ too came to America. Journeying from Bethlehem and Calvary, He passed through Africa and Spain on His long westward journey to the pampas and cordilleras. And yet, was it really he who came, or another religious figure with his name and some of his marks? [I think] that Christ, as he sojourned westward, went to prison in Spain, while another who took his name embarked with the Spanish crusaders for the New World, a Christ who was not born in Bethlehem but in North Africa. This Christ became naturalized in the Iberian colonies of America.4

In short, conquest Christology introduced some infamous ideas into the subconsciousness of Latin America: (1) suffering is a God-giving historical reality and inevitable, (2) Christ illustrates and invites tragedy, and (3) God blesses the others-in-power and allows them to use violence to accomplish their mandate. Interestingly, in the history of Latin American religion and politics we find a long and tragic list of dictatorships, regimes, power structures, and Christian superstructures that use this conquest Christology to perpetuate oppression and to authorize violence, particularly against the most vulnerable: the indigenous population, the poor, women, and children.

The Glorious Christ of Evangelicalism—Where Is the Cross?
The nineteenth century brought with it a series of conditions that would change the sociopolitical and religious horizons of Latin America forever. Two of the most significant were the political independence of the new nations of Latin America and the introduction of Protestantism. The former weakened significantly the influence and control of Iberian Catholicism over Latin American civic and political life, and the latter built the bridges that would yoke Latin America to a new superpower, the United States. Both conditions were key to the establishment of new Christological patterns in Latin America—one gearing toward a triumphant Protestantism and the other toward a militant liberationism.

Mackey’s christological agenda of introducing to Latin America the Protestant Christ, arguably, a nondocetic Christ of life and glory over against the “other Spanish Christ” of death, would eventually face its own criticism. Although the beginnings of the Protestant missions in Latin America were characterized by relevance and biblical faithfulness, as Protestantism proceeded a new wave of missionaries reshaped the landscape of Latin American Protestantism. Many of them were victims of the Fundamentalist/Liberal struggle and had a dispensationalist twang. After all, Latin America was ready for a Christ that would represent an exit from historical tragedy, poverty, and spiritual emptiness, a Christ of glory. So the glorious Christ we can find in biblical narratives, creedal formulations, or Pentecostal/hymnological experiences was passionately embraced as the living Christ in contrast to the Spanish-Catholic dead Christ. It almost goes without saying that one of the chief characteristics of being Protestant in Latin America is to be anti-Catholic. To a great extent, this is reflected in the Christological slogan: el Cristo de la Biblia es un Cristo vivo no un Cristo muerto (the Christ of the Bible is a living Christ not a dead Christ).

But this Cristo vivo de la Biblia (living Christ of the Bible) also came with a cost. If the “other Spanish Christ” of the Catholics brought death and tragedy, the Cristo vivo de la Biblia of the Protestants/Pentecostals did not bring enough life and seemed to have forgotten the way of the cross. Among others, C. Rene Padilla, the renowned theologian from Ecuador, pointed out the irrelevance of the western Protestant Christology circulating in Latin America: “Despite its theoretical acknowledgment of Christ’s full humanity, evangelical Christianity in Latin America, as in the rest of the world, is deeply affected by Docetism. It affirms Christ’s transforming power in relation to the individual, but is totally unable to relate the Gospel to social ethics and social life.”5 These words represent not only a critique but also an attempt to build a Christology that is contextual, biblically faithful, and socially relevant. This indeed has been an ongoing agenda for Padilla, as well as Samuel Escobar and other members of the prestigious Latin American Theological Fraternity (FTL) for the last forty years.

In short, along with a faithful and fruitful proclamation of the glorious Christ, Protestantism/Pentecostalism introduced to Latin America an ethereal, truncated, and docetic Christology that had forgotten its way to the cross and suffered from the Anglo-Saxon Fundamentalist/Liberal divide. This gave rise to a committed group of evangélicos (FTL) whose four decades of reflection led them to believe that Latin American Christology should be mission-based, Trinitarian, and socially relevant.

The Liberating Christ—From Inheriting the Cross to Choosing It for Life
After the second half of the twentieth century, Latin America was about to give birth to a child of its own, a Christology that would shake the dominant paradigms of Christianity in Latin America as well as in the rest of Christendom. This was a Christology of Liberation. In brief, the locus theologicus shifted from the European categories of reason, Sola Scriptura, the church, and individual subjectivism to a hermeneutics of communal suffering, poverty, and injustice in light of Jesus’ way to the cross. This Christology of liberation reversed the conquest Christology of the cross. While Mackey looks at the Other Spanish Christ through the lenses of Unamuno and finds in it a “Christ” who is a child and a victim, Liberation theologians looked at the living and liberating Christ through the praxis of Father Montesinos and Bartolomé De Las Casas and find a “Christ” who is the defender of the civil rights of the indigenous population in a time of exploitation, genocide, and social injustice.

U.S. Latino/a Christology—The Cross in the Story of a Pilgrim People
Immigration has had an effect on Christology, at least in the U.S. Latino/a context. The growth of Latino/a Christianity in the United States called for the training of religious leaders and contextual reflection. Latino/a theology, which developed almost side by side with Latin American liberation theologies and integral mission theology (FTL), discovered a christological paradigm of great significant for the understanding of God and the Latino/a identity. This is rooted in the concept of Mestizaje and Mulatez.

The Mestizo-Mulato was considered for a long time, in Europe and Latin America, a hybrid aberrational product of the mixing of unequal races (Europeans with Amerindians, Africans). The Latino/a experience of Mestizaje-Mulatez offers a corresponding hermeneutical paradigm for under-standing Jesus Christ as God among us. The Hispanic theologian Luis Pedraja explains: “We know viscerally what it is like to fully embody the tensions of disparate realities that may seem incongruent with one another. In a sense, the incarnation is the ultimate act of mestisaje and mulatez joining together humanity and divinity in one act. . . . By using the paradigm of Mestizaje-Mulatez we assert that Jesus identified with the oppressed and the marginalized, locating the presence of God in their midst.”6

“Our multicultural God calls on the church to communicate the love of God in Christ — in, with, and under the rich diversity that embraces us all,” says ALICIA VARGAS,  director of contextual education at Pacific Lutheran Theology Seminary in Berkeley, CA. “Mutuality of experience intermingles with God’s divine presence; we’re prepared for great commission work in our diverse nation and the world.”

Mestizaje and Mulatez as a christological key to understanding God among us constitutes another reversal of the demeaning of conquest Christology. It points constructively to the borderland existence of Jesus Christ as the incarnated God, the sociocultural causes for his rejection by the elite of Jerusalem Judaism, and the new humanity in Christ. In addition, since hybridity has been a cause for discrimination, oppression, marginalization, and mimic violence through the history of Latin America and the Latino/a people, it bears witness to a crucified existence that finds meaning in Jesus Christ and his cruciform journey.

In our Latino-ness we bear the marks of the cross embedded in our cultural richness. Mestizaje and Mulatez relate to the cross in the most intimate possible way: cultural struggle. José David Rodríguez says it well: “In the collective identity of Hispanics in North America two distinctive elements stand out . . . the rich racial, ethnic, and cultural background of our origins and evolution . . . [and] our continuous subjection to subordination and marginality.”7 Mestizaje and Mulatez as an emblematic element of our rich racial, ethnic, and cultural existence, and the cross as a journey that finds a compañero (“companion”) in Jesus Christ by way of our daily experience of subjugation, subordination, and marginality—“these two elements,” claims Alicia Vargas, “define indeed our story and stories in the United States.”8

In Latin American and Latino/a Christology, there seems to be a strange and unceasing dance of death with life, of vicarious sacrifice with utopian liberation, and of historical tragedy with victorious vindication. Or in the words of Pedraja, “The cross liberates us by affirming that we are not abandoned or rejected by God when we too encounter our own crosses. Not does our suffering and death occur in vain, for at the cross, God vests our own crosses with meaning and the hope of life in spite of death.”9

1. A reworking of Jürgen Moltmann’s famous words: “At the beginning of Christianity there are two crosses” (“The Cross as Military Symbol for Sacrifice,” in Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today [ed. Marit A. Trelstad; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006], 259–63).
2. Leonardo Boff, La Cruz Nuestra de Cada Día: Manantial de Vida y Resurrección (trans. Bernardo Guizar; México: Eds. Dabar, 2004), 5 (my translation).
3. See José Míguez Bonino, Faces of Latin American Protestantism: 1993 Carnahan Lectures (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997).
4. John A. Mackey, The Other Spanish Christ: A Study in the Spiritual History of Spain and South America (New York: Macmillan, 1933), 95.
5. Mark Lau Branson and C. René Padilla, eds., Conflict and Context: Hermeneutics in the Americas (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 79.
6. Luis G. Pedraja, Teología: Introduction to Hispanic Theology (Nashville: Abingdon, 2004), 139, 142
7. Ada María Isasi-Díaz and Fernando F. Segovia, Hispanic/Latino Theology: Challenge and Promise (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 355.
8. Alicia Vargas, “Reading Ourselves into the Cross Story: Luther and United States Latinos,” in Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today (ed. Marit A. Trelstad; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006), 159.
9. Pedraja, Teología, 156.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2012, “No Cross, No Christianity: The Biblical Shape of Atonement Theology.”