I often hang out with idealistic Christians. People in my circles want to get back to the roots of the Gospel, to emphasize justice and liberation over condemnation and exclusion. It can feel so exciting to find other people who care about these things. Sometimes, though, I realize, with a jolt, that I’m not on the same page as others in the room. We may agree that our church and society should be more inclusive, but we have very different ideas about what this means. Shared ideals — peace, justice, even an end to police violence — don’t necessarily mean we have a shared analysis. In fact our goals — police abolition versus increased funding for police training, for instance — may be incompatible.
When idealistic Christians are unclear about our goals and analysis, we often throw around words like liberal, progressive, reform, radical, leftist or revolutionary. These words mean very different things. This imprecision masks important differences between us, so we start projecting, assuming that everyone thinks like we do. We need to work with people who disagree with us, but to organize effectively, we also need to articulate and claim a common goal.
Damon Garcia’s “The God Who Riots: Taking Back the Radical Jesus” is both a liberation theology primer and a memoir of Garcia’s journey into liberative Christian spaces. Garcia is incisive and precise as he walks the reader through subjects that some call controversial, even heretical. As Garcia notes, though, the word “heresy” comes from the Greek hairetikós, meaning “able to choose.” “The God Who Riots” gives us choices — tough, important choices. The book makes a Christian case for reparations, prison and police abolition and riots. Rooting anti-capitalist analysis within the Christian tradition, he argues that we must transform our material conditions “so that we may open up space to relate to each other in ways we couldn’t have before.” An emphasis on material conditions — food, housing, money and the power to access these things — is woven through the text.
Garcia describes his journey from Pentecostalism to a Christianity that transcends denominations. He describes the experience of entering white, Progressive churches as a Mexican-American, writing, “All those books I was reading were by white, Progressive Christians speaking to other white, Progressive Christians, with no sense of narrowness whenever they used the word ‘we.’” I imagine the book might resonate with other BIPOC Christians who seek communities where they can be fully, wholly themselves.
“The God Who Riots” is also an accessible read for white Christians who might squirm at talk of reparations. It is the kind of book you could give to a liberal relative to steer them in a more radical direction. Garcia examines liberal caricatures of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Donald Trump supporters. He walks us through common talking points and guides us toward anti-capitalist analysis. If we want to go deeper, Garcia references thinkers like Mariame Kaba and Vicky Osterweil for our future exploration.
Even readers who have studied liberation theology may gain fresh insight from Garcia. He talks about forgiveness in terms that were unfamiliar to me, writing, “To forgive someone is to set them free to live beyond what was held over them.” Oppressors must release oppressed people from the power they hold over them by, for instance, forgiving their debts. (In some translations of the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”) Releasing interpersonal resentment is only part of forgiveness. I have been reflecting on how our culture often understands forgiveness as only an individual, internal process. Garcia helped me understand that material forgiveness may be a prerequisite to emotional forgiveness. This is part of a case for reparations. How can white people demand emotional forgiveness from Black people who live in material poverty because of segregation and redlining?
Ultimately, Damon Garcia is clear about what he believes. His precise, accessible writing makes “The God Who Riots” worthwhile for like-minded folks and skeptics alike. Even if a reader finishes and wants to debate Garcia on nonviolence or abolition, this book will help them dig deeper into their own analysis. For idealistic Christians to change our church and world, we must get better at talking about what we believe. Garcia’s book can help us do so.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Abby Rampone is a writer from Vermont. She has lived at two Catholic Worker houses, an intentional community called the Women’s Interfaith Residency Program and the Fireplace Community in Chicago. Abby writes poetry, rescues cats, cross-stitches and supports climate justice movements like the fight against Line 3. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in comparative literature from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and a Master of Divinity in interreligious engagement from Union Theological Seminary.