What do you know about God?
Damon Garcia has a hunch that the God of your imagination may need to be super sized a few quadrillion times and then doubled for good measure. As he sees it, everything you’ve ever been taught or led to believe about God may be biased because those teachings—“the neat little box of [God] ideas”— all served to support the agenda of whatever church or spiritual community you heard it from.
And yet, Damon believes, you are still on a spiritual journey because you “suspect that God is so much bigger than those small empty boxes. … And this God lures us to build a new world.”
In the book, you explain that faith can either, I’m paraphrasing here a bit, help to empower people or it can be used to justify the world as it is. The book suggests that these two ideas have both been active throughout Christian history and are in tension. Can you speak more about that tension and if today, in your view, it seems less like tension and more like an imbalance?
Yes, we see that tension in history and within ourselves. We use our faith to justify the way things are, but we also use our faith to empower us to change things. As the world changes, religion changes with it. We see this with the abolition of chattel slavery in the United States, for example. During that fight most white Christians argued that the fight for abolition was fighting against God’s way of setting up the world. Then, after that abolition, white Christians began thanking God for the necessary change. This tension will continue into the future as we evolve. I bring this up in the book because I call for the abolition of unjust systems, such as colonialism, capitalism, and institutions that preserve cisheteropatriarchy. And as we do that work we must also examine our faith and let go of the ideas that were developed to justify those systems.
Can we talk a little bit about labels? I read your book and I heard some ideas that would be comfortable in the evangelical camp, perhaps, but also more that reflect a more progressive focus. How would you describe yourself and where do you find yourself standing in regards to Christianity today?
I grew up in a Pentecostal church that had a heavy focus on deliverance ministry. They saw the purpose of the church as freeing people from whatever they struggled with. Often, we paid more attention to spiritual struggles than material struggles, but I saw my parents take both very seriously. I didn’t realize how much that impacted me until I started writing the book. Growing up with an idea of God as the one who frees us inspired me to keep following that God as I left evangelical ministry in 2017. I had tried to synthesize progressive ideas with evangelical ideas for years as I trained to become a pastor. Eventually it became impossible, and so I left. I’m still very much a Christian, and I’m part of another church, but I learn and grow every day as I keep exploring this God who frees us. This exploration led me to writing this book.
Let’s turn our attention to Evangelical Christianity. You write “evangelical teachings were taught as the only way to interpret the Christian faith and were tied to the faith of the early Christians in a way that totally obscured church history.” I find that to be a very insightful critique of the evangelical movement. People often focus on the rightness or infallibility notion, but rarely mention the historical context. I wonder why you think that distinction matters?
I often hear people criticize evangelicals for being “stuck in the old ways” and unable to change. I understand and partially agree with this criticism, but it sometimes frustrates me when the examples people give of “the old ways” are ideas developed over the last century or two, such as the rapture, biblical inerrancy, and fierce support for Republican politicians. It’s helpful to look through our history and mark the points where these ideas developed, why they developed, and what that development was in reaction to. These revelations are often world-shattering for an evangelical who is questioning what they’re taught. When we teach that modern evangelical reinterpretations of Christianity are what the early church taught then it forces us to ignore history. That ignorance of history creates an environment where people can be easily manipulated.
I’m perfectly fine with embracing new ideas, and I lack a passion for preserving old ideas just because they’re older. But learning about how our particular faith tradition has evolved helps us have a more honest faith. In the last sermon series I gave to my old evangelical youth group I explored the branches of Christianity that led to our particular denomination, and talked about what we can learn from the various branches. I didn’t know it would be my last sermon series when I gave it, but I now recognize that it was a sign that I couldn’t stay long in a branch that I had come to understand as a small corner of Christianity.
Your book references a range of theological ideas and perspectives, which give the text an impressive weight. Personally, I loved that you mentioned John Calvin, linking his doctrines to problems with the historical treatment of Indigenous people in the United States. I’m wondering, as you did your research for the book, what theologians or thinkers were the most challenging for you to deal with?
Yes, I mention John Calvin as I further explore the points in history where Christian ideas evolved. Even Calvinism itself evolved when English Puritans began using Calvin’s theology to teach that the murder and enslavement of Indigenous people was justified because they weren’t part of God’s elect. It’s important for me to write about these adaptations and justifications because when we understand the origin of oppressive ideologies then we can envision their end.
A theologian that challenged me while writing the book is Karl Lampley, and his book, A Theological Account of Nat Turner. I have a section in my book about Nat Turner and the way he reinterpreted the Bible and used his faith to inspire a revolt against his enslavers. Turner reshaped the faith that was taught to him, and discovered the God of the Bible, who frees people from slavery. Lampley gets into a deeper discussion about violence and nonviolence, which was a tension I held within myself as I wrote about radical change. Another thinker that helped me hold this tension is Vicky Osterweil and her book, In Defense of Looting. Both of these books do a great job at examining history and the evolution of the ideas they cover, which is what I sought to do in my own book as well.
I see your book as speaking not so much to the people who have never really explored the Christian faith or been part of a church community, but to the people who might “not anymore am I part of that world.” What might you say to folks who feel fed up with Christianity and the church today? Is there hope?
It’s troubling when Christians respond to critiques of Christianity’s history of violence by saying, “those weren’t real Christians.” Christians who have power and use it to oppress people are as real as you can imagine, especially because that power is also used to maintain a hegemony of their version of Christianity. So as long as that oppression exists then those who suffer under that oppression are justified for leaving Christianity. It’s easier to admit that about Indigenous people who suffered under the initial colonization of the United States, for example. But it’s a lot more difficult to admit it about those who suffer under Christian violence today. If we want to embrace a liberative version of Christianity and end oppressive versions of Christianity then we must fight to end the oppressive systems that oppressive versions of Christianity preserve and justify. Until then, we must accept that, for many people, leaving Christianity is the most liberative path they can choose.
So yes, there is hope, but my hope isn’t in Christians changing their ideas. My hope is in us fighting to end oppressive systems in order to open up space for Christians to change their ideas. Whether we do that work within Christianity or outside of it, I believe this is the work of liberation that God calls us to.
You describe how you came to understand the work of the church very differently after trying to start a church and working with others who were very invested in changing their communities for the better. The text explores what Jesus meant when he talked about the kingdom of God. The world’s problems often seem so big. How would you suggest people get involved in the work of God?
Yes, I grew up with the idea that the primary role of a pastor is to preach every Sunday, and so when I began training to become a pastor I was always trying to get better at preaching. Then I started talking to a lot of pastors, and a few of them stood out to me because they didn’t see preaching as their primary role. They saw their role and the role of their church as serving their city. They talked about starting a community center that had service on Sundays, instead of a Sunday service that sometimes helped in the community. This changed the way I thought about everything. It also changed how I read the verses where Jesus talks about the kingdom of God. I realized Jesus was talking about serving the material needs of people, and transforming our material conditions to the extent where the last are first and the first are last.
Jesus isn’t talking about some otherworldly realm when he talks about the kingdom of God. He’s talking about participating in the work of liberation here and now. When some ministers realize this they often make the mistake of immediately starting their own community programs without researching what other local organizations are already doing. I would suggest people research local organizations and see how your church can be of service. If you don’t have a church then find some friends and research what you can do together to help local organizations. From there you will be able to better assess what kinds of programs need to be started and how.
The book couches its theology in economic terms, explaining that under a capitalist economic system “everything is turned into a product to be bought or sold,” leading to the dehumanization that God is fighting against and freeing people from. We haven’t talked much about your title: The God who Riots. Is it now time for people to follow suit?
The title of the book is in reference to my favorite Bible story that takes place during the week Jesus is crucified. Jesus stages a planned demonstration, turned riot, in the temple, with property destruction, looting, and all. He uses the demonstration to tell the crowd that they’ve turned the temple into a den of robbers. What I find really interesting is that a den of robbers is not where people are robbed. It’s where robbers go and hide to avoid being caught. Jesus is essentially accusing the religious leaders of his day of using their religion to hide and avoid the injustice going on everywhere. I find this story more relevant than ever, because we all know Christians who use their religion to hide in this same way.
When we look at the life of Jesus we recognize that Jesus is never neutral. He always chooses the side of the poor and oppressed. This was especially significant in the Hebrew prophetic tradition, which Jesus often took inspiration from. I give an in-depth analysis of this story in the book, and alongside this analysis I also analyze the Black Lives Matter protests after the police murder of George Floyd. When I saw the livestream of protestors dancing in front of a burning police precinct in Minneapolis I thought to myself, “This is where God is.” I spend the whole book painting a picture of this God, and talking about how we can see that God everywhere. As this God empowers us to fight for a new world we must pay attention to these protests, even when they turn into a riot. We must listen to what they say about our world and how it must change. I make sure to mention in the book that I’m not referring to all protests and riots, such as the January 6th riot at the Capitol. That protest was fighting to preserve power. I’m talking about protests that fight for a new world—particularly a one where we are liberated from the oppression we face in today’s world. Those protests, strikes, and even riots, will continue as long as movements for change are suppressed.
We’ve covered a lot of ground, but it’s possible that I missed something you would really like to talk about. Is there something you had hoped people would ask you about the book or about your work? Some areas that we haven’t explored that you’d like to speak about?
There’s a theme in my book that I didn’t realize until I started talking about the book with people during its release. I keep coming back to the message that God is so much bigger than what we may have been taught. A lot of us have felt out of place in several spiritual communities because of the way they confined God to a nice and neat box of ideas that mirrored their agenda. And yet, we have remained on a spiritual journey because we suspect that God is so much bigger than those small empty boxes. I wrote this book to confirm those suspicions. This book is about a God that can’t be confined by the status quo. And this God lures us to build a new world.