D.A. Horton is pastor of Reach Fellowship in Long Beach, California, and an assistant professor of Intercultural Studies at California Baptist University. Horton is also a highly-sought after speaker, partly because of some of the topics he writes about in his latest book, Intensional: Kingdom Ethnicity in a Divided World.
In Intensional, Horton takes the position that with all the confusion, hostility, and mistrust impacting conversations related to race, ethnicity, and culture, it is the responsibility of Christians in particular to stand up and offer hopeful solutions. As it states on the back of Intensional: “The people of God are the only humans who have experienced true reconciliation. Who better to enter the ethnic tensions of our day with hope?”
In a conversation conducted via Skype video with Faithfully Magazine, Horton discusses several themes related to his book, including why he prefers to use the terms “ethnic conciliation” and “Kingdom ethnicity,” what compels him as a Christian of color to remain in White Evangelical spaces, how he came to embrace his identity as a Mexican Choctaw American, and more. The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What compelled you to take on this book and who do you see as your audience?
I think, broadly speaking, American Protestants. Because a lot of the nuances socially are here directly in the United States of America, a lot of the cultural nuances and references and rhythms, [are] specifically [in] the United States of America. The reason I say Protestants is because a lot of the content is derivative, specifically from situations that involve Protestants and there [are] different subgroups and subcultures within Protestantism. So that’s the large demographic, if you will, the target. I was very clear to speak to a Jesus-following—at least professing Jesus-following community, not really engaging those outside of the covenant of faith, because I think we got to sweep around our front door first before we try to talk about somebody else’s house. So there’s that aspect. And then also, I was asked to kind of travel and speak about seven, eight years ago, in different cities, different contexts as it spoke to the realities of the gospel and issues of race and racism, ethnic tensions, and things of that language. So this has been, you know, well over seven years of just kind of refining, rethinking through, looking at where the frustrations are taking place on all sides of the conversation—but at the same time, ultimately saying, what is the pathway forward? How can we begin to see tangible gains rather than just frustrating conversations that leave everybody walking away unchanged and [a] perspective and a pathway forward? So all that kind of culminated [into] the reason for Intensional.
You’re saying that the church can actually impact the greater culture and lead the way on this. But if you look at the state of the church right now, or the dominant face of what the U.S. church is, it seems like we got a whole lot of mess going on, particularly when it comes to race. So where would the church get off trying to tell the culture “follow us” as we attempt to follow Christ in answering what you call a Kingdom ethnicity?
I think that that’s absolutely right. That’s embodying the tension. I myself as an individual who is living in a context where I’m an advocate for human flourishing, there [are] multiple conversations going on at the same time. There [are] issues revolving women’s rights, fair wages. There [are] issues, you know, dealing with immigration, asylum seekers, refugees—those individuals don’t have to be professing followers of Christ for me to engage the dialogue and to seek to mobilize for human flourishing. So I think that that conversation is going on.
At the same time, [there are] conversations that are in-house, internal. I kind of like to think it through the realities of engaging my neighbors. Well, there is a dual responsibility. I have a responsibility to my wife and my children, ensuring that our lights are on, there’s food on the table, there is a safe place for them. At the same time, if my neighbor professes a need, or if I see my neighbor is in need, then there is the dual responsibility that I have to think through the prioritizing of my time, my resources, of my family, as well as at the same time my neighbors, whether they are professing believers or not. And so I think as—those who are Kingdom citizens—we’re in this world. We don’t have to be of it, but we’re in it. So I think that is the dual reality that we have to find a greater level of balance of, the old cliche: don’t be so heavenly-minded that you have no earthly good. But rather I think it’s embarking upon being heavenly-minded while being doers of earthly good as well.
I think we need to have those conversations inside the church because there are people suffering inside the church. There’s spiritual trauma, there [are] financial issues, there is, you know, the desire to retreat to isolation because of woundedness.
Intensional seems like an excellent guide for people who are in ministry who are already at the place where they feel like they care, or are convicted about making sure their faith community or their organization reflects a kingdom ethnicity. What are two or three things people who are at that point could immediately start doing to move in that direction?
I think definitely looking to what the needs are for inside the context of the local church as well as outside in the local community. I think interpersonal relationships are crucial. It’s very paternalistic for me to assume I know what somebody else needs. And so the reality is, how can I understand the way that the world would want me to engage in helping to meet their needs in their moment of affliction if I never have a conversation and see what the reality of the depth their need is? And if I don’t have the resources, how about I help network and leverage privileges and other people to help them alongside them in their moment of affliction? I think that’s exactly what James was talking about in chapter one, is when he’s talking about widows and orphans, he’s highlighting demographics of people who are in a place of affliction. That’s where God’s people are to meet those people, in the midst of their affliction, not wait for their affliction to be over, but in the midst of the tension of affliction, and seek to alleviate their afflictions to the best of their ability.
So I think we need to have those conversations inside the church because there are people suffering inside the church. There’s spiritual trauma, there [are] financial issues, there is, you know, the desire to retreat to isolation because of woundedness. There [are] mental issues, mental illnesses, like all these nuances that are going on inside the Body of Christ, as well as society at large. I think that’s where communication amongst us that is honest, is transparent [is needed]. But in order to have that you’ve got to create spaces of vulnerability, spaces of safety, and that takes time, that takes assessing and evaluating the riskiness of building relationships that are meaningful. That means conflict will surface and I think that’s where we have to make the committed commitment, if you will, to say okay, even though conflict is present, let us lean into this tension together, seek to resolve it. It may not be resolved holistically, because life isn’t always picture-perfect, like a sitcom for 27 minutes, but it’s like we may be having to struggle with this for the next 20 years. So are we committed to what this looks like as Jesus has intersected our lives together? I think those are some tangible realities that go back to just very basic human rights: communication, authenticity, trust, loyalty, space of vulnerability, protection and safety. And if we do those things, I think flourishing will result over the course of time.
You rephrase some of the commonly used terms when talking about race, such as “Kingdom ethnicity.” Also, instead of using “racial reconciliation,” which is all over the place, you distill it down to what you think is more accurate terminology: “ethnic conciliation.” Define those two terms.
Going back to the reality of race versus ethnicity, race is a social construct when we look at human history outside of the church—but unfortunately it was constructed even inside the church as well—is that you see hierarchies and through imperialism and colonialism, that race was a constructed reality that was built by human hands. When we look at the scriptures, they predate colonialism, we see that people are identified by their ethnicity, their language, their geographic space of where they live, move, and have their being. So I think ethnicity is the preferred reality that is God-given. God elected us to be these ethnic heritages. And they’re beautiful, they’re gorgeous. So what we recognize is that within ethnic diversity, we see this in the population of the Kingdom of Heaven. When you look at Revelation , when you even look at the Great Commission, so to speak, in Matthew 28, when you look throughout the Old Testament, God is specifically communicating that His plan of redemption is inclusive of the nations—and “nations” is better translated “ethnicities.” So when we think about that, we see that heaven is multiethnic, it’s multilingual, it is both genders represented, the generations are represented. When we say that that’s the snapshot of the people of God, who will be with God throughout eternity, there is a kingdom ethnicity, it is the one new family of Christ that he has secured for us in Ephesians .
Even taking that, that kind of puts me at odds with the term “racial reconciliation.” The reason I wanted to take a different approach with the language is because, again, I just see constant frustration, limited gains in a lot of spaces. And I’m just like, there has to be a better way, because we’re talking at each other or past each other…. If we think through the terms and concepts of what we’re saying, let’s try to be a little bit more precise with our language. If I take away “race” and put “ethnic” that’s inclusive. If I say “reconciliation,” let’s remove that and put “conciliation.” Reconciliation is trying to find what we once had in conciliation and just candidly, the United States of America, the nations en masse have never had a point of conciliation to point back to. So what are we trying to get back? We’ve never had it in the first place. So that’s where conciliation says this is achieved when we no longer see animosity, distrust, and hostility en masse in our relational aspects.
What I argue is that Jesus has actually done the work of conciliation. And we see this positionally with the framing of the kingdom ethnicity. Now here is where the church has failed repeatedly generation after generation, is that we are not practically being agents of conciliation visibly, because we are divided amongst each other. We build walls that are segregating. We build spaces that exclude other people. When we do this, we are actually trying to do a work building something in opposition to what Christ has already destroyed. That’s in Ephesians . So even conciliation brings us back to the fact that we are all derivative of the same family tree with Adam and Eve. You see this in Acts 17:26, Adam, it’s through his bloodline that the nations of the world came; Eve is the mother of all living. And so even for us to be reconciled to God—because that’s a lot of pushback I get from evangelical brothers and sisters, is they say, “Hey, man, you know, listen, reconciliation is a gospel term.” I’m like, “Yeah, it is.” But we can be reconciled because the entirety of the human race was at one point “conciled” with God and each other and that was in the garden before sin took place. Sin is what separated us as men and women, sin is what separated us as a human race from our God. So when I say that there’s reconciliation for every ethnicity on planet Earth, for both genders, for all social classes, it’s because we all point back to our common parents. So that’s why I think “ethnic conciliation” is the more precise and accurate language, but it’s not this sweet by and by, oh we’ll see it in heaven. Nah, God has asked us to do the work here on this side of eternity to make His kingdom more visible.
Instead of using “racism,” a lot of times you go for “the sin of partiality” in Intensional. When we say “racism,” I think it draws certain images or understandings into a person’s mind, but when we look at “the sin of partiality,” it may soften the meaning a bit. Are you also attempting to soften some of these terms to avoid putting people off?
Absolutely not. The reason that I’m not attempting to soften anything is, again, I’m trying to be more precise with the biblical language. If I’m speaking to Christians, what I’m introducing or reintroducing us to is a framework for how God deals with the severity of sin, the reality of God’s dealing with sin we see in the reality of the cross, but we also see with Him disciplining His children who consistently seek to walk in disobedience. Often what I have seen and what I’ve experienced is with the term racism, you have individuals that say, “I can never be racist because I don’t hold positions of privilege and power.” Then you also have individuals that say, “I’m not a racist because I didn’t own slaves.” So I think often people can use the term “racism” and wiggle out of it to say, “Yeah, that ain’t me. That ain’t me. That’s not my attention. You don’t know my heart. You don’t know my motives.” I see a lot of people bypassing the realities of the implications of them participating in partiality, but they’re never been called to the carpet to engage with it because in their mind, they see themselves as one who could never be racist. That’s where I’m like, okay, you can wiggle out of that term, but the reality is as a Jesus follower who is part of the covenant community, every single human being that is fallen, we participate in partiality in different ways.
Now, [for] some of us it may not be a regular rhythm of life. For others, it could be deeply hidden in our hearts and we just are so aloof to the fact that if we’ve insulated ourselves, without having diverse voices in our spaces that are basically confronting this issue in our heart, then we think the we’re good and everybody else is the problem. So what I’m arguing for is the fact that look, you can only fake the funk for so long when you are called out biblically with the sin that has been identified. Because the reality of that is, if you participate in the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, if you’re participating in this, and you are holding these things in your heart purposefully, then God will step in and discipline and that’s exactly what Paul was arguing for in First Corinthians 11. He said, this is why some of y’all are sick, weary or have fallen asleep, which is a euphemism for dying, is because they will not get their sinful issues right that they purposefully knew that they were engaging with.
So no, I’m not trying to soften it. What I’m trying to say is, again, it leads to more frustration. I’m trying to find gains, and at the end of the day, I’m like, “Lord, these are deep-rooted sins in people’s heart, and they don’t want to seem to engage with the fact that they could be guilty of this.” That’s why I even say in the book, Intensional, where I had a pastor love me enough to show me how I was showing partiality against brothers and sisters of European descent in my own life. I didn’t recognize it because my argument back then was, “I can’t be a racist. I’m a person of color. I can’t be a racist because I don’t hold power. I don’t hold privilege.” And they began to say, “Nah, bro, but you purposefully exclude people of European descent from your inner circle. You purposely talk about them.” And I was just like, “Oh, snap, like, you’re right. I do.” And I had to confess that and I had to really take ownership of that. That’s what led me to begin to consider the realities of like, Lord, I was guilty and aloof this whole time and I swore I was right, I swore that I couldn’t be guilty of this. So that’s where I say, in my life, yeah, this is a pathway … I feel … is more accurate. Other people can disagree and they can say, “Nah man, I’m gonna keep being anti-racist….” If that’s what God has definitely put you on stay faithful, but don’t let Damon Horton talk you out of what God has convicted you of.
Heads of churches, nonprofits, seminaries, etc. seem to be looking around now and trying to make sure their places are diverse. But sometimes it seems the White men in charge only want to diversify the second tier, and not shake anything up with the status quo of the top tier where they are. Do you have any personal experiences with that? Or, how do you convince some of these leaders that they need to humble themselves, submit to leaders of color, sit down and let others lead in this area?
Those are sensitive conversations, tension-filled at times, but they’re necessary. I mean, I’ve been blessed and privileged to be in spaces and in conversations with executive people, [in] decision-making capacities and I’m communicating those very prophetic words to them…”Listen, if you’re going to be genuine about this, then we need to make sure that the motivation is not tokenism. The motivation is not just putting colorful faces and women on a brochure to basically kind of put a facade out there.” But if it’s going to be genuine, then it’s shared leadership. It’s a DNA reconstruction, if you will, like it’s going to have to be that you can’t frame when somebody disagrees with you—”Oh, you’re just an angry Black man” or “You’re just an angry Latino.” Like no, there’s some necessary components and I think that’s where walking in mutual submission to each other has to be part of the conversation.
So the reality is, I’ve seen great gains taken place; I’ve seen men and women of color put in positions because they earned it, their credentials have opened the door for them and the leadership structures have said, “Yes, you are a part of this.” And they give them the freedom to engage in making the necessary changes that they feel are part of the convictions. Here’s the dope thing about it: it’s the leaders that are coming in, the men and women—whether they’re of African descent, they’re Latinos, Latinas, of Asian descent, Middle Eastern, the reality is they know the language and they understand the culture of the space that they’ve been invited to participate [in] and culture shift. They’re using the language. They’re using the vision, the mission statements, they’re incorporating and they’re integrating the changes with the direction of the entity to say, “I’ve done my homework. And if we want to speak and move in this direction, then we’re showing how this is a continuation of the mission. This is not an addendum. This is not a side topic. This is the movement of where we feel that God is leading our organization.” I’ve seen that happen. It’s not en masse at this point, but again, in some spaces, you know, I have to think about grassroots all the way up to the highest levels of leadership in some of the organizations….
You don’t go into it deeply in Intensional, although I think you do tease it a bit when you discuss how it took you years to fully embrace your own Mexican heritage. Can you share a bit of your own journey? How did God get you to that place where you feel comfortable in the skin you’re in?
Man, it took 35 years and and I’d be lying if I didn’t say there’s still insecurities. So I still got a daily wrestle with insecurities. You know, growing up as a Latino who’s not fluent in Spanish, who was baptized in the Catholic Church, but became Pentecostal, so to speak, by the age of five, engaging in a Baptistic work now. So theologically, I just put myself at war with so many different people, you know. But I grew up in a predominantly African-American context. Like, when I say that’s my environment, that’s the way I grew up. So even when I talk, people are offended by the way that my voice sounds, they’re offended by the language I use, the concepts that I expressed, my natural…who I am, that’s an offense to people. And they’re like, oh, you’re trying to be dot, dot, dot or you sound dot, dot, dot—
You sound like a brother, to keep it frank.
And I take that as a term of endearment, I don’t get offended when people say that. I’ll be honest with you, that’s why I grew my hair out. When I used to rock a low fade with a part, people would assume, “You Black and what, Puerto Rican? You Mexican?” So people, they wouldn’t know where to put me. I remember one time walking into a room, and it was an African-American leadership fellowship. I was invited to the table and I just thought like, “Wait a minute, do they know that I’m Mexican?” I may have like 3 percent African in me…. Then I would just kind of gently ask like, “Yo, y’all know I’m Mexican and Native American with some European?” And they were like, “Yeah, but you understand, you need to be part of the conversation.” So I will feel a term of endearment in that. But then sometimes, I’m on a panel and people are asking me questions and when I communicate my perspective, people will say, “He ain’t Black. He can’t speak for us. He’s a White dude.” … Latinos would be like, “How come you don’t speak Spanish?” You know, “You’ve forgotten your heritage. You sound more like dot, dot, dot than you do us. Why don’t you speak the language?”
So I would get that, you know. I’m fair-skinned so people would call me weto growing up, which is the Spanish term for being fair-skinned. But then when I’m in predominantly…European spaces, I’m a little too dark and I don’t talk and I don’t engage in certain ways, and there [are] cultural disconnections and I will feel on the outside. So it took a long time for me to just say, “Man, Lord, who am I?” Then I started learning and reading from Latin-American, Latina and Latino theologians and beginning to hear almost some of the same language that I say in my context, they were saying back in the ’60s, and I was just like, “Whoa…” So I’m learning to read. I’m learning to listen, learning to be a student of the history and just say, “Man, I am what I am.” I can’t change who I am. I love where I was raised, I represent my hood everywhere I go. But at the same time, I’m just like, these [are] the unique aspects. So I’m in the crossfire; every time I talk, it’s an offense to somebody, whether it’s the content of what I’m saying, or the way that it comes out that I say it.
We’ve seen in the past few years, with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, just a huge rise in tension and mistrust between Christians of color and White Evangelicals, and articles about a Black exodus from White spaces. You also mention in another part of Intensional that there’s a certain something Christians of color have to give up or lose or put to the side when they enter White Evangelical spaces—social capital. As a Christian of color who is also a leader in these spaces, what makes you stick around?
I really have become more settled in the fact that God has given me a prophetic voice. People have communicated that to me very directly. Often I’ve tried to run from it. I’m an evangelist in my heart, so where the voice of a prophet and the voice of an evangelist kind of intersect, man, wherever the Lord opens the door for me to be…. People keep asking me to come into various spaces and, at the same time, various dialogues and conversations.
The term “evangelical” does not scare me. At the same time, when I look at my Latinos and Latina[s]…and their evangélicos in Latin America, in Mexico, in El Salvador and I see the work they’re doing amongst MS-13 and I see what they’re doing in the poor communities, I’m like, “Yo, I’m an evangélico.”
There [are] some times where even my wife will be listening remotely to me preaching a sermon and she will be like, “Oh, snap, they coming after him.” There [were] a couple of such situations recently, where I’ve just communicated honest truth rooted in Scripture and people have come after me for it. At the same time, it’s like, man, this is just part of that role. This is part of that process. So when I’m in these spaces, it’s not as if I’m acquiescing and I’m being a token. It’s, no, pushing the prophetic realities. It’s calling for greater levels of balance. At the same time, you know, when people are pronouncing an exodus, individuals that have done that on a broader scale, they’re still in evangelical spaces. They’re still doing breakouts and general sessions and concerts, so it’s just kind of like… But I understand their heart. I’m not saying that’s hypocritical or inconsistent. No, it’s just [that] we live in a very complex reality in America. It’s very unique [than] in any other time in church history…. I think them communicating that that exodus is where their heart is—and it’s due to hurt, legitimate hurt and pain, and I get that and I’ve endured some of that.
But I also think that there’s a redemptive component because at the end of the day, the term “evangelical” has been hijacked, and I consistently tell people that. Historian David Bebbington framed a quadrilateral of priorities that basically “evangelical” in the term in its historic roots, not the contemporary political climate of the GOP, but the historic roots, falls on four principles: Bible centrism, where the Word of God is seen as inerrant, that’s what’s communicated; cruci-centricism, where you preach the penal substitutionary atoning work of Jesus Christ; conversionism, where you give people an opportunity to put faith in Christ personally; and social activism. You look at my life, you look at my body of work, you will regularly find from the age of 16 when I embraced Christ through the age of 39, almost 40 I am now, you will see those four principles. The term “evangelical” does not scare me. At the same time, when I look at my Latinos and Latina[s]…and their evangélicos in Latin America, in Mexico, in El Salvador and I see the work they’re doing amongst MS-13 and I see what they’re doing in the poor communities, I’m like, “Yo, I’m an evangélico.” I’m seeking to do the same work that they are. That does not mean that I am reduced to a Donald Trump voter. That’s not true. It’s just not true. So that’s where I think that there is a redemptive component. Some people disagree with me, and they’re my brothers and my sisters. I have no qualms with them disagreeing with me, because the term is offensive to them, and they don’t want to be aligned with that term and I completely understand that.
But when I look at the historic ramifications and I recognize that, I’m like all four of those principles embody who Damon Horton is. Because people call me a social justice warrior, a Communist a Marxist from within the movement of Evangelicalism. They call me all these terms, they say I’m devoid of the gospel. And I tell them, “Point to any of my sermons, point to any of my talks, show where I have ever said anywhere that Jesus is not the only way. Tell me where I have advocated for a different way of salvation, tell me where I have not advocated for the penal substitutionary work of Jesus Christ….” It’s like I’m in the crossfires every day of my life. And that’s what I recognize, if I acquiesce to either one of the sides I’m not being faithful to what God has called me to do.
The other the other thing I say about the social capital aspect is, you know, I said that at an ER LC event, probably over four years now. Since then, I’ve been introduced to the great work of Latina researchers like Dr. Tara J. Yosso and Dr. Lindsey Pèrez-Huber, who have written on what is called a Community Cultural Wealth Model. At that time when I said that, even in the printing of Intentional when the final edits ran, I still had this reduced view of social capital. And so what I thought that social capital was was just a one-dimensional perception of how people viewed us. So when I wrote that saying, “Man, we basically exhausted our social capital coming to evangelicalism,” it was on the cusp of talking about how I myself as a Latino Protestant did not feel like I had a home. When a conference branded “We Are Protestants” was not inclusive of a Latino voice or a Latina voice from the main stage, but we were reduced to breakout sessions for Hispanic issues…. I was just like, “So where are we supposed to go? If we ain’t Protestants, do we go back to the Roman Catholic Church?” So that’s when I said, “Man, please don’t abandon us in these moments of pursuit.”
Now that I’ve read the work of these Latina scholars, I recognize, whoa, we’re not deficient. Like we have multiple streams of capital. It’s not just social capital. It’s also navigational capital, how to navigate in these structures that don’t consider us when they were built in our societies, and sometimes in our churches, how do we engage in the aspirational capital, linguistic capital, familial capital, and the resistance capital that is innate inside of us….? So, yeah, and that’s what I’m writing my dissertation on, because I’m like, Yeah, I’ve been looking at a different perspective. Now that’s more robust than rather putting us as Christians of color, always in the deficient and now I’m like, oh, man, we have wealth, like wait a minute.
And so we just have to look at a different scorecard. That’s my biggest issue, where we are today is that when people call me liberal, people call me what they think to be pejorative terms, not that I’m embracing of these terms that they call me, but they’re grading me on their scorecard. At the end of the day, I’m like your scorecard is not what I’m going to be graded on when I stand at the Beamer seat of Jesus. So I don’t even have to acquiesce to your scorecard anymore. I used to. But now I don’t have to…. Like, I’m getting my Ph.D. from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Somebody from another institution wants to grade my work, their grade that they’re giving is not going to show up on my transcript. So what I’m saying is this, like, “Yo, man, I don’t even have to assess your scorecard.” Because that scorecard and those terms, just to be brutally transparent, man, that’s the stuff that would highlight my struggles with clinical severe depression. That’s the stuff that would highlight my anxiety disorder. That’s the stuff that would spike my paranoia. That’s the stuff that I’ve recognized…has been the tactic of individuals of influence who have sought to destroy us, divide and conquer.
So my perspective is, and this is the heart for Intentional and [the] heart of things that I’ve been trying to communicate over the past 20 years, is that let’s not lean into the devices of divide and conquer. If we have different perspectives, don’t fuss and fight. We can have great arguments and dialogues, because an argument, that’s not a bad thing. Conflict is not a bad thing. But if we seek to resolve it, and if I seek to be empathetic to somebody else’s position, even though I may disagree… At the end of the day, though we may disagree on these nuances, on the higher tier priority components we’re together, we still got our hands to the plow…. That’s why I stay in those spaces, is because whether or not people call themselves evangelical, there is this aspect of Kingdom work that the people of God are doing, and [whatever] terms people are rocking, I’m like, “Listen, man, if we’re seeking to be agents of transformation and change in the local church and in our communities for human flourishing, we’re together and we can disagree.” But that’s the beauty of the gospel. That’s the beauty of diversity. We don’t have to vote the same. We don’t have to think the same. People can use anti-racism, racism like that, amen. Like, let’s go. If we’re proclaiming these fundamental truths, I’m riding with you. I’m just using this language because I feel like it’s helping me see greater gains in the spaces. I’m in.