Much is being made about Barack Obama’s faith these days, partly due to some questions about possible Muslim influences upon his life but mostly because of things that his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, has said. Although most of Wright’s quotes have been taken out of context, even when placed within their proper perspective they tend to grate upon the sensibilities of most white Christian Americans. The general conservative consensus is that people like Wright, and Obama by association, are guilty of not only distorting the Gospel but racism and treason as well.
In “The Church Enslaved” by Tony Campolo and Michael Battle, the story is told of a time when Campolo was teaching a Bible study for African-American teen agers. When he entered the classroom he was upset to find that the portrait of Jesus on the wall (the very same one shown here) had been replaced by a picture of a black Jesus.
Angrily, he asked who had done this. When a young man confessed, Tony scolded him, saying; “Jesus wasn’t a black man!”
“No”, replied the teenager. “And he wasn’t a white man either.”
Many of us who are not of African ancestry have a problem with this. No – Jesus certainly was not ‘white’ but there is no need to create another fiction; that he was a black man.
But it is important to understand that when black Christians speak of Jesus’ color they are not really talking about his ethnicity or his genetic make-up. And when they talk angrily of the Church promoting the idea that Jesus was a” white” man they are really not focusing on pictures, statues or movies. They are referring to the way Jesus has been inextricably tied to the ‘powers that be’. In the same book, Campolo and Battle share this famous quote by Malcolm X:
Brothers and sisters, the white man has brainwashed us black people to fasten our gaze upon a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus! We’re worshiping a Jesus that doesn’t even look like us! Oh yes! Now just bear with me, listen to the teachings of the Messenger of Allah, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad. Now just think of this. The blond-haired, blue-eyed white man has taught you and me to worship a white Jesus, and to shout and sing and pray to this God that’s his God, the white man’s God. The white man has taught us to shout and sing and pray until we die, to wait until death, for some dreamy heaven-in-the-hereafter, when we’re dead, while this white man his his milk and honey in the streets paved with golden dollars here on this earth!
– Malcolm X, Harlem, June 1954
Blacks have suffered hundreds of years of slavery and oppression at the hands of white Christians; oppression which has continued in various forms long after abolition, even up to today. During that time the vast majority of the ‘white’ church did nothing to assist them and were in reality accomplices to this oppression, often bestowing their blessings upon this system. For many blacks, to associate Jesus with the white church is to associate him with evil.
In addition to this, Jesus’ identification with the oppressed and downtrodden strikes a powerful chord within the black church, just as they can relate to the enslaved Israelites of Exodus. As James Cone, the ‘father’ of Black Liberation theology says:
Christ’s blackness is the American expression of the truth of his parable about the Last Judgment: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.”
“The least in America are literally and symbolically present in black people. To say that Christ is black means that black people are God’s poor people whom Christ has come to liberate. And thus no gospel of Jesus Christ is possible in America without coming to terms with the history and culture of that people who struggled to bear witness to his name in extreme circumstances.”
“Christ is black, therefore, not because of some cultural or psychological need of black people, but because and only because Christ really enters into our world where the poor, the despised, and the black are, disclosing that he is with them, enduring their humiliation and pain and transforming oppressed slaves into liberated servants. Indeed, if Christ is not truly black, then the historical Jesus lied.”
My point is that God came, and continues to come, to those who are poor and helpless, for the purpose of setting them free. And since the people of color are his elected poor in America, any interpretation of God that ignores black oppression cannot be Christian theology.”
“If twentieth-century Christians are to speak the truth for their socio-historical situation, they cannot merely repeat the story of what Jesus did and said in Palestine, as if it were self-interpreting for us today. Truth is more than the retelling of the biblical story. Truth is the divine happening that invades our contemporary situation, revealing the meaning of the past for the present so that we are made new creatures for the future.”
It is important to note that when Cone talks of Jesus being truly black, he is not referring to his skin color but the spiritual connection he has with the oppressed. But Cone does not hold back his criticism for the ‘black’ church as it has now found it’s place in American Christianity:
“Our church is an impostor, because we no longer believe the gospel we proclaim. There is a credibility gap between what we say and what we do. While we may preach sermons that affirm the church’s interests in the poor and the downtrodden, what we actually do shows that we are committed to the “American way of life,” in which the rich are given privileged positions of power in shaping the life and activity of the church, and the poor are virtually ignored. As a rule, the church’s behavior toward the poor is very similar to the society at large: The poor are charity cases…It is appalling to see some black churches adopting this condescending attitude toward the victims, because these churches were created in order to fight against slavery and injustice. For many slaves, the Black Church was God’s visible instruments for freedom and justice. Therefore, to have contemporary middle-class black Christians treating the poor as second-class members of the church is a disgrace not only to the scripture but also to our black religious heritage.” – Risks of Faith
Of course we should resist envisioning Christ as any mere man, but that comes with time, if at all. Quakers and Mennonites did not adorn the walls of their meeting houses with pictures of Jesus because they realized that portrayals of him will become idolized perceptions of themselves and their culture. As George Bernard Shaw once said;” God created us in his own image and we decided to return the favor.”
We all need to be aware of the differences that exist between us all and the reasons for why they are, if we are to ever see the end to racism and if we are ever to see a united Church.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25.35-36, 40)