Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Jesus Was a Black Man

Got your attention, didn't it?

I've enjoyed (is that the right word?) watching people post about Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly's statement that "Jesus was a white man." She was responding to criticism that Santa Claus is always portrayed as white and appealed to the historical Jesus to make her point. I'm all for getting Jesus into the news--no matter what the network--but I'm not sure this is the right way to do it. You can read Adam J. Copeland's take here.

Colleagues have written that Jesus was, indeed, a Palestinian Jew of the first century. To me, that makes sense. I'm no anthropologist, but I do have a friend from seminary who identified himself as a "Palestinian Christian," which suggests to me that he might be close. I'm not 100% sure what qualifies as "white" since it seems that color and race and culture and appearance are all intermixed and overlapping, but I'd definitely say that my seminary friend's skin tone was darker than mine.

I also like the article I read today from Christianity Today, in which Megan Hill suggests that one way to avoid the controversy is by not depicting Jesus at all. You can read that article here. She goes so far as to ask her children's Christian education teachers to excuse her kids from having to color any depictions of Jesus--"even as an infant in a manger." The point she makes, which is a good one, is that we cannot help but worship the image we create--whether in our minds or in physical form. There's a reason God told his people not to make any graven image. Make the image and worship of the image always follows. We're physical people and can't really help it. But I wonder whether we can go one step further than what Ms. Hill suggests.

I like to say that Jesus was a black man.

A long time ago, when I was in the eighth grade, I took a spring break trip to Atlanta, Georgia, to visit childhood friends. Unfortunately, the friends with whom my mother and I were staying were not enjoying spring break at the same time, and the adults did not really know what to do with me during the day when they went out to do grown-up things. "Maybe we should send him to school with Lauren?" they suggested. After a quick word with the principal, it was settled. For my spring break, I was going to school. Fun.

My visit happened to coincide with a presentation during Black History Month. Some guests had come to this public school to talk about history from an African perspective. For the most part, I tuned out. My interest and valuation of black history didn't develop until quite a few years later. In that presentation, however, I remember the speakers being asked to talk about Jesus. "What color was Jesus?" someone in the audience asked. Not willing to say it out right--this was a public school--one of the presenters began to talk about depictions of ancient Egyptians, all of whom have dark skin. She made an implicit connection between those paintings and the person of Jesus, asking, "When have you seen a picture of an ancient Egyptian who was white? What do you think that says about Jesus?" I thought to myself, "Jesus was Jewish. How many black Jews do you know?" And, just when I was about to raise my hand and ask the question (I've never been afraid to embarrass myself even in a foreign land), someone else pressed the point further, "So what color was Jesus?" And the reply was given, "Jesus was a black man."

I hated that moment. I thought it poorly expressed both historically and religiously. I was incensed that religion had come into the public school, though I'm sure I would have felt differently if the presenters had been representatives of my culture. Those words echoed around in my mind--Jesus was a black man--and along with them was a snort of derision that I added for effect. And I held that view for a long time.

And then I discovered a different Jesus. I don't really know when it happened or how it came about. Maybe it was a trip to Zimbabwe to study how the Methodist Church changed during the liberation movement. Maybe it was during seminary when I learned to distinguish between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of faith. Or maybe it was during a Sunday school class that I taught about liberation theology, when I read and quoted James Cone. But, whenever it happened, those words in my head changed their meaning. No longer was I critical of the woman who spoke to us that day. I discovered that, for me, Jesus was a black man.

The story of oppression, of capture, of torture, of execution--that is the story of the African context. The account of rebirth, of freedom, of liberation, of victory--that is the story of the African context. Jesus is the embodiment of the oppression and liberation of God's people. Although my own story is one of majority-dominated culture, I am learning to hear--I am straining to hear--the story of Jesus as that of a black man.

Of course, Jesus is more than that, and this is what I want to add to Ms. Hill's perspective. When I say that Jesus is a black man, I say it with authenticity and full conviction, but I don't say that from a historical perspective. No, the presenters that day who used Egyptian artwork to try to convince the students that Jesus' skin tone was similar to that of African Americans were misled. I don't think Jesus was black. I think he was a black man. Or a black woman. Or a Native American. Or some other identity that reflects the gospel message in a real, experiential way.

Such a statement is so completely disjointed from the historical context that it allows us to conceptualize it without falling into the practice of idol worship. In other words, I can say that Jesus was a black man without actually picturing a black man. The danger, as Hill point out, is trying to duplicate history. This is not an attempt to do that. I would never say that Jesus is only a black man. Nor would I say that Jesus is only a first-century Palestinian Jew. He is bigger than that. He is always more than we define him to be.

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