14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Hebrews 4:14-16 NIV
If you and I are alike we would have grown up hearing that Christianity was “the White man’s religion.” We would have been influenced by such songs as “Get up, stand up” by the great composer Bob Marley in which he laments the colonialist connection with and disenfranchising intent of “Christian Imperialism”. We would have been saturated with the white images of Christian icons in both the Old and New Testaments through the various cultural media – paintings, sculptures, stained glass edifices, television, print, religious paraphernalia…some of the greatest works of art by the likes of Michelangelo, DaVinci and the rest depict the whiteness of God, his savior to mankind Jesus and the heavenly host who make up all things supernatural and perfect. Any depictions of individuals with dark skin would represent, invariably, all that is impure, immoral, profane, perverse, and irredeemable.
Even today, the mosaic of a color-stained Christianity perpetuates subliminally. As a personally distressing example, I continue to see (in many churches) historical and contemporary depictions of White Christian images (Jesus, the apostles and other Christian patriarchs) as projected backdrops during various aspects of the liturgy and very little awareness from those who perpetuate this. With this and the latent reality of racial bias recently unveiled through various tragedies, events, and protests in our society, I found myself visiting the question “what sort of self-respecting Black man worships a God whose advertised and projected image represents his historical oppressor?” For a person who occupies a marginalized social identity, if this question has not arisen in your mind, then you are either well-adjusted or in pre-crisis (referring to the racial/social identity crisis that is often awoken when the pain of “isms” becomes too significant to bear). If this question has arisen in your mind, then how have you answered?
During the events of the summer of 2020, after George Floyd’s killing, I reached out to a well-known white biblical scholar. My questions revolved around the scarcity of concern displayed both by Christ and other New Testament figures around the issues of slavery and racial prejudice – which were well established institutions in the first century’s immediate (Palestine and environs) and regional (Asia Minor, North African, Mediterranean etc.) geographical contexts. Suffice it to say, the scholar’s response was at best unsatisfactory and at worst evasive. So, there I was with no willing partner to investigate this most crucial of faith issues (for me and I suspect for other people of color) which connected to my need to resolve Christ’s racial identity (and specifically his color). It did not go amiss to me that for my white brother (and potentially applicable to this scholar), this is a non-issue as the question of a non-white Christ never arises. My white brother never has to consider where, as a minority, his faith would lie if Christ were portrayed as Black by a dominant culture that had a history of aggression and hatred toward his (my white brother's) kind.
During my teenage years, I once sat through a public lecture where the Black speaker (a Harvard academic) postulated that Christ was Black. He presented various pieces of research to support his hypothesis. At the time I dismissed the claim thinking that this conflicted with the historical racial makeup of the first century Palestinians. Interestingly my internalized racism ( and latent acceptance of White supremacy) preferred to accept the errancy of a white Christ over a Black one. I have discovered that the core of the dilemma lies within my attempt to resolve the dissonance between the oppression that Blacks have faced at the hands of Whites and the beneficence of a white savior, an idea perpetuated by a racial group (Whites) that has been responsible for gross levels of pain and tragedy. It felt like I was being strangled by one hand and fed by the other (hand) of the same body. How does one resolve this conflict? Perhaps, it would be better to disown the relationship (with the analogous white body) completely and subscribe to the “other race of Jesus” idea as many have done – take comfort that he was more Middle Eastern than white. But even this solution is unsatisfactory for reasons too vast to address here. The truth that I really wanted to subscribe to was for Jesus to be Black…then I could believe that he truly understands my pain and he knows its place in his redemptive work on the cross.
My wrestling was arrested through separate interactions with two White brothers. As I was struggling with the internal pain of realizing my societal vulnerability and that of my children (and people), unable to share it openly for fear of invalidation, ostracization and disconnection, I experienced two very heartfelt and sincere expressions of advocacy, support and understanding. One experience was with a professional colleague and the other a Christian brother. I had internalized a generalized rule of white intolerance towards racial pain, but God presented these two exceptions…and then he opened my eyes to instances in the past where I had experienced similar exceptions. The resulting truth hit me like the proverbial “ton of bricks” – Jesus is the perfect and ultimate exception! He and I may not have been of the same race and as a result I may be tempted to ascribe certain experienced insensitivities to him, but like these two men who (unprompted) reached out to me, he (Jesus) steps into my place of racial pain (or whatever pain you experience as someone living on society’s margins)….and not only does he step in, but he offers comfort, assurance, healing, understanding, empathy, support, and advocacy (as Hebrews 4:14-16 states). Wherever and whenever I have experienced these things, the race of the person with the extended hand has not mattered to me.
I still have the questions that I started with – what color was Christ? Why aren’t there stronger denouncements against the use of human chattel in the New Testament? But for me it is sufficient to say that, Jesus, a man who was the exception to every rule of social affiliation advocated and suffered a cruel death on my behalf. Even the dear brothers in the previous paragraph would stop at offering their own bodies in my stead. Christ’s resurrection empowers me to confront any pain that is unique to my experience. Whether White, Black, or in between, I feel deep gratitude towards and love for him.