In the wake of Megyn Kelly’s statement that “Jesus was a white man,” critics have quickly and unanimously responded that Jesus was not a white man.
Rev. Laura Barkley debunked Kelly’s statements for Sojourners, noting that Jesus “was a Palestinian Jew in first-century Nazareth.”
In an article at The Atlantic, Jonathan Merritt argues that Jesus is not only not a white man, but that Scripture is mostly quiet about Jesus’ racial makeup. Quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who once said, “The color of Jesus’ skin is of little or no consequence,” Merritt agrees with historian Edward Blum, who draws from King’s statement that “Jesus transcends race.” Ultimately, Merritt points to the universality of Jesus, focusing on Christ’s availability to all, to individuals from “every tribe, nation, people and language.”
Yet in pointing to the universality of Jesus, it is easy to pass over his particularity to a certain time and place. As Barkley discusses in her post, “If Jesus were an American, he would more likely identify as an undocumented immigrant or other poor, oppressed class.” While the Bible may not discuss Jesus’ race directly, the text suggests it, for it does not assume a 21st-century audience, but a first-century audience that would understand Christ’s social position.
Although Christ may transcend race, he also descended into the racial context of the New Testament. Jesus did not come as the king of the Romans, but rather as a child of a colonized and oppressed people group. If our modern Jesus is only white, then we miss who Jesus really was and is today.
Telling a parable of the final judgment in Matthew 25, Jesus implies that God becomes particular in the faces of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the stranger. When those who know struggling face God at the final judgment, Jesus says he will ask them, “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” If Jesus indeed abides in the least of society, then our theology of church leadership looks a lot different and a lot less privileged.
In his book The Cross and The Lynching Tree, James Cone contextualizes “the least of these” in American culture, drawing a parallel between the black experience of lynching and Christ’s death on the Roman cross. Cone writes, “The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned, and tortured.” While Cone’s theology deals with the lynching of blacks, his work, along with Matthew 25, implies that Christ is within the systematically oppressed, and his conclusions are inclusive of other people of color who have borne a cross similar to that of the lynching tree.
Unfortunately, many white evangelicals have interpreted “the least of these” parable into a mere call to help people of color, and have unwittingly reinforced the white savior complex. Rather than recognizing the leadership of Christ within people of color who have experienced the cross firsthand, white churches often put photographs of people of color on the wall or show “compassionate” videos of them in church, calling Christians to aid them in their struggle, as if people of color are powerless people who existed only in far-away countries that needed evangelization.
If Christ is indeed closest to the least of these, then it is not white people who should save people of color. It is Christ in people of color who will save white people. In his time, Jesus faced the political and economic oppression of the Roman empire, a kind of oppression that whites in the United States cannot understand. There are, however, some Americans who can relate to that: Native Americans who still live beneath the power of the white American empire, black people who face a new Jim Crow in the prison industrial complex, and many more who suffer other forms of injustice. A person of color’s understanding of Christ’s suffering, as Cone points out, is much different from a white interpretation of Christ.
This, of course, does not preclude the presence of Christ in whites, nor does it eliminate the idea of a white Christ. The point is not that Christ is not a white man, for Christ is in every person. The problem is that the white Christ often strips God of God’s identification with underprivileged people, for the white Christ has been established hand-in-hand with empire and white supremacy.
Until the white supremacist system is overthrown, the white Christ will remain a difficult image to those who suffer from racism. In the meantime, white churches need to learn from and seek after people of color who have experienced and know Christ’s suffering directly. Instead of making people of color into an evangelization project, white people need to sit at the feet of people of color to learn what it means to overcome injustice. As Cone testifies, it is people of color who know most experientially what it means to bear the cross of Christ.
Drew Miller is a student chaplain at George Fox University in Newberg, Ore., and a member of Evangelicals for Justice.
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