What color was Jesus? Was it skin pigmentation that determined Jesus’ message or was it the prophetic imagination that defined his mission? Are pigmentation and imagination separable or inseparable? How is it that we remake Jesus in our own image?Jesus’ color matters, according to Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, but now known worldwide as Sen. Barack Obama’s pastor, the man who led him into Christianity, who performed his wedding ceremony, baptized his children and served as his spiritual guide for some 20 years.
“Jesus was a poor black man who lived in a country and who lived in a culture that was controlled by rich white people. The Romans were rich. The Romans were Italians, which means they were Europeans, which means they were white. And the Romans ran everything in Jesus’ country,” proclaimed Wright in a sermon that blessed Obama and denigrated Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Wright’s church sits squarely in Afrocentric Christianity. The congregation’s Web site opens with the church name imposed on a map of Africa.
“We are a congregation which is Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian,” reads the church’s Web site. “We are an African people, and remain ‘true to our native land,’ the mother continent, the cradle of civilization.”
Painting Jesus as a black man is an essential feature of Afrocentric theology, much as picturing Jesus as a white man is an essential feature of Eurocentric theology.
My own Baptist tradition had pictures of Jesus as a fair-skinned, light-haired, blue-eyed man, looking more Nordic than Semitic. Without thinking about Jesus’ genetic and geographic heritage, I assumed uncritically as a child that Jesus was white.
My own children’s picture-Bibles improved slightly on that image. Nonetheless, Jesus’ dark hair and trimmed beard left him looking more European than Palestinian.
White Baptists could not have identified with a black Jesus, not in the days of segregation, integration and striving for a just society. We probably can’t even now embrace a black Jesus.
Nor do most white Christians think about our belief system as being Eurocentric theology. We assume it represents real Christianity rooted in the Bible and kept alive in the bosom of European believers until it was transplanted providentially in America. We see faith as a matter of mental assent to doctrine, despite the Nazareth Manifesto.
Our inability to think about Jesus as being other than white limits the range of our vision. We would have a more truthful grasp of Jesus’ moral agenda if we did not see him in our own image.
Of course, the truth is that we have no picture of Jesus’ physical characteristics. Most Christians make Jesus in our own image to fit our own culture. We do so hopefully for some good reasons and regrettably for some flawed ones.
My friend, William Buchanan, pastor of Nashville’s Fifteenth Avenue Baptist Church, has Afrocentric pictures of biblical figures on his church hallway walls. The sanctuary has a chiseled sculpture on the wall above the baptismal of a black-looking Jesus inviting folk from all walks of life to come unto him. I think his church has these images for good reasons, to connect a concrete community to the transcendent truth.
Too often, believers regrettably use Jesus for the sake of power. When we define Jesus in our image for political gain, we deform the messenger and distort the message. We forfeit the universality of human sinfulness and suffering, as well as the desperate need for personal redemption and social reformation.
The theological problem with Jeremiah Wright’s proclamation is not his emphasis on Jesus as a black person. The problem is his next step. He implies that God is on the side of his presidential parishioner because of his skin pigmentation.
“It just came to me within the past few weeks, y’all, why so many folk are hating on Barack Obama. He doesn’t fit the model. He ain’t white. He ain’t rich. And he ain’t privileged. Hillary fits the mold. Europeans fit the mold ¦. Rich white men fit the mold,” Wright preached. “Hillary was not a black boy raised in a single-parent home. Barack was. Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people. Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain’t never been called a n____.”
Wright said: “I’m so glad that I’ve got a God who knows what it is to be a poor black man in a country and a culture that is controlled by and run by rich white people. He taught me, Jesus did, how to love my enemies. Jesus taught me how to love the hell out of my enemies.”
Wright’s claim is that God knows better the plight of the black man because Jesus was black and that unless one is black they lack the needed moral gravitas for social justice, suggesting that God is more on the side of Obama than Clinton.
As we have often said, God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. Similarly, God is neither an Obamaite nor a Clintonite. For us to claim otherwise is to claim wrongly. For some to justify incendiary, partisan preaching under the umbrella of the prophetic tradition wrongs that tradition.
Many of us in the white Christian community have done a poor job of seeing our own complicity in sinful structures that discriminate and loving our neighbors with acts of transforming justice. Yet two wrongs will not make things right.
My reading of the Bible differs profoundly from Wright’s. I think that Jesus transcends race. Race neither defines human sinfulness nor determines human goodness. Instead, the touchstone for Christians is the messenger, not the skin pigmentation of the messenger. And the messenger sharpens our sense of sinfulness and calls us to love of neighbors regardless of color.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.