Dan Oudshoorn (Blog Link) has recently begun a project entitled A Blog Commentary on Luke’s Gospel, Written for Settlers in the Occupied Territories Called Canada, in which he reflects on the gospel text alongside the history and lived experience of indigenous persons to understand more about who Jesus is and challenge the assumptions of “settlers” like himself (and me).
Oudshoorn’s treatment in his introduction provides parallels between the historical context of Jesus of Nazareth and the Lukan community with the indigenous people of North America, specifically Canada. Similar to James Cone’s assertion that Jesus is Black (more on this here), the research and presentation provide the means for recovering from the blinders of assuming Jesus belongs to a privileged class (white, male, Western).
In striking fashion, Oudshoorn describes the similarities, writing,
It is also what it means to say that Jesus was an Indian, i.e. a Judaean. Shortly before Jesus was born, the Roman soldiers had passed yet again through the region engaging in a scorched earth, shock and awe campaign to pacify the region and to punish the people for their refusal to be extinct commodities. Children were taken from parents (like the RCMP and the Indian agent took children away from Indigenous parents and jailed or shot any who resisted) and sold into slavery (sent to residential schools or white families) in faraway lands. The land that had been a part of the people was taken from them, crops were destroyed, people were forced to become transient labourers, maintaining a cheap labour pool for absentee mega-farmers or for city folks. The roads were lined with the crucified bodies of able-bodied men – the very bodies that many large family units depended on to earn the money to buy their daily bread. Sacred places were defiled, taxes were imposed, and temples were built to foreign gods. Many were killed. Many women were raped. And Mary became pregnant with Jesus.
The significance of Jesus identifying with the Indians lays the foundation for the remainder of Luke-Acts for what it means for the community of his disciples.
But the story about this Indian whose name Jesus (Yeshua) means salvation, deliverance and rescue – this Indian from a colonized land, from an uprooted people, from a scorched earth, from a single teen mom – is presented as “good news.” This, after all, is what the word “gospel” (εὐαγγέλιον or “euangelion”) means. From this word we get the title, “evangelist” i.e. one who brings good news” or “one who spreads the gospel” but what we will discover is that the “good news” spreads not so much like light into darkness or leaven in a loaf, but like a virus in a computer system, or like fire in the master’s house, or like revolution in the hills of Saint Domingue in 1791. Because, and here I’ll say only gesture at what is to come later, this good news is only good news to some people. It is very bad news to others.
The second post enters into a conversation about what it means to be a “friend of God”- the Theophilus whom the gospel is addressed to. This section is a challenging polemic about whether to consider ourselves friends or enemies of God. For someone who is attempting to support and encourage recognition of historically oppressed perspectives, this section was personally challenging as it lays raw the need to reflect truthfully about the realities of oppression and one’s own power and privilege:
We have treated Jesus as if he were a European settler (Roman), God as if God were white (and male), and us as if we are God’s friends. If we’re going to get this right, we have to try and hear these stories again.
Michael Shepherd is the editor of GlobalTheology and an adjunct professor at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, USA.
Suzanne DeWitt Hall’s recent article, Jesus: The First Transgender Man, wades into the contemporary firestorm about transgender access to public bathrooms in the United States with a reflection about gender identity and biological determination from two- fairly important- characters from the Biblical record: Eve (Genesis 2) and Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, et al.).
Much has already been written about the flaws of seeing gender as a biological binary as well as how gender roles (and the number of gender options) are culturally formed, but her article approaches the issue using a different tact.
If we take the Genesis account in it’s literal meaning, as conservative Christians demand that we do, she is also the first case of a transgender woman. God reached into Adam, pulled out a bit of rib bone, and grew Eve from that XY DNA into Adam’s companion. She was created genetically male, and yet trans-formed into woman.
Then along comes Jesus and the whole pattern is both repeated and reversed. The first couple’s refusal to cooperate is turned around by Mary’s yes, and the second act of cloning occurs. The Holy Spirit comes upon the second Eve, and the child takes flesh from her and is born. Born of her flesh. Born with XX chromosome pairing. Born genetically female, and yet trans-formed into man.
The significance in considering how these bodies are formed should not be a biology lesson, but ought to lead us to consider how tightly we hold to cultural assumptions about gender and identity.
This is the same spirit in which we read Galatians 3:28 about other categories,
There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
The differences between people are not magically erased but they no longer form the basis of our identification and relationship with one another. Any identity, gender included, is to be secondary to our identity in Christ.
Perhaps a modern reading could include that there is neither cisgender and transgender, but you are all one in Christ Jesus. If this seems scandalous, I believe that we are approaching the original intent of Paul- to show the radical inclusion that is possible within Christian community.
She concludes her post with a meaningful benediction, writing,
A quick look at the dictionary for the prefix “trans” tells us that it means “across,” “beyond,” “through,” and “changing thoroughly,” all of which are great terms for the person of Christ. He cuts across all boundaries. He is beyond our understanding. He is through all and in all. He changes us thoroughly into new creations.
In his person, and in his salvific actions, Jesus is truly the first and forever trans man.
A special blessing to those brothers and sisters (and all who may find those terms of affection difficult) to know that Christ is present with you in your journey and invites you to live deeply from your identity as a new creation in Him and full fellowship within all of God’s family.
A few years ago, a mural appeared on London Bridge in a street art style similar to that of popular artist, Banksy. It portrays Jesus carrying his cross while police harass him and paparazzi exploit him. While difficult to confirm who to credit the piece to, it has been titled Crucifixation or, more commonly, Stations of the Cross.
The mural is a vivid reminder that Jesus lived in a police state where the color of his skin put him at odds with the government. His contemporaries (and companions) advocated for violent overthrow of the occupiers and others called for personal piety and strict religious observance. Still others thought that accommodating to the oppressors was the most direct option for peace.
We still have oppressors, zealots, Pharisees, ascetics, and Sadducees in our world today, whether it is the Police (preservers of the status quo) or paparazzi (exploiting someone’s pain to their advantage) yet we must continually return to the dedication of Jesus who identifies with the poor, the meek, the dispossessed, and the marginalized.
Good Friday is a backward holiday- celebrating the mistrial, mob justice, torture, and execution of a man teaching a radical way of life that destabilizes the power of the political, military, and spiritual authorities. In the culmination of the crucifixion, Jesus pleads for his executioners to be forgiven- showing what a contrast of message he lived and taught.
This gospel has outlived the Romans and all other social strata of the first century, yet the power structures that undergird those conspirators of the cross remain present in every community. To follow after a crucified messiah today requires us to be alert to where these powers remain in our lives and take action. To see where Jesus continues to identify with the poor, the meek, the dispossessed, and the marginalized and join him there in real, tangible ways.
Michael Shepherd is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary and Hope International University. He is the editor of the Global Theology blog and welcomes contributors!
In the television series Hell on Wheels, the backstory of the character Elam Ferguson is explored in this flashback. In the episode entitled Revelations, he is shown as a boy reading scripture to his slave owner who has placed a bet upon his ability to read but not understand. Following this scene we see him hiding with other slaves in a barn and reading to them from Exodus chapter 6. This illustrates the dynamic of Scripture in the antebellum South in the history of the United States of America. Where scripture was used to enforce slavery, using citations such as Colossians 3 from the beginning of the clip, scripture was also an asset to abolitionists and to slaves themselves who found solidarity in the stories of Exodus.
To read the account of God’s action to free the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, dispossessed people have found the power to live with strength and dignity, while rejecting the assertions that their inferior status is God’s intention. The Exodus narrative becomes the foundation of Liberation theology and other interpretive models as it presents the fundamental expression of God’s action in the world- to provide justice for the oppressed, not restricted to a solely spiritual or futuristic sense, but a new reality of human existence where all people can live in freedom.
In your community, how can scripture be used to support existing power dynamics? How can it be used to challenge the status quo?
(Use of copyrighted material is intended solely for informational and educational purposes.)
Much has been made recently about the comments of a professor from a North American evangelical university stressing the similarity between the faiths of Muslims and Christians. While the questions (and their responses) are not new, they revive passions that rattle the tension between the uniqueness of Christian revelation and the degree of inclusivity of that revelation. On his personal blog, Vinoth Ramachandra, Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, shares his thoughts on recent events at Wheaton College (Illinois, USA) and the much larger question of the relationship between Christianity and Islam. He provides an interesting example wherein the roles are reversed, explaining,
The Malaysian Church, in recent decades, was engaged in a prolonged legal battle with their Islamist-influenced government which prohibited non-Muslims from using the word Allah to refer to the supreme God and creator. Church leaders received directives stating that several words of Arabic origin, including Allah, Nabi (prophet) and Al Kitab (Bible) were not to be used by non-Muslims as Arabic was the language of Muslims. Usage by Christians would sow the seeds of “confusion”. The import of Malay Bibles printed in Indonesia (which used Allah) was effectively banned.
Christians countered by pointing out that Allah was the common term used to refer to the supreme God long before Islam came into existence in North Africa. Arab Christians continue to worship God as Allah and Malay-speaking Christians have also been using Allah for centuries. Far from sowing “confusion”, it has facilitated communication and promoted mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims.
Clearly this was more than a matter of official historical ignorance. Islamists fearful of the conversion of Muslims sought to deter the latter from reading the Bible by claiming that Christians and Muslims worship different Gods. They have been successful. Christians lost the legal battle, with dire consequences for the future of social justice and religious harmony in Malaysia.
He continues in his post to sharply criticize Western Christians who rely upon lazy rhetoric to brush aside an entire world religion, with whom Christianity does share a significant lineage, on the basis of wider, cultural suspicions or political media fears, reminding that,
The actions of the Wheaton College authorities, like much of what is done in the U.S., reach a global audience. I can imagine how they will be seized upon by Islamists around the world as ammunition to deploy against Christians. And how betrayed Malaysian Christians must feel.
American Christians- especially those studying and working in colleges and universities- cannot remain complacent with theological, historical or political naiveté. Willful ignorance is inexcusable. Americans have ready access to a wide range of scholarly literature and the latest information technologies that the rest of us envy. They don’t have to watch Fox News or listen to the latest chauvinist or demagogue. Some of the finest biblical scholars, theologians, philosophers and historians are found in the American Church (sadly, it is not their works that are exported to the rest of the world).
Moreover, every American city is multi-cultural and multi-religious. You can meet Christians from all over the world, as well as thoughtful Muslims from every Muslim sect, Jews, Sikhs, Jains or Buddhists. You can have your prejudices dispelled, your viewpoints and worldviews enlarged through such encounters and friendships.
If American Christians do not avail themselves of the resources and opportunities on their doorstep, they will remain culturally marginal, intellectually lightweight, politically reactionary, and a deep source of embarrassment to the rest of the global Church.
Three quick thoughts from Ramachandra’s critique:
- How to increase the “export” of the finest of North American biblical scholars, theologians, philosophers, and historians- is this a matter of educational institutions, publishing business practices, or other factors? I recall when I was living in East Africa that I could see American televangelists broadcast in syndication yet the library of the nearest theological university was woefully outdated.
- Given the presence of a wide diversity of cultural and religious adherents living in proximity to us, the church needs resources that will help to bridge these differences, both in fellowship and dialogue outside of the church. There is a tremendous opportunity to re-think our faith and practice when we are nudged to articulate our understanding to people who have had different experiences and commitments than we have had ourselves. (A useful book in encountering this process is Timothy Tennent’s Theology in the Context of World Christianity, or Soong-Chan Rah’s Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church, for a more local application.)
- I would like to leave Ramachandra’s final sentence to stand on its own, as it is the most poignant of his entire post. I will only embellish his thought to remind us in North American, or any context, that if these are truly the markers of our churches- culturally marginal, intellectually lightweight, politically reactionary, and embarrassing to the global Church, then there is something unhealthy that must be remedied, but this cannot occur unless we are able to evaluate ourselves with humility and grace.
The Catholic Church in the United States likely encompasses every cultural group. African Americans, who comprise about 3% of the membership, bring a unique perspective, yet also face challenges of identifying with leadership and contemporary societal issues.
Anthea Butler (Twitter | Bio), Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (USA) shared with AirTalk, a program of Southern California Public Radio, about the relationship between Black Catholics and the Catholic Church at-large in America.
Introduction of the segment and Anthea Butler (0:00)
African American Catholics have a long history in the [United States], tell us a little about that. (0:54)
Is there still a connection between the Catholic Church and Black America? (1:40)
AB (2:15) I do think, for Catholics, there’s a sense in which the universality of the church makes you, in one way, try to overlook some of the ethnic things that are happening. On the other hand, you have to deal with them because of the different ethnic communities and parishes.
What role does racial identity play in Catholic worship services? (2:32)
AB (2:35) It plays a very big role- if you think prior to Vatican II, there wasn’t a lot of racial identity. Everybody was forced into the same kind of worship styles and all of that. Post-Vatican II, Black Catholics were able to explore different musical styles with gospel music…so there’s a lot of different ways in which Black Catholics have put forth their culture within the Catholic Church.
How is it different from the way that other Catholics conduct services? (3:08)
AB (3:31) I think the difference is in how Black Catholics were perceived by other Catholics in the church. If you think about immigration and all the ethnic Catholics we have — Polish Catholics, Irish, Germans, Italians, everybody always focuses on them for a culture within the Catholic Church, but nobody looks at Black Catholics, and I think our unique history has a lot of cultural implications, because we’ve had to straddle the line between being Black Americans and being Black Catholics.
What effect has [the rise in Latino demographics in the US] had on black parishes? (3:59)
Has [this effect] led to a number of Black Americans, maybe, not identifying as Catholics? (4:51)
AB (5:10): I do think, however, that by not paying attention in some places- I’m not going to say all- to the needs of Black Catholics, especially with the kinds of priests that are assigned to diocese and parishes, that has caused a real problem. Let’s say you have a priest that does not understand the unique kinds of cultural needs for African American Catholics and they’re, say, from the Philippines or even African priests. That causes a lot of problems.
AB (6:18) It’s really hard, sometimes, to integrate Black Catholics into other parishes if those parishes don’t have Black people already in them, if you know what I mean. It’s hard to put together people and just say “Well, because you’re all Catholics, that’s going to work”. Enculturation just doesn’t mean that you can just throw everybody together and it’s going to be okay. Sometimes, people are really upset about that. That can create a lot of tension.
Pope Francis has spoken out a lot about poverty, corporate greed- he’s remained silent, though, on issues like use of force or recent civil unrest that we’ve seen in places like Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri- what do you think Black Catholics are hoping to hear from the Pope during his visit? (6:40)
AB (6:56): I think that they hope to hear several things: One is, I think they would like to hear some comment about racism in America. The Catholic Church’s history with race has been a troubled one in a lot of ways. You have to think about missionary activity and slavery- even though popes spoke out against slavery and issued papal bulls, slavery still happened. This racial situation we are currently in in America right now, especially with mass incarceration and police brutality, I think would be something very important for the Pope to say that Black Catholics want to hear.
Second, I just think that Black Catholics would like to be recognized. We have a huge history here in the United States, the first black Jesuit in the country, Patrick Healy was the president of Georgetown [University], we have an order which was started by Henriette Delille, the Sisters of the Holy Family, people are hoping that maybe the cause for her sainthood could progress. There’s lots of different ways in which Black Catholics could be recognized by the Pope and I am hoping that we hear something from him while he is here in the United States.
What problems can arise from leadership that is not aware of the cultural needs and contributions of a segment of the congregation?
How can a congregation meaningfully engage with different cultural communities within its membership?
Whose cultural identity is most prevalent in your worship service? How do you see this?
How can a congregation appropriately relate to its complicity in past injustice and respond to contemporary challenges?