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Reclaiming Jesus in Diversity

Last spring, I had the opportunity to lead a lecture series on Christology and Whiteness at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, USA, in which we discussed the various ways that Euroamerican assumptions become the default in the ways that we understand the Christian faith, scripture, and the Church. Additionally, we looked at Black Theology as a necessary critique for this dominant perspective (More on Black Theology here and here) and the need to enculturate the gospel with diversity for its full embodiment.

One of the illustrating points of how a community reclaims Jesus within their own cultural identity was the statue of “Black Jesus” at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, USA. (For our readers outside of the United States, Detroit is a major city which has experienced significant economic upheaval based on changes in factory manufacturing, which disproportionately affected African-Americans and other minority groups.)

Image Credit: David Schalliol

Image Credit: David Schalliol

The 12th Street Riot in 1967, caused by police brutality and unjust social conditions, lasted 5 days and rocked a community and a country teeming with racial friction as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining force. In the midst of this conflict, a statue of Christ in a grotto of the Sacred Heart Major Seminary was painted.

According to the Seminary:

The story of Black Jesus is moving and was at one time controversial. During the second day of the disturbance [the 1967 riots], an African American housepainter boldly painted the hands, feet and face of the white Sacred Heart of Jesus statue black. Opinions were highly polarized at the time, even among Detroit’s black residents. Some considered the painting an act of faith and racial pride; others saw it as mere vandalism. Over the years, the meaning of the landmark has evolved to almost unanimously symbolize Jesus’ love for all races, and particularly for the city of Detroit and its black citizens. The seminary has steadfastly kept the features of the landmark painted black for four decades, and intends to do so forever.

The paint on the head, hands, and feet of Jesus occupy a small part of the statue’s surface, yet their contrast speaks volumes to the common depiction of Christ. For a community facing injustices, this becomes a reminder that Christ is present with them and not the sole property of the privileged and powerful.

The significance of cultural groups reclaiming the image of Christ in themselves teaches us a few lessons.

We understand the incarnation better.

  • To believe that God entered into the human story and was entirely present within a human form endows an extreme amount of cultural particularity. Jesus of Nazareth was, quite simply, a Jewish man, living in and around the Galilee region in the first century of the Common Era. He spoke Aramaic at least, ate a lot of salted fish, dressed in a common fashion, read Hebrew scripture exclusively, maintained Jewish religious customs, and fit within his social context as the son of a carpenter and, later, a religious teacher. Despite all of these unique cultural factors, neither Jesus nor Christian traditions have required their followers to honor the cultural practices of its leader! For God to inhabit a human is for God to inhabit humanity, in all of its diversity and complexity. (This becomes a running challenge in the first-century church as some Jewish-background Christians want to retain cultural practices as a core component of the faith, while Gentile-background Christians bring their own former religious practices, like ecstatic speech and disassociation with the physical body, to the community. Acts 15 is one of the flashpoints of trying to reconcile these differences.) Christianity has been a translated faith since its inception and continues to adapt to new communities and concerns today. By engaging with how different cultures have applied the gospel in their context, we are inspired to see how to reflect the spirit of Christ in our own communities. To look for and value diversity is to see how Christ is incarnated again and again in different ways.
  • We are challenged to reveal where we have made our own social preferences a stand-in for faith.

    • Taking the time to examine our own cultural conditions is similar to a fish studying water. Because we are unconsciously shaped by so many factors, it is easy to assume that those factors and our experiences are universal. This is especially true if we inhabit social locations of privilege or power. (In 2013, a major news representative crystallized this assumption in an on-air segment arguing that Santa Claus and Jesus were white. Her reasoning? “They just are.” – Video Link) When we assume that Jesus belongs to White culture, discipleship means becoming more White to the exclusion of other diverse and valuable identities. When we assume that Jesus belongs to White culture, discipleship means becoming more White Click To Tweet Once we are aware of this tendency, we can see where they have infiltrated our leadership structures, worship styles, spiritual direction, and have distanced others and their ability to live fully into their identity as a disciple of Christ.

    We learn to see Christ as present in our neighbors and are moved to action.

    • Despite the divisions which may exist due to geography, language, economics, education, there is the possibility to find commonality with people who are, otherwise, complete strangers. Through this association, Christians of one social location can see in another the presence of Christ, if they choose to look! We can see our sisters and brothers affected by adverse weather, or political posturing, or living under threat of violence and injustice. By cherishing their Christian identity first, we protect against the pressures to divide based on social hierarchies. When we see our sisters and brothers treated unfairly, we are motivated to become involved in their struggle because it is no longer their issue, but a family issue. We cannot gaslight and dismiss their experiences, but need to listen, learn, and follow their leadership. As a white, American male, I believe that #BlackLivesMatter as a necessary societal improvement, but I also believe that Jarrett, and Stanley, and Ramon, and Delonte, and Troy, and Gary’s lives matter and that they have something to teach me about living the Christian life. Of course, these influences come from all types of diversity- people of every national origin, economic status, gender expression and orientation, physical ability, political affiliation, language and literacy, and creed. The community that grows despite these differences will look truly peculiar to those outside the Church and creates invitation to share the radical influence of the Gospel. These relationships are also an entrypoint for responding faithfully and thoughtfully to the calls for justice and reconciliation.

    What has been your experience in seeking diversity in the Church? What barriers have you encountered or benefits enjoyed?

    Michael Shepherd is an adjunct professor at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA and editor of Global Theology. He can be reached at editor @globaltheology.org or on Twitter at @Global_Theology or @mchlshepherd

     

     

     

    Following a Transgender Jesus

    jesusSuzanne 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.

    She writes,

    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.

    Good Friday on the Street

    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.

    Not-BANKSY-station-of-cross-1024x512

    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.

    Tweet: Jesus lived in a police state where the color of his skin put him at odds with the government.

    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!

    Walking in the Sacred Way: Ojibway Prayer

    In a prayer offered by an Ojibway elder, themes of brokenness, restoration, and balance with all of creation are present. From a North American First-Nations/Native American perspective, we can begin to see these themes in a new light within our own communities.

    Grandfather,
    Look at our brokenness.
    We Know that in all creation
    Only the human family
    Has strayed from the Sacred Way.

    (more…)

    Appreciating the Multicultural Church

    Dr. Soong-Chan Rah of North Park Theological Seminary speaking at chapel of Fuller Theological Seminary on “The Next Evangelicalism: Appreciating the Multicultural Church” (November 7, 2012). Dr. Rah uses the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 as a model for understanding “a world that is becoming increasingly multicultural  and how the church responds to this very dynamic time in our nation’s, as well as our world’s, church history”.

    The following is my summary and notes from his lecture.

    The question is not whether the world is changing, but how Christian Americans will respond. (Click to Tweet) (more…)

    “Listen, Smith of Heaven!” | An Ancient Icelandic Hymn

    In 1208, an Icelandic poet named Kolbeinn Tumason wrote Heyr Himna Smiður, which would become a stalwart piece of Icelandic Christian tradition. Its imagery is dynamic to these northern peoples, using  the terms “Smith of the Heavens” to convey the craftsmanship and attention that God shows to creation; “mild one” which is a play on the word that means the generous tribal leader, or king; and “King of the suns”, capturing the spiritual significance of solar seasonality to the island just south of the Arctic Circle.

    Listen to the poem sung in it’s original language with an English translation, performed by Ellen Kristjánsdóttir. (more…)

    Islam and Christianity: Symptoms of a Wider Issue

    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. vramachandraOn 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:

    1. 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.
    2. 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.)
    3. 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.

    View full post: Pocket-Sized Gods? at vinothramachandra.wordpress.com.

    Black Catholics Searching for Recognition, Identity

    The Brooks family — Joe, Desiree, Gabrielle and Alyssa — pray after arriving for Sunday Mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Alexandria, Va., in this 2011 file photo. (CNS photo/Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

    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.

    Interview summary and audio link | Audio only 

    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.


    Discussion questions:

    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?


    The Ocean’s Influence on Theology

    This morning, I came across a quote from Paul Tillich that caught my attention.

    tillich

    It made me think of the influences that have shaped me into the person who I am today. Usually, we think of teachers, pastors, friends, family members, or authors who have contributed to our development, but Tillich’s quote reminded me of the environmental influences that may, more subtly, effect our perspective. (more…)

    José y Maria: Still No Room

    In the United States, it is typical to rent a room temporarily while traveling. Mary and Joseph were not looking for a room for the weekend, as we are accustomed to doing around the holidays. They were looking for temporary lodging, to fulfill whatever obligations of the census and to be ready in case Mary went into labor. In a town that would have been filled with Joseph’s kin, none were willing to make room for him and his pregnant fiancee. Think less about a “No Vacancy” neon sign and more of being told that there are no guest rooms, no rollaways, no couches, no air mattresses, no floors that you are welcome to. “That girl” is not welcome in our town.

    Illustrator Everett Patterson has an image that strikes this chord in scene preceding the nativity we are accustomed to decorating our homes, lawns, and churches.

    José y Maria, by Everett Patterson

    José y Maria, by Everett Patterson

    In his commentary on the piece, he writes, (more…)

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