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.)
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.
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