My Jesus, My Savior…
I spend a lot of time thinking about Jesus. I am surrounded by images of Jesus: the triumphal Ascension of a Scandinavian Jesus painted on the reredos from Salem Evangelical, the white skinned (pink and beige acrylic really) paint-by-number Good Shepherd that I inherited years before serving at a parish of the same name, the mysterious icon of an Arab Jesus offering peace in Syriac, and the bubbly, somewhat Mediterranean, Jesus in the Spark Story Bible.
Yet, when I pray, when I write poetry to him, when I paint his picture, when I envision him in the room with me, my Jesus is black. There are so many reasons for this personal piety, and I hope to illuminate a few here.
I am not trying to take away from the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth as a Jewish man in Galilee. His heritage is from a tribe that blended the West Asian and African families who departed from Egypt. Yet I can’t escape the notion that with all of the complexity surrounding the historical Jesus’ ethnicity, I can be pretty sure that he would be easily categorized as non-white and at-risk walking along the street in the United States.
I am not trying to replace curly forelocks and Semitic features of a man who spoke parables in Aramaic with the dreadlocks and dark skin of a man who weaves inscrutable rhymes of truth in an American patois. I am saying yes, yes and yes. Yes to the Jesus of history. Yes to the countless beautiful renderings of the man I confess to be the very Son of God. Yes to the image of Jesus that has invaded my heart and convicted me.
I can think of few more radical things to say in this culture, than I owe my life and breath and salvation to a young black revolutionary whose very presence embodies the kingdom of God. My work in the inner cities of Connecticut with all sorts of families opened my eyes to God’s presence in places that felt abandoned by the larger culture. My reading of James Cone, Jon Sobrino and other liberation theologians taught me to look for Jesus among the people who were in bondage, exile and being crucified right here, right now.
Jesus comes from the Exodus people, and while Egypt is very far from where I have ever lived, I have learned enough of the history of slavery and the underground railroad to know that African Americans are the Exodus people in my life.
Jesus identified with the lowly, the outcast and the oppressed. He faced the tree of the Cross because it was the punishment for those who tried to assert their humanity in the face of empire. There are no crosses in my cultural history, but the lynching tree is a vile reality that I must acknowledge. I have learned enough of the disproportionate numbers of African American men who are stopped by police, arrested, imprisoned, sentenced to death and even killed in the street to wonder what hand I have in this continuing injustice. I am like the centurion, who saw the way in which Jesus died and only then really saw him.
I stand at the nexus of all sorts of privilege in my culture. I am white, married, male, baptized, well-educated, ordained, serving in a parish and meandering my way into middle-age. I desperately need Jesus to be something else. I need the one I submit to, follow and praise to not be a more perfect doppelganger of me. I am daily made aware that my privilege is not primarily a product of my effort, and that my sin includes my willingness to participate in systems of power and domination. The unrest in Ferguson Missouri following the death of Michael Brown is sadly just one more story bringing this to my attention.
I need to turn and be welcomed by a young, black revolutionary who says to me, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” His beautiful face reminds me always to look for God’s kingdom among the forgotten, the struggling, the terrified, the tear-gassed, those knocked down by water cannons, and those with their hands held aloft. I remember that Jesus surrendered to the authorities, and they killed him anyway.
This gives me courage to follow him, to trust in him, to live for him, and even to die for him if that becomes necessary. When I sit in the silence and pour my heart out to him, my Jesus is black and this has made a huge difference in my life of faith. I pray that the image of Jesus who sits with you in your time of great solitude helps you to find God’s kingdom in whatever broken places you travel through.