racism

Toxic Concepts I (Un)Learned from Church – White Jesus, Colorblind Savior

This post is a part of a larger series, which can be viewed here.

Toxic Concept: Jesus’ cultural context doesn’t matter.
(read: Jesus didn’t have a color)
(read most often as: Jesus was White)

“The Christian Church has tended to overlook its Judaic origins, but the fact is that Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew of Palestine when he went about his Father’s business, announcing the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited

Last week, I saw the Fences movie for the second time. It was my favorite play when I studied Theater and I cannot overstate how amazing Denzel Washington & Viola Davis were in that film. However, one thing that I could not miss came through the set design. Just above the sink where Rose (played by Davis) would peel potatoes and wash dishes was a rendering of White Jesus.

Yo…

This was such an interesting set choice because in my lived experience (and you might be able to argue that in the experience of many Black Americans), White Jesus is a part of the walls of many of our elders’ homes. Not all. But enough to have been chosen as a part of the set design for Fences.

In my own upbringing, White renderings of Jesus moved like a ghost in the subtext of my religious heritage.

Now, to be clear, my parents are committed to our cultural heritage. In other words…

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They told me about where Jesus was born, pointed to it on a map. They made it clear that given his sociocultural context… Jesus was not White. My parents aren’t theologians.

Neither am I.

However, most of my friends are theologians. They say the most brilliant things I’ve heard and that is not debatable. 🙂 On one such occasion, I reposted a thought from Dr. Ashon Crawley which directly discussed the social impacts of imagining Jesus as White.

In a manner of min…seconds, someone piped in with a case for White Jesus, Colorblind Savior. My first (internal) response? “Chile… my ancestors did not die for this”. *Rolls eyes and rubs temples

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I’ve known, deeply and intimately, the ramifications that primarily White Jesus, Colorblind Savior has. When I got to college, I attempted involvement with campus ministries. Campus ministry at a predominantly White institution often means… welll… predominantly White theological understandings. I don’t want to mince words here: it was, overall, a demoralizing experience.

When Jesus wasn’t being rendered as White, He was off – busy telling me… through them… that my own culture & ethnicity did not matter – under a gross misinterpretation of the Galatians 3:38 text. 

It wasn’t until years later, when I read Howard Thurman’s 1948 text “Jesus and the Disinherited”, that I realized just how much Jesus’ own sociohistorical and cultural contexts made a difference. Or that I realized just how harmful and dishonest rendering Jesus as primarily White is.

To render Jesus as White is to say that the various times He was referred to as Jesus “of Nazareth” can be erased right out of the text… right out of what his lived experience was… It means missing out on how hard they TRRIIIIIEEED ITTTTT in the book of John 1 (verses 45 & 46):

45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (NSRV)

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And you don’t get the “try” if you don’t get that Nazareth held its own social location. As did Jesus.

The toxicity of the White Jesus concept is that it allows Jesus’ personhood to be invoked right along efforts of American conquest & the subjugation of people of color – the purposes for which the social construct of Whiteness was built upon in the first place. Putting a construct of Whiteness onto Jesus is certainly convenient when you’re trying to justify a notion that the Divine affirms the genocide, stolen land / resources, and enslavement of people of color. Pft.

Put in other terms by Dr. Crawley:

“i sometimes forget and ask myself what would white evangelicals do if they finally realized, in earnest, that jesus was not a white man. but then i remember: white evangelical christianity has already rejected the biblical jesus. they do not believe he was a palestinian jewish man, they believe he was white with sometimes blond hair. and such a rejection of his personhood – he certainly would be a POC in modern parlance, though it’s an anachronism of sorts – but such a rejection, the continued need for him to be white, goes hand in hand with the continued need for him to be capitalist, sexist, homo- and transphobic. white evangelical christianity remade jesus into an image that would allow for conspicuous consumption, for manifest destiny, for the genocide of indigenous peoples, for the enslavement of black peoples.
what we’re noticing now with folks like paula white and vicki yohe are simply the extension of a quiet displeasure, a sorta disdain and contempt with difference itself. it ain’t new. but folks are gonna have to choose if they’re gonna sing with them still (like travis) or make a different kind of stand”

In my own life, I’ve found the concept to be toxic because in addition to all of this… the notion of primarily White Jesus, Colorblind Savior is demoralizing. It denotes a ghastly racialized lack of imagination: that the imago Dei – the image of God – can be found in people of color. It denies that the Divine exists, yes, even outside of the construction of Whiteness. When it is suggested that Jesus had no color at all, it is a gross erasure of his humanity AND the humanity of those who come from his sociocultural context.

I’ve seen how conceiving Jesus as primarily White allows us to continue building up  and excusing away Christian conferences that are the antithetical to intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1995). It allows us to ignore how our current political landscape has employed White Evangelical Jesus & White Evangelical Christianity towards further subjugation: the stripping of reproductive rights for women, the taking of sacred lands via pipelines, and as Kieryn Darkwater so eloquently describes… all under the guise of  “Taking Back The Country For Christ” .

So let’s all be clear:

“Jesus was an actual person.
That means he had an ethnicity, nationality, and cultural background. Because all people who walk the earth do”

And this sociocultural location was as a Palestinian Jew.

The quoted text above were words I literally had to say to someone. Just a few days ago. In 2017. And so, this notion bears repeating.

For more on this topic, see John Pavlovitz’s post, “Dear Jesus, You’re Fired From American Evangelical Christianity” (2017) and read you some Howard Thurman (like literally everything… anything).

This post is a part of a larger series, which can be viewed here.

After Viral Videos: Further Questions on SAE & Institutional Culture

I planned a lovely post about language, technology, and text messaging for your reading pleasure this week… and then a colleague in Student Affairs sent me the clip which features a bus full of SAE fraternity members engaging in an incredibly racist chant. The story and the subsequent repercussions went viral in a matter of moments.

My immediate response was too crass to be immortalized in online, public spaces. So, for the purposes of this post we’ll just say that a) I was not surprised by the clip; I have both seen and been tasked to address firsthand the racist culture that is embedded in many predominantly White sororities and fraternities, and b) my patience for these shenanigans after the absolutely disconcerting year we’ve had in terms of social justice, police brutality, implicit and explicit racism / bias in America was almost non-existent. So, I did what I always do when I’m reflecting / processing… I laid low for a bit and read up (I have posted some of my favorite articles / blog posts on the subject in the text below).

First, I’ll say that President Boren’s statement was absolutely refreshing. Far too many times, I have seen these types of behaviors downplayed, glossed over, and re-centered on the potential learning opportunities of White students while ignoring the physical, mental, and essential safety / care of the students of color that these behaviors impact [yepp, that was a run-on but I’m sayin’ it how I feel it today]. For those of you who have not yet seen President Boren’s response, pour some tea for this read (as posted on the University of Oklahoma’s Facebook page / social media presence):

To those who have misused their free speech in such a reprehensible way, I have a message for you. You are disgraceful. You have violated all that we stand for. You should not have the privilege of calling yourselves “Sooners.” Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots. Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect. Real Sooners love each other and take care of each other like family members.

Effective immediately, all ties and affiliations between this University and the local SAE chapter are hereby severed. I direct that the house be closed and that members will remove their personal belongings from the house by midnight tomorrow. Those needing to make special arrangements for possessions shall contact the Dean of Students.

All of us will redouble our efforts to create the strongest sense of family and community. We vow that we will be an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue. There must be zero tolerance for racism everywhere in our nation.

President Boren

Oop! In the next 24 – 48 hours, the house was shut down, people were packing their bags, and two of the students were expelled.

But I still have questions though…

  • What is the University of Oklahoma doing in terms of educational interventions for the students who are still THERE, navigating through hate speech, discrimination, and a climate that may not be conducive to their academic or personal success. I’m glad that they have gotten rid of the fraternity and a few of the members… but what are they doing about their institutional climate? Moreover, what interventions are there / have there been from national fraternity & sorority leadership to change the culture / climate of these organizations?

    Please, let’s not act like this is all new. How many problematic parties have we seen within the last (oh I don’t know) forever years that center around denigrating and mocking people of color? How long have we known that the fabric of many of these organizations includes the explicit, open, blatant exclusion of people of color? How long have folk intensely advocated for centering the story on the learning opportunities available to students who perpetuate what is, in this case, hate speech, while on the other hand, writing off decentralized diversity statements with elusive hopes that that document will fix systemic issues within the climate of the institution? [Insert side eye here]. Now that this has come to light, my question remains, what will administrative leadership do about the institutional climate and culture? What will national Greek organizations do about the recurring instances (parties, chants, additional foolery) that can only indicate an embedded culture of hostility and racism? Because these random press releases don’t cut it and the constant state of surprise when things like this happen is absolutely astounding. The fact of the matter is, after years of these types of incidents, why are we still sitting in surprise and shock instead of finding, instilling, and systematizing some cultural competence and sensitivity (aka some “do-right” as my Grandmother says).

I can’t help but wonder how the viral nature of the video influenced decisions about what would be done short term? These type of instances happen far more than can be accessed through viral videos for public consumption. So, I’m interested to see… when the viral video “dies down”, will there be radio silence about this particular incident from administrative leadership (and if I really say it how I feel it, I’m wondering if there will be the deafening silence of those within the profession who have identified themselves as allies)?

My well wishes and best thoughts are with the Student Affairs staff at that institution, the people of color who work there, and especially the students of color who study there. Although this post represents only a few lines in the narrative, I have posted other works below that round out the story even more. Enjoy them and think critically about them:

  1. Racism in Oklahoma Frat Video Is Widespread at Colleges, Researcher Says by Peter Schmidt, Chronicle of Higher Education
  2. The Side of the Oklahoma Racist Frat Story that Nobody is Talking About, Zak Cheney-Rice, Mic.com
  3. Save Our Children, Alta Mauro, https://justmamta.wordpress.com
  4. On Why Expulsion Was The Only Option For The SAE Students, Eric Mata, ericmata.wordpress.com

Image Credit: Filling their shoes from Kay Isabedra, deathtothestockphoto.com