Occasionally, I will get asked by one of my fellow African-americans what race do I think Jesus was. Typically, what goes along with that question is the reflection of how Jesus has been displayed in artwork throughout Christianity’s existence. Usually, the sentiment is juxtaposed with a sense of indignation that spurns the anglo, eurocentric dominance of such art reflection that is not consistent with the indigenous culture of the Biblical setting.
Unfortunately, the question represents the broader discontentment of a long history of mistreatment of Blacks. There is a sensitivity to the topic that is often met with emotional disdain at the prospect of historical injustices and contemporary misgivings. This is something that only the impacted feel, most don’t understand and only a few handle with objective care. For those who have evaded the genetic and/or cultural entrapment that sifts issues of race through a highly evaluative colandar, there might be a sense of irritation that an endless recalling of the issue to the forefront brings. For those whom race has been a most central concern due to their ethnic heritage, the continual demand for justice, respect and value can cloud even the most innocent of misunderstandings and misrepresentations. The extreme version of this demand can, and often does result in a myopic insistence that justice prevails even in situations where there have been no miscarriages of it.
Yes, the issue of race and how it has been historically treated remains a highly volatile topic for some, and particularly as it relates to Christianity. The reality is that for centuries, there has been an anglo, eurocentric dominance on the representation of Christianity that is not only reflected in the symbolic artifacts and artifices, but resulted in demoralizing perceptions and practices where Blacks are concerned. The ensuing institutional and political infractions that created a system of inequality and wholesale denigration were supported and promoted by Biblical interpretations and a biased brand of Christianity. That is an inescapable reality that would have a lasting impact, even after lines of demarcation were legally erased. The anglo-orientation of Christianity would cause some to reject it as a by-product of that orientation, failing to see the beauty of Christ that transcends it.
For the Christian with the mandate to see through a Christo-centric lens, this indeed becomes a tricky balance. The idea that race should not matter to one committed to Christ has worked wonderful in theory but not so great practically. While this country has witnessed great strides in race relations, there seems to remain a subtle hum of separatism based on cultural preferences, misunderstandings and in extreme cases, outright prejudices. Some things are hard to forget and even harder to let go of. This is most demonstrated in the composition of the local Christian assembly. How many Christian churches across America have isolated on the basis of race illustrative in separatist nomenclature of black churches, white churches, hispanic churches, etc.? I recall a former pastor frequently citing the phrase ‘Sunday mornings are the most segregated hour in America’. I dare say it is the lingering impact of historic inequality and cultural biases.
Yet Christ effectively dealt with ethnic prejudices long before euro-centric dominance and he established the foundation by which equality must be considered. Jesus Christ stepped into time and space when prejudicial sentiments ran high. Jews were considered superior as God’s chosen people. Gentiles, as a class of people, were considered inferior and unworthy of any divinely favored activity. In fact, they were classified as dogs, which in that time was a derogatory term likening them to unclean animals.
Since Jesus revealed God to humanity, his actions towards the Gentiles demonstrated not only an unprecedented level of care and consideration for them, but what he came to implement would transcend ethnic prejudices and transform discriminatory practices. His death on the cross created a new entity, called the Church, whereby those former lines of demarcation were erased and all who were apart of the this entity would have equal access, equal promises and equal consideration. Ephesians 2:13-16 aptly captures this
But now in Christ Jesus you who used to be far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed. (Ephesians 2:13-16 NET)
From a first century perspective, no longer would one group (Jews) have the privileged upper hand that denied the other group (Gentiles) equal access and consideration. Now, the privilege would be granted exclusively through Christ and the new entity that he established, access through faith in him. The hostility presented here refers to the Mosaic covenant that created the ability for one group to discriminate against the other group but now has been rendered ineffective through Christ’s death on the cross.
From a contemporary perspective, this ought to impale any notion that one group of people is in anyway superior to another and deserving of a superior status. It is unfortunate that for so many centuries this was not the case, that the beauty of cross was marred by biased applications of unbiased Biblical truths. It is egregious that such interpretations resulted in the denigration of a whole class of people that would have such a forceful and continuing impact.
Nonetheless, misapplications cannot and should not be confused with the intentional actions of a loving God who deemed all creation equally worthy of reconciliation appropriated through the gift of his Son and faith in him. Nor should it be of consequence that culturally biased representations of him would skew his affiliation with one race or the other. He died so individuals from all races, creeds, tongues, nations would have equal opportunity to the gift of eternal life. This transcends race, it transcends historical mis-actions, it transcends cultural biases.
So the quest for the colorless Christ considers his work and person over what has been done with it by lost and misguided people. Colorless is actually a misnomer for it suggests an erasure of ethnic heritage. Rather colorless considers all races and ethnicities as equally valuable. For the Christ-follower, this means moving beyond the past transgressions and embracing the model of integration that Christ came to establish. It recognizes the historic mishandling of evidence and resulting prejudices are nothing more than a product of the same sin that Christ came to expunge in order to create an unprecedented unity that defies ethnic and cultural prejudices. It means stepping outside of the biases and considering the brother as a brother rather than a member of a different race. Paul’s prescription in Philippians 3:13-14 to forget those things which are behind is equally applicable to the sensitivities of historic mistreatment.
As long as sin exists in a broken and fallen world, there will always be racism in one form or the other or milder versions of ignorance and cultural superiority. But let those who look to Christ demonstrate his transcendence of these issues, abolition of biased attitudes and composition of equal consideration and sensitivity to those impacted.