A Middle Eastern Jesus and Why It Matters? [Part 2]
The first installment of this series argued that the historical Jesus – in his ethnicity and social location – is essential to Christian faith and theology. The Son of Man reveals God to all people and all people are summoned to repent and believe the gospel and follow Jesus no matter where they are on the globe. God’s plan for redemption always intended to include all people. However due to the historical construction of race, the predominance of white supremacy, and the litany of social ills rooted in the stratification of image bearers into racial groups – the image of Jesus for many minorities in the American context carries the baggage of racial oppression. The late Tom Skinner prophetically echoed this sentiment back in the 1970s stating this
“If Christ takes on the image of an Anglo-Saxon Protestant suburbanite, He’s obviously not for black men. It is inconceivable that this kind of Christ would die for black people.”
Skinner published these words in 1970 and they are just as salient today, which bespeaks of a distorted lens clouding the image of Christ purveyed in America. Jesus in the United States often has been presented in support of a narrative that whiteness is close to godliness and Christianity is an oppressive religion. American Christianity has not only been accused of being a “White Man’s Religion”, but many doubt whether Jesus has any solidarity with the experiences of racial minorities at all. However the Middle Eastern Messiah subverts white supremacy and lived a life that is congenial to the minority American experience. Here are a few reasons how Jesus’ humanity removes doubts of whether people of color in America can identify with Christianity.
A Great High Priest
“The word became flesh” is an often discussed but severely under appreciated reality of the Christian faith. Jesus is human. His humanity doesn’t make him any less God – while simultaneously displaying God’s intimate proximity to the human experience. However, Jesus’ life on earth wasn’t reflective of his identity as God the Son in all his eternal majesty. Jesus was on the underside of society as a man from Nazareth who many assumed was no place for anything good – especially not the Messiah. From childhood Jesus was acquainted with the consequences of an oppressive government regime that lead Joseph and his mother to flee their own country to Egypt to preserve Jesus’ life. The Gospels give us an account of Jesus’ ministry as a nomadic rabbi heralding the good news about the kingdom God. Jesus was not a powerful thought leader with endless material resources but a humble servant dependent on people like the women in Luke 8 to support his ministry. (Luke 8:1-3) The “King of Glory” didn’t rest in a palace but he often had no place to rest his head at all. For Jesus to have these experience not only shows his humility as the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2 expounds, but reveals God’s solidarity with the experiences of the downtrodden, lowly, and marginalized. God became a minority in Ancient Palestine.
The Son of God did not become a minority in order to privilege Jewish ethnicity or any other contemporary minority groups’ position in the kingdom God. Rather, Jesus subverts the world’s understanding of power and privilege by proclaiming a message that “the last shall be first and the first shall be last”. (Matthew 20:16) Jesus inaugurates the coming of the kingdom of God where people don’t have to pursue power or be socioeconomically privileged in order to be blessed and have fellowship with God. Jesus’ human experience is a clear message to every ethnicity that God sympathizes with our human frailty and takes the punishment we deserved for sin, so that Caesar’s household and a beggar named Bartimeus can be brought into one family through the same Savior. The above observations should serve as great encouragement to anyone who feels on the outside of social power structures that God is acquainted with their experiences – yet without sin. Jesus is our Great High Priest because he went so low to redeem.
As Skinner and many other minority Christians have lamented the role Christianity has played in oppression and racial prejudice in America, Skinner makes two observations important for minorities – especially African Americans to consider.
(1) “while the white men [in America] have used Christianity to exploit people, you can’t blame God for that”. The steadfast love of God is a pervasive theme on every page of Scripture. Jesus embodies this preeminently at the cross. God’s grace and love for the world led Jesus to die and satisfy God’s wrath towards sin and make communion with God readily available for all people who would believe. God is no respecter of persons and God never was in favor of the agenda to maintain a racially bias status quo. Minorities can rest assure that God is for them because they are made in His image and the historical sins of men to try to deny this does not outweigh the grace of God.
(2) “There is no other book in all the world that rings with more pride for liberty and justice and freedom and equality.” In an abundance of conversations surrounding justice, Christians must never forget that the only reason we can even talk about anything being unjust is due to justice originating in the holy God we worship. God is the standard of righteousness and moral purity, so there is no justice without the holiness of God. God’s values should shape our values and the Bible is clear that the life and wellbeing of all people matter to God. Therefore, anything threatening human life and human flourishing – especially those based in discrimination – an opportunity is presented for Christians to reflect and contend for God’s moral purity in every facet of life wherever sin and brokenness is found. God’s holiness does not make him a far off distant deity unconcerned with the affairs of people. Rather, God comes near and promises to one day make all things new and make all injustices recede. As we await Christ return, people of color can trust in the acute compassion of God from Matthew 10:30 affirming God even knows about the hairs on our heads.
So of course God cares about the prices paid for having melanin in your skin in America.