Can white Jesus be saved?

First posted to my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

This week, in my little corner of the Internet, some people were wringing their hands about white Jesus. As statues and monuments to the Confederacy are being torn down, some people have begun to wonder whether it’s time to remove representations of Jesus which portray him as white.

To these suggestions, others countered with the fact that Jesus has often been portrayed with the cultural and ethnic distinctions of the person artistically representing him. A good case can be made that these diverse representation actually point to one of the unique claims made by Christians, that God became one of us. The miracle of the incarnation comes into view each time Jesus is represented in a culturally accessible manner.

I think too of Lamin Sanneh’s work on the translated nature of Christianity into particular cultures. “[With] the shift into native languages, the logic of religious conversion assumed an internal dynamic, with a sharp turn away from external direction and control. Indigenizing the faith meant decolonizing its theology, and membership of the fellowship implied spiritual home rule.”

Christianity, Sanneh asserts, is a religion which expects itself to be translated into the cultural vernacular. The linguistically and culturally diverse pilgrims of Acts 2 didn’t have to get help to understand the disciples’ message; the Holy Spirit translated it.

In other words, there are traits inherent to Christian faith which provide a certain logic for culturally diverse portrayals of Jesus. So, what’s the problem with white Jesus?

The problem is theological. White Jesus is not an expression of cultural or ethnic uniqueness. Rather, he represents the move away from the Jewish particularities of Jesus to a racial construction in which, in Willie Jennings’ words, “the body of the European would be the compass marking divine election.” It’s not that white Jesus represents the incarnation to a particular group of people; he claims a universal power to represent God to all people. White Jesus is not one cultural expression of the gospel’s ability to translate itself into many cultures; he represents the erasure of those cultures.

So, should white Jesus come down? Well, how about this question: Can white Jesus be displayed in a manner that doesn’t reveal what his racialized nature was meant to communicate? In other words, can white Jesus take his place as yet one expression among others of the incarnation of the Son of God? Or is there something inherently anti-Christ (anti-incarnation, anti-contextualized translation of the gospel) about this image’s whiteness?

For me, the answers are no, no, and yes. How about you?

On living counter to this racist culture assisted by the saints, including one or two white ones.

First published in my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.

What do you imagine when you hear racial segregation? I think many of us imagine the Civil Rights Movement. Maybe we think about a time when housing segregation was legal. But more than an ugly reality of a bygone era, we know that de-facto segregation is the lived experience for most Americans, especially white Americans.

For white Christians, one of the results of our contemporary segregation is that we have significantly limited the saints who went before us, whose lives are worthy of imitation. There are rosters of names and collections of testimonies we have never heard. While some of us argue over whether it’s appropriate to esteem giants of the faith who also enslaved people, there exists outside our view many Christian women and men whose faithfulness could shape our own discipleship.

I’ve written before about people like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and Fred Shuttlesworth and how I’ve come to see the deep connections we share- despite my race; because of our faith. This has been, for me, one of the greatest gifts of the work and ministry of racial justice and reconciliation. It is an amazing thing to find that I belong to a company of saints whose lives, however imperfectly expressed, compel me more fully into the kingdom of God.

But are there any white role models for those of us on this pilgrimage? I think the answer matters for at least two reasons. For one, despite what I said above, in a racialized society, representation matters. In a similar way to people of color who look for their representatives in media, the arts, government, etc., white people are right to search for historical figures who share our race while also resisting its de-forming power. Second, any time we find one of those people we are made aware that the racism and racial terror of previous generations was not inevitable. The immorality was known if widely ignored.

Identifying a few white saints who lived counter to white supremacy in their day can inspire us to do the same in ours. Problem is, they can be hard to find.

I’m coming to the end of the new Dorothy Day biography by John Loughery and Blythe Randolph. I first encountered Day in graduate school when The Long Loneliness was assigned reading. I reread that autobiography again last summer along with the newly published memoir by Day’s granddaughter, Kate Hennessy. I mention these books to say that, until this most recent biography, I’d never noticed Day’s emphasis on racial equality. Yet it’s a theme that appears again and again throughout her life.

Her biographers tell us of her outrage at Emmet Till’s murder; she made sure her paper publicized it. She traveled south from the Catholic Worker’s headquarters in New York City to stay at the Koinonia Farm in southern Georgia. Led by Clarence Jordan, the farm was an intentionally interracial community located in the Jim Crow south. “During Easter week, Dorothy took a turn as one of the night sentries of the farm… A car sped by in the middle of the night and a shotgun was fired, hitting the vehicle but not [Dorothy].”

The Catholic Worker covered incidents of racial violence around the country as well as pointing out the fact that “most Catholic parishes were making no effort whatsoever to integrate their congregations.” Shining a discomforting spotlight on her own church’s racism was a hallmark of her work. In one incident, one of Day’s writers in Detroit confronted a group of Catholics who were protesting the racial integration of a housing project. The faithful “became enraged, almost to the point of violence, when she informed them that their church did not support segregation. They has certainly never heard their own priests utter a word about integration, nor did they think the Church as they knew it could have any business telling them they had to accept black people as equals.”

There’s more, but these give a sense of Day’s long-term commitment to racial justice. As a Christian. A white Christian. If she could see the inequity and violence of her own day, so could have many others.

I’m adding Dorothy Day to my wall of saints. She’s a reminder of faithful discipleship no matter the cost. No matter the loneliness. But she’s also a warning: The apathy about racial justice that is endemic to white Christianity has never been about a lack of knowledge. Not really. And so, if we’re to follow Saint Dorothy’s example in our own day, our commitment must be as deep and counter to this racist culture as was hers. It’s not a lack of knowledge we’re up against but something more wicked, more… spiritual.

Thank God for the saints who point the way forward.

In Defense of the Multiracial Church. Sort of.

This post first appeared in my newsletter. You can subscribe here.

It was so good talking with Jemar Tisby, author of the essential The Color of Compromise, last week. We covered a lot of ground in an hour but I was especially interested in asking Jemar about how he thinks about multiracial churches. I’d picked up on a certain uneasiness about these kinds of churches while listening to the podcast he co-hosts and was curious to hear more.

As a historian, Jemar began by reflecting on the origins of black churches in the U.S.A. He said, “There would be no black church without racism in the white church.” This is the necessary starting point for any conversation about multiracial churches as it acknowledges the origins of the racial segregation we take for granted in our congregations. Our racial divisions are not a result of personal or cultural preference as so many would like to believe – We listen quietly to the preacher, they talk back. We like hymns, they like praise bands. Rather, as Jemar points out, our segregation originates and is sustained by white racism.

So even today, when most white people would repudiate the former racism found in our churches, because we’ve not honestly assessed its subtler forms today, there remains an essential place for churches of color, especially black churches. Listening to Jemar talk about this reminded me of an article Pastor Charlie Dates wrote a few years ago in which he too made the case for the urgent relevance of predominately black congregations. Of this tradition he wrote, “The witness of black preaching is that our submission to the authority of Scripture demands that we engage societal injustice. The black church has not historically engaged in social justice in lieu of the gospel. It does so because of the gospel.”

Sadly, our white churches have generally not seen the gospel in this way. We have seen a choice between the gospel and justice, a choice which black churches have historically rejected as theologically warped and pastorally harmful. And yet too many multiracial churches have not disturbed these dangerous assumptions. In our conversation, Jemar made the painful observation that, “even in a multiracial environment the culture is going to tend toward white, toward what is most comfortable for white people.” Thoughtful students of these churches like Korie Edwards, Chanequa Walker-Barnes, and Jennifer Harvey have all made similar points about the tendencies toward whiteness within many multiracial churches.

Not all of these churches default to white comfort. For example, I have friends who pastor incredibly diverse churches whose ethos is multicultural and whose priority is justice for the marginalized grounded in the gospel. It’s just that these churches have few, if any, white people. But for those of us whose diverse churches include white people, the question is uncomfortably relevant: Is the multiracial church a genuine expression of the gospel, or do we succumb to racial injustices and hierarchies that continue to plague white churches?

Rediscipling the White Church is available today and in it I try to take seriously the legitimate criticisms leveled at multiracial churches by focusing on the deforming discipleship of white churches. If, as Jemar and other argue, many multiracial churches default to cultural whiteness, then it’s possible that those churches could benefit from considering how we’ve watered down the New Testament’s radical vision of reconciliation for something more palatable to the dominant culture.

Now, to be honest, the multiracial church is not the main character in Rediscipling; the title makes that plain. But here’s my confession: Despite all of its real failures and many important critiques, I remain deeply committed to the multiracial church. I believe that it is a reflection of the reconciliation accomplished by Jesus. I believe that it retains the potential to bear powerful witness in a world of hostility, injustice, and segregation.

I don’t argue that all white churches should become racially and ethnically diverse in Rediscipling. There are many reasons for this: I wanted to push against the tendency to add racial diversity to whiteness and call it reconciliation; I didn’t want to let those pastors and churches off the hook who don’t believe there is enough diversity in their context to pursue reconciliation. But, while I didn’t say this in the book, I believe that if white churches take seriously the call to disciple their people toward solidarity with the diverse body of Christ, at least some of those churches will make the slow, intentional, and sacrificial move toward becoming multiracial.

I suppose, on the release day about a book so focused on white Christians and their churches, I want to plant my personal stake in the ground. For all of its flaws, my commitment to the multiracial church remains unwavering. May we take our place alongside the black congregations esteemed by Jemar and Pastor Charlie in expressing the justice of our Savior.

Favor in the Wilderness

“At that time,” declares the Lord, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.”

This is what the Lord says:

“The people who survive the sword
    will find favor in the wilderness;
    I will come to give rest to Israel.”

The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying:

“I have loved you with an everlasting love;
    I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.
I will build you up again,
    and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt.
Again you will take up your timbrels
    and go out to dance with the joyful.
Again you will plant vineyards
    on the hills of Samaria;
the farmers will plant them
    and enjoy their fruit.
There will be a day when watchmen cry out
    on the hills of Ephraim,
‘Come, let us go up to Zion,
    to the Lord our God.’”

– Jeremiah 31:1-6

My family lived in Southern California during my high school years and one spring break we drove a couple of hours east, into the Mojave Desert. What we found was not a dry and desolate place, but a landscape with patches of green, soft blue skies, and bursts of wildflowers in every direction. After the winter rains, the desert wilderness was full of life.

The people God sent Jeremiah to found themselves in a wilderness. The Kingdom of Israel had splintered in two, and the Northern Kingdom had been carried into exile. Judah, in the south, was left uncertain and afraid about its future. Violent empires rose around them, threatening their existence. Exile seemed inevitable. And into this moment in time, God had his prophet Jeremiah remind his people of his past favor to instill hope in his future provision. There would be life and favor in the wilderness.

There are many ways to describe this collective moment in which we find ourselves. But maybe you’ll agree with me that, among its other characteristics, these weeks have been a wilderness. Not only is the pandemic ravaging our world, once again it is those furthest from our society’s power who suffer the most. Asian Americans have been scapegoated. Immigrants are expected to continue working so that the rest of us can shelter in place. Indigenous communities are suffering disproportionately from the virus. Here in Chicago, while making up only 29% of our city’s population, African Americans represent 70% of those who’ve died from COVID-19. This is a wilderness; a terrible and terrifying wilderness. It can feel God-forsaken.

Is it? The answer from Jeremiah to God’s splintered people was, No. In this wilderness you are not forsaken. Even here, even now, a there is a future worth living toward. On this Easter morning, on the other side of the crucifixion, I want to remind us that the same is true today. No wilderness can overpower our hope if it is established in Christ’s resurrection.

If we’re to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we need to hear God’s two declarations in this passage. We need to hear his declaration about our past and his declaration about our future.

If we’re going to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we need to hear God’s declaration about our past. These verses dance between the past and future. God says, “I have,” and “I will.”

[31:2] This is what the Lord says: “The people who survive the sword will find favor in the wilderness; I will come to give rest to Israel.” The sword recalls Israel’s flight from Egyptian captivity and Pharaoh’s army. After being saved by God through the parted sea, the people stood before the vast wilderness. From the frying pan into the fire.

We know this feeling today. If we make it through this catastrophic moment, then what? What about our job, our educational goals, our retirement? God’s answer to his people then, and to us today, is: There is favor in the wilderness.

The Hebrew word for favor is not about God being nice to us or giving us the things we think we need. Favor can be seen in that well-known blessing from Numbers 6:24-26. 24 “The Lord bless you and keep you;25 the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; 26 the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” God’s favor has to do with his presence, with his relational nature. The people had been freed from slavery into favor.

And rest too, according to Jeremiah. Enslaved people are not granted the daily and weekly rest for which our image-bearing humanity is made. And so to be granted rest, even in the wilderness, is a sign of God’s intentions. It’s a vision of flourishing humanity, no matter the circumstances.

God is reminding his people of the favor and rest he showed them in the wilderness. Their current events had made them forgetful. Where is God now? Why has God allowed this to happen to us? What future can we possibly imagine for ourselves?

Of course, we get this tendency. The more overwhelming our circumstances, the more forgetful we become. We want to get back to the way things were. But in their wilderness moment, God doesn’t have Jeremiah remind them of their normal days, or even their great days. Instead of pointing back to the days of King David or Solomon, God brings their memories to the wilderness: Pharaoh’s sword, the terror of the escape, the gaping wilderness before them.

Could it be that in our own wilderness moment God might ask us to remember our wildernesses of the past? That time you were sick, heartbroken, homeless, jobless, friendless, abandoned, alone. When we remember the wildernesses of the past, we also start to remember what God did.

And when we remember what God did, we start to remember who God is. “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. [31:3] God is a verb and a noun: loved with love. God is love itself. His unfailing kindness is a covenant love; a never-quitting, unstoppable love. There is no human equivalent. This is why we remember those previous wilderness times.

If we’re going to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we need to hear God’s declaration about our past. I showed you favor. I gave you rest. I loved you with an everlasting, unstoppable love.

Today we remember that when Christ took our sin to the cross, we could finally be at rest. Self-righteousness died. Striving for perfection died. Pleasing others, earning merit… all of our toiling died.

Today we remember Christ’s everlasting love. He loved us when we opposed, misunderstood, abandoned, betrayed, convicted, mocked, and crucified him. And on that Sunday morning his love sent the authorities scurrying and the demons fleeing; it sent Mary rejoicing and his disciples running with expectation.

On that first Easter morning, God’s everlasting, never-quitting love took back what the death had stolen. His love tore through dividing walls and ripped through curtains of separation. His love was an earthquake- raising the dead to life, loosing chains of oppression, shaking foundations of power.

The power that raised Jesus from the dead is a power that makes this everlasting love a reality to behold. If we are paying attention, we will fall to our knees before this resurrected love. We will stammer and quake before it. Our knees will knock and mouths hang open. There is nothing tame or safe about the love of God. A love that led through a bloody cross is nothing to be trifled with.

But it is eternal evidence that you are loved with an everlasting love. This love has raised you from death into life. This love is transforming you from the inside out. This love has brought near the kingdom of God, pushing back the shadows of our rebellious world.

It’s a strange request to make on Easter, even stranger during a pandemic but would you remember a previous wilderness? Remember God’s loving-kindness. His rest. His favor in the wilderness. Don’t let today’s wilderness make you forget about God’s yesterday favor in the wilderness.

If we’re going to understand that nothing can overpower resurrection hope, we also need to hear God’s declaration about our future. Our Passage begins: “At that time,” declares the Lord, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.” [31:1] These are a splintered people and this is a promise of reunion.

God reminded his people of their past; now he points ahead. I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt. [31:4] But what, precisely, does this mean? Well, God provides three characteristics of the future promised to his people.

God’s future will be joyful.  Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful. [31:4b] This is a spontaneous joy. It’s not the pre-planned excitement of a birthday party or a holiday. There is simply joy in the air.

God’s future will be marked by justice. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit. [31:5] Samaria was, at that time, occupied. So this is a picture of reunion, but not only that. The people tending the land will also enjoy its fruit. No sharecropping here. No enslaved people toiling for someone else’s benefit. No undocumented immigrants forced to work for subsistence wages. Those who steward the land will enjoy its fruit. There will be no lack in God’s future.

And God’s future will be full of worship. There will be a day when watchmen cry out on the hills of Ephraim, ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God. [ 31:6] Like Samaria, Ephraim was occupied territory. So this too is a vision of reunion, but it’s not a return to normal. Worship is not coerced in God’s future. It does not compete with idols or ideologies. It does not turn a blind eye to injustice. The worship in Jeremiah’s vision is whole-hearted. It is the purpose of a people reunited.

Now, an obvious question for a people in the wilderness who are hearing God’s vision for the future might be: Do we have to wait for these things? Are we to sit around until this future arrives? The answer is provided a few chapters earlier, in Jeremiah 28, when God invites his people to begin living into this future now. For a people in the wilderness, God provides a vision of joy, justice, and worship. It’s a vision that can be lived into in the wilderness.

This is a challenge for us. In the wilderness we want to return to normal. But God is calling us forward into something new. A lot of us can’t wait to get back to normal. But I’ve seen your normal – and mine – and I don’t think it something we should settle for.

On this Easter morning, we might also remember that Jesus didn’t come to return us to normal. Jesus didn’t battle the devil in the wilderness to bring us back to normal. He didn’t confront the religious and political powers to bring us back to normal. He didn’t drive out demons, heal blind eyes and diseased bodies to bring us back to normal. Jesus didn’t raise little girls and old friends from the dead, he didn’t give himself over for betrayal, abandonment, arrest, beating, mocking, and crucifixion to bring us back to normal. He certainly didn’t storm the gates of hell or ascend to the heights of heaven or raise with nailed scared hands and a sword pierced side or trample the head of sin, death, and the devil so that you could get back to normal!

Israel needed to hear God’s declaration about the future while they were in the wilderness, not so they could dream about the good old days but so that they could build for God’s new day. Please don’t settle for normal when God has done something new. As N.T. Write puts it, “Jesus of Nazareth ushers in not simply a new religious possibility, not simply a new ethic or a new way of salvation, but a new creation.” (Surprised by Hope, 67)

The resurrection is a future word bursting into our today wilderness. Behold, I am making all things new! A word of joy, justice, and wholehearted worship. The opportunity of this wilderness season isn’t about your old normal; it’s about the new creation accomplished by the resurrection of the Son of God.

Can I suggest that your desires for normal are not strong enough? They are faint shadows of the desires you were made for. You were made for joy. You were made for justice. You were made for worship. Let those small desires open you to the real thing: new creation streaming into this sick and weary world; breaking into our sadness and grief; redeeming our losses.

When we hear God’s declaration about our future, we understand that nothing in this wilderness can overpower our hope.

In the wilderness, God speaks to his people’s past and to their future. Remember your previous wildernesses. Did I not give you rest? Did I not love you with an everlasting love? Did I not show you loving-kindness that could not be overpowered by anything in the wilderness? I will build you up again. You will dance with joy. You will plant with justice. You will gather in worship. Reoriented by these divine declarations, the people’s hope is restored. For it becomes clear that with God, there is favor in the wilderness.

I know some of us are tired, sick, and despairing. Does the message of Easter ring hollow in the wilderness? Then let the let the despised and rejected one draw near. Let the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief draw near. Let the despised one; the one who bore our infirmities and carried our diseases; the stricken, afflicted, wounded, and crushed one draw near to you today.  He knows the wilderness. He has suffered the wilderness. And he will walk through this wilderness with you.

Turn your face to the one whose countenance is always upon you. Look to him today. He has won your future. His new creation, one day to be fully realized, is even now growing in the wilderness.  

24 “The Lord bless you and keep you; 25 the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; 26 the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” [Numbers 6:24-26]

Preaching While White on MLK Sunday

I first wrote this for my weekly newsletter which you can subscribe to here. It was obviously written for MLK Sunday, but I think the content remains relevant.

A few years ago a friend invited me to preach at his mostly white suburban church the Sunday before MLK Day. I happened to have a couple of friends who attended this white pastor’s church – an Asian American woman and an African American man – who would have been excellent preachers for that Sunday. I also asked my friend if he wouldn’t prefer a mutual friend of ours, an African American woman who is the best preacher I know. No, he replied. My people need to hear about racial justice from a white man.

I’m guessing that a lot of mostly white churches will have guest preachers in their pulpits tomorrow. Most of these will be back men and women who will preach godly sermons that will convict and encourage the congregations to pursue the biblical mandate to seek justice and mercy. But I keep thinking about my friend’s decision to invite a white preacher into the pulpit on MLK Sunday.

My friend’s decision, if I’m remembering right, was motivated by a sense that white people are more likely to hear challenging things about race from other white people than they are from people of color. And because he was self-aware enough to know his own limitations and knowledge, he wanted another white pastor to preach the gospel of the kingdom on that particular Sunday.

His instincts, I’m hate to admit, were good. Over the years my colleagues and mentors of color have pushed me to speak to other white people about race and racism. They’ve experienced enough cold shoulders and turned backs to know that, for many white people, it’s just not possible to hear the truth from a person of color. And as long as this ugly dynamic persists, I’m personally committed to showing up in those white spaces when given the opportunity. Perhaps I might do a bit of the spade work that will allow those same colleagues and mentors to be heard and believed some day in the (hopefully) not too distant future.

But as I was working on my book and thinking about these things through the lens of discipleship, I thought about another expression of my pastor friend’s pulpit supply wisdom. When it comes to race and racism, white people have been formed to locate the center of those conversations among people of color, especially black people. Over this country’s history, the reality of racism and racial injustice has been couched as the “Negro problem,” the “race problem,” or the “problem of race relations.” For white people, the problem is over there and we expect to hear about from people who come from over there.

You can hear hints of this assumption in the recent interview Joe Biden did with the editors of the New York Times. He was asked, “How specifically should the country confront its history of slavery, discrimination and plunder of black America?” After responding that those who are acting oppresively must pay if their actions are criminal, Biden went on to describe a reason some families of color might be struggling today.

And the people who don’t show up on the nights when there’s a parent-teacher meeting are not people who in fact don’t care, but folks from poor backgrounds. They don’t show up because they’re embarrassed. They’re embarrassed the teacher’s going to say — and it’s hard to say, “Well, I can’t read,” or “I don’t …”

In the former vice-president’s imagination, the focus of addressing the impact of racism is on the families who’ve experienced racism. This tends to be how white people perceive the so-called race problem: It’s theirs. And we can be sympathetic or callous but most of the time we’re not going to see it as ours.

So it’s reasonable for a church that has few people of color in attendance or leadership to welcome a preacher of color to the pulpit once a year, on the Sunday we’ve set aside to acknowledge the existence of a reality we will spend the rest of the year ignoring.

And this is why, in hindsight, I think my friend’s invitation was brilliant. By inviting a white man into the pulpit on MLK Day Sunday, he was messing with our assumptions about the gravity of race and racism. He was, subtly perhaps, helping his white congregation understand their own complicities and responsibilities. He was lining up with what Frederick Douglass said so many years ago, “The true problem is a national problem. There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their own Constitution.” Or, in the case of the church, whether we have enough faithfulness to live up to kingdom of God.

So, if you’re in a position to invite some guest preachers next year, maybe mix it up. Have a thoughtful white preacher step up on MLK Sunday. And then invite your colleagues of color to guest preach on some other Sunday, on any text or topic they want. Help your people see that our responsibility is greater than we’ve typically imagined and that our sisters and brothers of color have expertise and experience much broader than we’ve been led to believe.