“Who do you say that I am?”
For centuries, Christians have struggled to answer this question that Jesus posed to his disciples concerning his identity and mission (Matt 16:15; Mk 8:29; Luke 9:20). Christian theologians developed many Christologies—doctrinal interpretations of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection. Mainstream Christian denominations (e.g. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) hold the Creeds of Nicaea (which affirms that the incarnate Son is “of the same substance” with God the Father) and Chalcedon (which affirms that the Son is fully human and fully divine) as normative boundaries for “orthodox” Christological reflection. While African-American Christians have generally affirmed the “orthodoxy” of the creeds, they have predominantly interpreted the person and work of Jesus Christ through the lens of their historical experience of oppression and their struggle for freedom in the United States. For many black Christians, Jesus is not only “Lord and Savior,” but he is “Liberator,” the One sent by God to take side with oppressed peoples and empowers them to liberate themselves from the forces of structural oppression.
In the history of Christian theology, European and white American theologians dominated Christological discourse. In addition, Western churches, both Roman Catholic and Protestant alike, commissioned artists to paint, sculpt, draw, and mold images depicting Jesus of Nazareth along with other biblical figures. All of these depictions of the Christ and the saints of old were modeled after (white) Europeans and were installed in churches, cathedrals, royal galleries, and cities across Europe and the Western Hemisphere. The acclaimed masterpieces like Michelangelo’s Pietà (c. 1498-1499) and Rembrandt’s Head of Christ (c. 1648) are just some of the many religious art pieces that captured the liturgical, religious, social, cultural and political imagination of Western civilization.
In the United States, white European depictions of Jesus were captured in the stained-glass windows of many churches, including black churches. Yet for many African Americans, the “white Jesus” which hung on the walls in many church vestibules and sanctuaries legitimated white supremacy, racism, and chattel slavery. Therefore, making the image of white Jesus a standard religious icon in black churches betrays the meaning of Christ in the Afro-Christian imagination. Even as white Christian preachers and slaveholders proselytize enslaved Africans, blacks appropriated the message of the Gospel and the Exodus narratives as a way to affirm their humanity and to struggle for their freedom from slavery.
For black Christians, the re-imagining of Jesus Christ as “black” counteracts predominate white images of Jesus which legitimate white Christian theology’s silence on racism in the United States. This incipient black Christ was found in the slave narratives and the African American spirituals.[i] According to the testimonies of the enslaved saints, Jesus Christ was one who was intimately aware of “the trouble which slaves’ seen”[ii] as they endured much hardship. Jesus was not only a transcendent divine figure, but a fully divine-human intimate friend of those who suffer and struggle for a sense of “somebodiness.”[iii] Moreover, the African slaves envisioned not only a “gentle” Savior that saved their souls from sin but a politically revolutionary figure that would transform their present condition (hence the title “Messiah”). It is this figure, which stood in the tradition of the Old Testament prophet and liberator Moses, which deeply influenced preacher and slave revolt leader Nat Turner and slave liberator Harriet Tubman.[iv]
While black Americans have reflected on Jesus’s life and ministry since the nineteenth century, formal black Christologies arguably began with the publication of Howard Thurman’s “Jesus and the Disinherited” in 1949.[v] Systematic theologian James Evans notes that Thurman’s little treatise served as a transitional text between earlier black reflections on Jesus and more systematic theological presentations during the rise of the Black Theology of the late 1960s. In his book the Baptist minister, scholar, and mystic reflected on the significance of the life and teachings of Jesus for “people with their backs against the wall.” For Thurman, the meaning of the “historical” Jesus’ identity is deeply relevant for the poor, the disinherited, and the downtrodden. Thurman appeals to the biblical narratives to excavate three central features of Jesus: 1) his Jewish identity, 2) his socio-economic status (i.e. Jesus was a poor Jew), and 3) his membership within an oppressed group, namely the Palestinian Jews under Roman imperial rule. These three central features prove vital for understanding Jesus’ own religious development. In Thurman’s view, Jesus’ religion was an alternative form of political and social resistance against the Roman Empire. Jesus’ religion was deeply influenced by the prophets of Israel. Drawing from their vision for a just world, Jesus’ preaching on the “kingdom of God” provides the poor and the oppressed a practical guide for surviving and transforming their present world. According to Thurman, the salvation or liberation which Jesus proclaimed was both internal and external. By this he means that Jesus’ message affected the total person. Thurman decried the “otherworldliness” which traditional Christology and soteriology (doctrine of salvation) held because they failed to address the concrete situations in which oppressed peoples find themselves. In Thurman’s Christology, Jesus came for the transformation and restoration of both bodies and souls of the disinherited.
Nearly twenty years after the publication of “Jesus and the Disinherited” a new generation of black Christian clergy and theologians responded to the growing unrest among African Americans with the ongoing racism within the United States. As the developing Black Power movement provided an alternative social consciousness to Martin Luther King’s integrationist and nonviolent resistance principles, the Black Theology movement responded to the predominantly secular movement’s dismissal of Christianity as a “white man’s religion.” The Black Theology movement not only affirmed the message of the Black Power but also proclaimed that its very message lies at the heart of the gospel.
From its inception, the Black Theology movement put the question of the meaning of Jesus Christ at the forefront of its concerns. In 1968, the late Black Nationalist leader and Bishop of the Pan African Orthodox Church Albert Cleage, Jr. published a series of essays and sermons titled “The Black Messiah.” In an essay with the same title, Cleage argued for the literal blackness of Jesus that overturned the dominant images of Jesus as a white man. For Cleage, the proliferation of the image of white Jesus was directly connected to the white domination of the world. Therefore, Cleage sought to debunk the centuries-old lie that Jesus was of European descent in order to free black Christians from a perilous image. In Cleage’s view, Jesus was born into a non-white race, a Zealot who was a leader of non-white people struggling for liberation from the tyranny of a white nation (read: the Roman Empire). Moreover, Cleage admonished black Christians to disregard the notion of individual salvation and to “put down this white Jesus which the white man gave us in slavery and which has been tearing us to pieces.”[vi]
For Cleage, Jesus was a political revolutionary that freed his people from the oppressor. Cleage affirmed the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) as normative and rejected Paul’s message of individual salvation and a “spiritualized” Jesus found in his letters. “We, as black Christians suffering oppression in a white man’s land,” Cleage argued, “do not need the individualistic and otherworldly doctrines of Paul and the white man.”[vii] Instead, Cleage called for the retrieval of the social-political message of Jesus, namely nationalism and freedom, which was at the core of the Old Testament prophets and Jesus’ revolutionary message.
While Cleage’s Christology might be viewed by some as an extreme position within the Black Theology movement, James Cone proved to be the movement’s most influential pioneer and voice. Throughout his work, Cone argued for the appropriation of blackness as a legitimate theological symbol for understanding Christ. For Cone, to say that “Christ is black” is not merely to suggest that Jesus was literally a black man. Rather, it is to say that Christ, as God incarnated in the person of a poor, oppressed Jew, makes his solidarity with the despised, oppressed peoples of history, specifically black people in their struggle for freedom. Therefore, God becomes “black” in the sense that God becomes one with oppressed people. Moreover, the blackness of Christ has implications for salvation. In the cross of Jesus, God expresses God’s willingness in Jesus Christ to suffer the evils of systemic oppression for the sake of God’s people’s liberation. In raising Jesus from the dead, God reveals God’s universal plan to liberate all who suffer. Thus, for Cone, blackness symbolizes both Christ’s victimization and his victory.[viii] In affirming the blackness of Christ, Cone counteracts both the explicit imaging of Jesus as white and the subtle “colorless” Christ, which, on its face, seeks to elevate the Christ beyond the question of race, but in fact, silently reinforces the “whiteness” of Christ in white liberal Christians’ imagination.[ix]
Come back on Wednesday for part two of this exploration of Jesus in the Black Christian Imagination.
[i] James H. Evans, We Have Been Believers: An African-American Systematic Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1992), 81.
[ii] “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” is a spiritual song created by enslaved African peoples in the United States. See Bruno Chenu, The Trouble I’ve Seen: The Big Book of Negro Spirituals (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2003); James Weldon Johnson, The Books of American Negro Spirituals (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002).
[iii] James H. Cone, The God of the Oppressed, revised edition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), 5: “What is the significance of Nicea and Chalcedon for those who knew Jesus not as a thought in their heads to be analyzed in relation to a similar thought called God? They knew Jesus as a Savior and friend, as the ‘lily of the valley and the bright and morning star.’”
[iv] Evans, We Have Been Believers, 81.
[v] In the following, I’m indebted to Evans’ summary of Thurman’s book. See Evans, We Have Been Believers, 83-85.
[vi] Albert B. Cleage, Jr., “The Black Messiah,” in James H. Cone and Gayraud S. Wilmore, eds., Black Theology: A Documentary History, vol. 1: 1966-1979, second edition, revised (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 101.
[vii] Ibid, 102.
[viii] Evans, 89.
[ix] James H. Cone, “The White Church and Black Power,” in Cone and Wilmore, Black Theology, 70. For a mature discussion of Cone’s thought on Jesus, see also Cone, God of the Oppressed, 99-126.