I want to step away from the intersection of Jesus’ crucifixion and the American lynching tree for a day — sort of. I don’t want to miss the mention of Simon of Cyrene as the first to bear Jesus’ cross for and with him. Simon is one of the characters in the gospel accounts who draws extended and deserved attention from interpreters. Most of those interpreters are Black preachers, theologians and scholars.
In his book, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope, Esau McCaulley writes:
“God’s vision for his people is not the elimination of ethnicity to form a colorblind uniformity of sanctified blandness. Instead God sees the creation of a community of different cultures united by faith in his Son as a manifestation of the expansive nature of his grace. This expansiveness is unfulfilled unless the differences are seen and celebrated, not as ends unto themselves, but as particular manifestations of the power of the Spirit to bring forth the same holiness among different peoples and cultures for the glory of God” (pages 108-109).
Where, McCaulley asks, do Black and Brown people find themselves represented in the New Testament? He points to two early “cross-bearers” in the Christian accounts – Simon of Cyrene in Mark 15, and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. Simon’s identity as a black man is not unanimously supported. In his article in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, E. P. Blair asserts, “It is unlikely that he [Simon] was a Negro. Many Jews lived in Cyrene, the capital city of the North African district of Cyrenaica” (IDB IV: 357).
Let’s reflect on those sentences for a moment. First, unless there was widespread belief that Simon was, in fact, “a Negro,” the first sentence would be gratuitous. So, Blair appears to be correcting what he finds to be an error. He does not, however, document the basis for his conclusion. The one thing we can say with relative certainty is that Simon was not White. The choices, given historical realities, would be some shade of Brown or Black. Blair’s statement appears to me more reflexive than informed and is, at the very least, an argument from silence.
Cyrene was originally a Greek foundation with democratic government and political independence until the campaigns of Alexander the Great in 331 BCE. It was incorporated into the Roman Empire after 96 BCE. The population, according to Mellink in IDB I:754 was largely made up of “Greek speaking Jews who were sent as settlers by the Ptolemies and enjoyed equal rights.”
Simon was likely no stranger to Jerusalem and may have been a resident of the city. Jeremias includes a paragraph about Cyrene with several details. A burial spot belonging to a Jewish family from Cyrene has been unearthed in the Kidron valley. The Jews from Cyrene who lived in Jerusalem had their own synagogue, mentioned in Acts 6:9. Simon may have been part of this community. Or he may have come from the home country for the festival and stayed with family or in the guest house attached to the synagogue.
Jeremias notes that at least some of these Cyrenians converted to Christianity early on. Could this be some of the background for the Greeks asking to see Jesus in John 12 (a random thought)? They were found in Antioch, and perhaps met Paul there.
The sons of Simon are mentioned in Mark’s text. They were likely known to the Roman Christians to whom the gospel account was first addressed and may have been alive and present when Mark’s gospel was first presented in its entirety. Race as a function of skin-tone is a much later human invention in the West. The Cyrenians were identified as an ethnic or linguistic community and as a result established their own community structures. No conclusions can be drawn about what we would call “color.”
Hurtado makes a brief mention of Simon and notes that this part of the story is likely an early part of the tradition. “Jesus was clearly too weak, after a sleepless night and repeated beatings, to carry his own cross-beam,” N. T. Wright observes, “Simon happened to be there in the crowd, and the soldiers used their legal privilege to compel him to carry it instead” (Location 3721).
I have to wonder what made Simon stand out from the other members of the crowd. Perhaps he was dusty and disheveled since he was just coming into town “from the fields,” as the Greek text reads. It could be that his dress was that of a tourist rather than a local. Or, perhaps, his face stood out in the crowd because of its melanin content. Who knows? But there seems to be little reason to assert that this could not be the case.
Simon’s physical characteristics may be in doubt. The fact that he was an African was not. Nor was his role in the drama. “It remained Jesus’ cross, of course, not Simon’s,” Wright notes, “but anyone who had read Jesus’ words in Mark 8 about taking up one’s cross and following him would be likely to make the connection” (Location 3723). McCaulley asserts that “Simon’s cross carrying is a physical manifestation of the spiritual reality that Christian discipleship involves the embrace of suffering” (page 108).
“Black folk claim Simon with reference not to geography but to identity” reads the United Methodist Church Justice web page. “Simon’s blackness is truth-telling and empowering. It names the ongoing reality of social hostility and forced labor imposed upon blacks the world over. It also names the dignity, power, and humanity black people have had in the face of half a millennium of such oppression. Simon of Cyrene, the black man in society, helping God carry his burden.”
Simon has been the focus of sermons, studies, art, and song in the Black Church from the beginning. Simon’s is, in part, the power of representation. Where can I see myself in the text of the New Testament? For Black Christians, two of the answers are in the faces of the Ethiopian Eunuch and Simon of Cyrene. “Black Simon” treads the Via Dolorosa with Jesus and perhaps supports him on his tortured path to Golgotha.
We White Christians should remember that we will not find any particularly light-skinned faces in the crowd on that Good Friday. If we do, they are likely to belong to the oppressors and their collaborators. As noted in a previous post, Italian immigrants did not automatically “qualify for Whiteness” in American Anglo-Saxon culture. That status had to be earned through a gradual approximation by assimilation to Whiteness. So even the Roman soldiers would have carried a questionable skin-tone for race-conscious American Whites.
Nonetheless, we insist that White faces would be imposed on this colorful crowd. Just try removing Warner Sallman’s iconic white, Nordic image of Jesus from most White American church buildings. The only move that will cause a more violent pushback in those places is an effort to displace the American flag from proximity to or in front of the altar. Come to think of it, Sallman’s picture and the flag represent pretty much the same thing in those facilities – White male supremacy that will defend its property with whatever means necessary.
Of course, it’s worse than that. Reputed scholar and public intellectual, Eric Metaxas, recently tweeted a comment that began, “Since Jesus was white, did he have white privilege too?” The obtuseness of this failed attempt to be clever is hard to overstate. We certainly know that Jesus was not white. Nor was he privileged. Nor was he powerful. Nor did he triumph in any way that a system of domination would recognize. It’s not clear which Jesus Metaxas is hijacking to make his perverse point, but it’s not any Jesus actual scholars would recognize.
Why does this matter? It matters because the cultural supremacy that Metaxas assumes is both false and deadly. “A fundamental criticism of Black Christianity,” McCaulley writes, “is that it is an alien thing, an imposition of the white man through the persuasive power of the whip and chain” (page 96). White Christianity and its iconography have been tools of slaveholders, Jim Crow lynchers, real estate red-liners, and Christian nationalists throughout American history. This must be named, rejected, and repented.
Historical Christianity arises primarily outside of Europe. It is White people who are the latecomers to the drama. “Those who doubt the blackness of early Christianity are going to have to make a decision,” McCaulley argues. “Either some Westerners have whitewashed Egyptian history by turning many of its characters into Europeans, or they have not” (page 97). It’s clear that we have, and that we are wrong. “This means that the leading lights of early Christianity were Black and Brown folks or Egypt isn’t as African as we say it is” (page 97).
Geographic representation is one thing, and it is clear. Socioeconomic representation is another thing, and it is just as clear. If Jesus is like anyone in our American history, he is not like Massachusetts Puritans or Virginia planters. He is much more like Black slaves and Brown farm workers and Asian miners and Natives walking the Trail of Tears — another Way of Sorrows. Thus, James Cone is correct when he identifies Jesus as Black.
Of course, that sort of language is a good way to get yourself beaten half to death in some Christian Churches in America.
References and Resources
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.