Read Mark 8:27-38
Who is Jesus? What do you say?
Let’s begin with who Jesus is not.
Jesus is not White. Jesus is not Nordic. Jesus is not Aryan. Jesus is not American. Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat or a Libertarian or a Socialist. Jesus is not a capitalist or a communist. Jesus is not an entrepreneur. Jesus is not rich. Jesus is not an individualist.
Jesus is not Protestant or Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. Hell, Jesus isn’t even Christian!
Jesus is not a spiritual star athlete. Jesus is not a warrior. Jesus is not a body-builder. Jesus is not John Wayne or Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump.
Jesus is not a Gnostic mystic. Jesus is not a Cynic philosopher. Jesus is not a self-help guru. Jesus is not my lover or best friend. Jesus is not Santa Claus with brown hair on a diet.
Jesus is not a mirror in which I can admire my favorite things about myself.
But that is precisely what we expect from Jesus in twenty-first century America. It may be as ubiquitous as Warner Sallman’s painting of Jesus that still hangs in most White American Protestant church halls in this country. It may be as blatant as the stained-glass images of Jesus in White Christian worship spaces that uniformly cast Jesus’ skin tone as White.
Our image of Jesus (and by “our” I mean White American Christians generally) can also be as dangerous as the iconography that filled the imagination of Dylann Roof.
Robert P. Jones, the author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity puts out a regular newsletter continuing his conversation on this topic. Recently he wrote an article called “Saving our Churches from Dylann Roof’s White Jesus.”[i] Roof is the White Lutheran Christian man “who murdered nine African Americans during the closing prayer of a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015…”
Let’s take some time to say aloud the names of those nine Black Christian sisters and brothers before we move on:
- Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
- Depayne Middleton-Doctor
- Cynthia Hurd
- Susie Jackson
- Ethel Lance
- Rev. Clementa Pinckney
- Tywanza Sanders
- Rev. Daniel Simmons
- Myra Thompson
Roof was convicted in the murders of those nine and sentenced to death for his crimes. He appealed that conviction and sentence. That appeal was recently rejected by the 4th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals. Jones highlights information from Roof’s own journal that is filled with “Christian” imagery, including “a full-page drawing of a resurrected white Jesus emerging from the tomb.”
We might think that Roof’s spiritual formation at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, ELCA, in Columbia, South Carolina, was deficient and deformed. Jones notes that Roof’s assumed imagination of Jesus as white is not exceptional. Instead, Jones gives a brief inventory of just a few stained-glass windows in established churches that feature an exclusively White Jesus.
“These images perform unacknowledged, but powerful theological work,” Jones writes. “For the skeptics, just a few experiments would likely reveal how strongly many Christians remain invested in the whiteness of Jesus, which is rooted in underlying beliefs about white supremacy.”
Jones then offers a few of those thought experiments to give us a chance to test our own underlying beliefs about white supremacy in our churches and in our White Christian selves. They are worth quoting and then wrestling with for a while. Jones assumes a relatively “evangelical” theological framework in these experiments, but I think many White Christians will register the same discomfort.
- How would your church react to a move to remove all images of Jesus, including stained-glass windows and paintings, that depict Jesus as someone of European descent and replace those images with more accurate depictions of a Jesus of middle-Eastern descent?
- How would a non-white Jesus impact the ways White Christians think of a personal savior and the theology of salvation? How comfortable would we be with letting a brown-skinned Jesus “come into our hearts”?
- How would we react to an illuminated baby Jesus in the nativity scene in front of the church that was Brown instead of White?
Let’s take some time, White friends, to sit with the discomfort of those questions before we move on.
In my pastoral experience, moving to change the images of Jesus in our White facilities would be more than enough to get a pastor fired. Admitting a brown-skinned or Black Jesus into our White hearts would push many White imaginations beyond capacity. And messing with the baby Jesus in that decrepit old cradle/manger? I would have the moving truck loaded and my life insurance up to date.
This may all seem like fairy tales or speculation except for Jones’ final wondering. “What difference would it have made for Dylann Roof, if the Christian formation he received at the white Lutheran church of his childhood had taken place under the compassionate gaze of a brown-skinned Jesus?”
Who is Jesus? What do you say? If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus. That’s worth repeating, if I do say so myself. If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus.
That is precisely the place we go in the gospel reading from Mark. Jesus challenges all disciples with the question: “Who do you say that I am?” The first Jesus-followers have several false starts. Then Peter gets the right answer. “You are the Messiah!” Go to the head of the class, Peter! We take back all those things we said about your stupidity.
Jesus then orders his followers to shut up about this! Peter has just uncovered the biggest and best news in history. He’s outed Jesus in front of the other disciples. And now, they’re supposed to keep it to themselves? I can’t even keep the Christmas presents in the guest room secret from the grandkids. How in the world were those first followers supposed to sit on this bombshell?
Jesus told them to shut up because they didn’t know what they were talking about. Messiah! Messiah! Messiah! Jesus must have wanted to give Peter the “Princess Bride” treatment. “You keep using that word,” Jesus seems to say, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Jesus begins to explain what “Messiah” means. He will continue that explanation in our texts for the next few weeks. The short version is shocking: “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again…” (Mark 8:31, NRSV). There was no holding back now. This was the straight poop.
Peter gets it right away. He gets what this means. If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus.
Who is Jesus? Jesus is, as Mark tells right off the bat, the reign of God come near and beginning here and now.
This turns the upside-down world right side up. This requires a complete reversal of our assumptions. Dying is the path to life. Serving is the way to lead. Power, position, property, and privilege are useless. Sin, death, and the Devil are not the last words. Losing is winning. Giving is receiving. Enemies are loved. Captives are freed.
The schemes, structures, and systems that depend on an upside-down world will not go quietly. There’s going to be Hell to pay before the end. Even we may be closest to Jesus will do anything we can to avoid Jesus’ conclusion. Let’s take Jesus aside, tell him to shut up, set him straight while there’s still time. Because we know how this could end.
Taking Jesus aside, telling to shut up, setting him straight – that’s what produces a Jesus who is White a Jesus who is Nordic, a Jesus who is Aryan, American, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or Socialist; a Jesus who is a capitalist, a communist, an entrepreneur, rich, or individualist, a Jesus who is Protestant or Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox; a Jesus who is Christian.
Taking Jesus aside, telling him to shut up, setting him straight – that’s what we want to do because the alternative is life under the shadow of a cross. Is that what we really want? Well…
If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus.
“Essentially,” Brent Diggers writes, “Mark is saying that the Son of God will not dial down his ministry to spare his own life, or even to ease his suffering. His commitment to the healing of humanity literally knows no limits,” Diggers concludes. “And neither—Easter tells us—does God’s life-giving power.”
When Jesus proclaims, embodies, and enacts the life-giving reign of God, the forces of sin, death, and evil respond with violence. While that response is not logically or mechanically necessary in the way that a trap closes when the mouse takes the cheese, such violence is the normal and expected response of those forces.
What is “necessary” from the Divine perspective is the mission of forgiveness, live, and salvation, whatever the cost. What is necessary from the anti-Divine perspective is a violent response to maintain the power, position, and privilege of those who benefit from that system.
Disciples begin to live in the power of the New Life here and now. As accomplices of the cross we demonstrate that sin, death, and evil are defeated.
If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus. Every day I wonder if I can be that person…