I grew up with the whitest Jesus you have ever seen. A Vitamin D deficient, sickly looking Jesus; a sort of Don Knotts meets Gary Busey kind of Jesus. And he was always pictured in the same way: standing in a field, holding a tiny lamb (also pasty white). Not surprisingly, our entire congregation was the same shade as that Vitamin D deficient Gary Busey Jesus. In short, we had created a Mini Me Jesus.
Of course, my church can't claim originality on Mini Me Jesus. Hollywood helped us out by casting numerous lily white Jesus', such as Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings, or Max Von Sydow (a six foot four Swedish actor) in The Greatest Story Ever Told. And then there's my personal favorite: William Defoe as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, even though Defoe is from Appleton, Wisconsin.
Some people even go as far as saying Jesus and Santa are white. Just last December, Fox News' Megyn Kelly reported: "For all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white." Kelly went on to explain, "Jesus was a white man, too. That's a verifiable fact -- as is Santa, I want you kids watching to know that." As my southern grandmother used to say, "I think the butter has done slipped off her biscuit."
So what's wrong with a pasty white, Gary Busey, Mini Me Jesus? Why not just let people make Jesus in the image they want -- the image that makes them feel the most comfortable?
Reason 1: It's just wrong.
One of the greatest ironies from my early church years was to be found in the art hanging in my Sunday school room. Over the toy cabinet hung two images: the Mini Me Jesus that we've talked about, and a map of the holy land with Jerusalem prominently starred.
Side by side.
News flash: Gary Busey was not born in Bethlehem. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, maybe, but definitely not Bethlehem -- as in Palestine. Jesus was a Palestinian Jew -- dark haired and dark skinned. As TIME's Amer Zahr speculated, if the historical Jesus came back today, he would probably be on the "No Fly List."
Reason 2: Jesus didn't come to make us feel comfortable. He didn't come here to encourage us to nestle into a comfy little Tempur-Pedic mattress-like relationship with him. He came here to jar us into recognizing the suffering in the world and, like him, to do something about it. "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed." (Luke 4:18)
Throughout his ministry, Jesus didn't just talk about fighting oppression. He stood in the middle of it. He embodied it. When Jesus was nailed to that cross, he became the symbol for all who are oppressed. "What you do to the least of them, you do also to me." (Matthew 25:40)
If Jesus embodied oppression, and if we in 21st Century America are honest about how we imagine him, then the face of Jesus cannot be the oppressor. It has to be the oppressed. It is not white. It is black. As the theologian Dr. James Cone explained: "Thinking of Christ as nonblack in the twentieth century is as theologically impossible as thinking of him as non-Jewish in the first century," (Black Theology and Black Power, 68-69).
This is the point in the conversation where white people start getting nervous and start throwing out defensive statements like, "But we've made such great progress since the civil rights movement!"
Really? According to a recent AP Poll, racism has increased in the past five years with 51 percent of Americans now expressing explicit anti-black attitudes.
Whether we want to admit it or not, evidence of racism continues to appear in all aspects of life. We see it in billboards touting beauty with only white faces or in the racially charged word choices of our daily headlines. We see it when people of color are overlooked by store clerks. We see it in our judgments about who is safe and who is not. We see it in our choices about school curriculums, and in our assumptions about things like rap music and hoodies.
Jesus didn't come to this earth to make us comfortable, nor did he come to force us to bow down in shame. He came to make us straighten up in anger, to get over our white baggage and blindness, to fight for equality for all our brothers and sisters, and to never be satisfied until all are free.
It comes down to one question: Do you want a Jesus that makes you feel better about yourself, or a Jesus that makes you a better person? Sure we can worship a Mini Me Jesus, a Jesus who is one of us, a Jesus who makes us comfortable and allows us to nestle into the status quo. However, that dishonors the true legacy of the Christ.
The image of Jesus should reflect those he came to serve. We should see in his face "the least of them." We should worship a Christ that makes us uncomfortable. Remember, there is no faster way to flush out prejudice in our hearts than putting the object of that prejudice on the face of the savior to whom we pray.
Taken from a sermon delivered at the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City.
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