“Was Jesus black?”

by Nibs Stroupe      (pastor, Oakhurst Presbyterian Church, Decatur GA)

Was Jesus black?  Oakhurst Jesus C
The question involves more than “political correctness” (which involves using words carefully chosen by the powerful to placate those without power).  This is a question that encompasses both political and theological issues, and we ignore it at the peril of our soul.

On the level of modern racial classification, the answer to the question is easy.  No. Even though his parents took him to Africa as a little baby to flee political persecution and likely execution (Matthew 2), Jesus was not black because he was from the Middle East.  Yet, that trip to Africa gives us a clue to the question of his blackness. As a baby born on the streets of Bethlehem and hunted by government soldiers to be executed, Jesus and his family became political refugees, pushed to the margins of life because King Herod deemed both threatening and expendable.  In this sense, “blackness” refers not so much to skin color as it does to sociological and political status.

“My soul magnifies the Lord… for God has brought down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. “  So sings Mary in Luke 1 as she celebrates being pregnant with the Beloved One, pregnant before marriage and thus risking execution.   Her song indicates that in the birth of this baby, God is both moving to and coming from the margins of life.  Jesus of Nazareth continued this theme, living it out in his life, death and resurrection, and it is in this profound sense that, yes, Jesus was black.  He chose the margins; he lived at the margins; he suffered the degradation of being pushed to the margins.  Let no one hear at this juncture that I am claiming that those classified as “black” belong at the margins.  Rather I am claiming that those classified as “white” have used race and many other systems to devalue the humanity of all other racial classifications, with those in the “black” category pushed the farthest to the edges, where the police power, the economic power, and the political power work to dominate, degrade, and exploit.

Fortunately for all of us, Jesus was black in this deeper sense, and as many African-American theologians have taught us, the blackness of Jesus redeems us all and offers all of us an opportunity to begin to take steps out of our captivity.  Whether we have internalized “superiority,” or whether we have internalized “inferiority,” the blackness of Jesus reminds us that we are called to hear a new definition of ourselves and of others.  This new definition is neither imposed on us nor given through birth or fame or fortune.  The source of this new definition is the One who has come to us from a stunning and shocking place:  the margins of life, the blackness of life.

For those of us at the center of power in life, we should consider what it means to have the origin of the redemption for human life come from the margins of life. Then we must listen to hear God’s voice calling us to move to the margins and stand with those there.

For those of us at the margins of life, we are asked to hear that our primary definition comes from God, not from the centers of power.  It is in this definition that we can find the power and strength to lead a truly human life.

As we enter Black History Month, we would do well to remember and celebrate not only those who have fought and struggled and lived for racial justice.  We would do well to seek to center ourselves on the fundamental truth of the Bible and the Gospel message:  Jesus was black.

Note: Most Western art has historically portrayed Jesus as a European man, marginalizing his true identity as a brown/olive skinned Palestinian. At Oakhurst Presbyterian Church, the main stained glass window of the sanctuary displayed that same old story of camouflaged racism… until we changed the window’s story by changing the “white Jesus” to a new artistic piece we call “the black Jesus” (see image at page top).  It’s our way of proclaiming that, in a deep theological, political, socio-economic sense, there is no doubt: Jesus was black. 

This post is condensed from an article published in Hospitality Magazine, published by the Open Door in Atlanta. The full article can be found here.

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