The Christian church has always struggled to understand Jesus. You could say it is the only thing with which we have struggled.
One unsettled topic is how Jesus’s own particular life is to be understood generally. After all, Jesus was a particular man born to a particular woman at a particular time in history. And yet, Jesus is universally known so that it is possible for me to encounter him in my own context. As an example, although Jesus was a male, females are also found “in him.” Jesus’s universal, non-gender specific applicability does not reduce his own particular gender specificity. He was male and it would be rather silly to suggest he was otherwise. But his ‘maleness’ does not restrict his ability to be universally known by women. What it does do is provide a specific lens through which to understand him. His interaction with the Samaritan woman, for example, is colored by his maleness (esp. John 4:27). His being a male means something important; it shapes who Jesus is as a person and the way that others interact with him. The promise of Galatians 3:28 (“there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”) is not that gender is now irrelevant, but that our particular gendered identity has been equally touched and universally acted upon by Christ who is not restricted by his own specific gender identity.
Gender, although interesting, is not the focus of this article. The focus is on the idea that Jesus’s particular identity and our particular identity matter. In fact it is because Christ is universally applicable that our particularity matters. It reveals something specific about us, just as Jesus’s identity reveals something specific about him. Sometimes we universalize Jesus so much that we forget (or discount) that he was a very particular person. The ability to understand Jesus’s particularity and, through our own experiences, to identify with him and even see ourselves reflected in him is a vital Christian exercise. It causes us to remember that Jesus shares humanity with us; humanity not as general human existence, but touching on each particular scenario and DNA configuration. He is at once the universal Christ and a particular human.
In the coming weeks and months I will be exploring another aspect of Jesus’s particularity; his ethnic identity. Jesus was of a particular ethnicity (he was Jewish). Throughout the centuries and chiefly in the past seven decades, the church has struggled to understand this aspect of his identity and its bearing on our own ethnicities. Different people have imaged Jesus as Black, Native, White, Korean, Dalit and so forth. The articles I will be writing will do their best to present these images as honestly as possible. As a White person, I am cognizant that portraying the images of others should always be suspect and acknowledge the potential for error on my part. But it is imperative that we see Jesus in the particular context of his own life as well as through the eyes of others. The more we can understand his particularity, the more his universal appeal will become more than mere words. It will become a real, fleshed reality.
I hope that you look forward to reading these articles as much as I do to writing them. By necessity, their length will be relatively short and their content dense. Some ideas may be unsatisfyingly truncated but I will offer a short bibliography on each subject for further exploration. I am available for email inquiries and will attempt to answer any follow-up questions in the comment section below. The subject of our next article will be on Jesus’s own particular, Jewish identity. Until then, God bless.
Bibliography (in order of ascending complexity).
Randy Woodley, Living in Color: Embracing God’s Passion for Ethnic Diversity (2004)
Sarah Shin, Beyond Colorblind: Redeeming our Ethnic Journey (2017)
Willie Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (2011)