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Jesus from an African American Perspective

While Black History Month was in February, it is never out of season to discover more about the strength, resolve, compassion and richness of African American heritage. Our article today explores Jesus from a Black perspective.

By the time theologian James Cone published Black Theology & Black Power in 1969, the concept of a black theological ‘lens’ was not a novel idea. What Cone’s book (and his 1970 publication, A Black Theology of Liberation) did was to insist that the way we look at Jesus matters. In fact, the way that we look at Jesus determines what we see in him and who we believe him to be; in Cone’s words: “What is the relevance of Jesus to the auction block?”

Since that time, scores of theologians and scholars have published hundreds of books and articles discussing Jesus from a black perspective. Here are some of the key ideas which have developed:

The first idea touches on the act of Incarnation (when God became man and was born to Mary in Bethlehem). Jesus’ birth was not just a wonderful event, it teaches us something about God’s character: God moves toward those who are suffering. Abel’s blood “cries out” to God (Gen 4:10), the “cry of the [enslaved] Israelite” reaches Him (Ex 3:9) and He is “close to the brokenhearted” (Ps 34:18). Jesus is the primary example of God moving toward those who suffer. Insofar as African Americans have disproportionately suffered within our society, God has moved toward them because that is who God is.

Not only does God move toward those who suffer but the second idea makes clear that God identifies with the oppressed. The one who was crucified was not a great hero, but a homeless rebel and religious outcast (Matt 8:20; Jn 19:12, 21). Howard Thurman wrote: “If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar; he would be just another Jew in the ditch.” Jesus takes up the cause and position of the oppressed and marginalized. Jesus becomes one with the oppressed; taking on their hardship, history and burden.

Finally, God liberates the oppressed. God’s attitude toward oppression is not neutral, it is incarnationally liberative. That is, God becomes one with the oppressed and thereby liberates them from their place of oppression upon Christ’s resurrection (think of water baptism). Through the experience of slavery and segregation, African Americans became the standard by which racial violence towards all other groups is weighed. As Jesus moves toward the oppressed, he lays claim to this standard and liberates it in the same way he laid claim to our standard of brokenness in sin. In this way it is appropriate to say that Jesus is Black. He has laid claim to the identity of blackness, joining with Black America in its suffering and liberating it through His resurrection.

Theologian J. Kameron Carter (a rising voice within 21st century black theology) takes these ideas further. He asserts that to say “Jesus is Black” is beyond a specific racial identification. Rather, it is the claim that within Jesus’ victimized body, all victims of oppression have found themselves broken and re-forged in the God-Human alliance made possible by the Incarnation. In other words: Through his blackness, Jesus has reached out to all those who are racially oppressed.

To identify Jesus as Black is not to say something about his literal race (with which our last article dealt). But it is to say something about the social space which Jesus occupies. Insofar as Jesus exists as an oppressed minority who liberated those oppressed by sin, he occupies the space of the oppressed and finds companionship with those who suffer. Take a look at global society today and ask yourself: “Who are truly suffering?” It is with those people that Christ identifies.

The next installment in our discussion will be on Jesuchristo Liberador. Please remember to leave comments or questions you may have and I will try my best to respond to them.

Bibliography (in order of ascending complexity)

Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (1949).

James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2013).

J. Kameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (2008).

*The title picture is from a sculpture in the Our Mother of Africa Chapel at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

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