“The Jesus You Know” series (post #3)
I was born October 3rd, 1966, which means that I am very much a product of the 1970s and ’80s. When I was young, one of my favorite t.v. shows was “Good Times,” a sitcom that ran on CBS from 1974 to 1979. For any young folks out there who don’t know, “Good Times” was about two black parents (James Evans and his wife Florida) who were raising their three kids (J.J., Thelma, and Michael) in a low-rent Chicago housing project. The show used humor to focus on the decidedly unfunny problems poor black families faced in the 1970s.
The character of J.J., the Evans’ teenage son, was played by comedian Jimmie Walker, who became the breakout star of the show. J.J.’s character was a gifted artist who dreamed of making a living selling his artwork despite the fact that his paintings typically featured images that clashed with the social norms of the day. In one of the show’s most memorable episodes, entitled Black Jesus, J.J. painted a painting that depicted Jesus as a black man. Keep in mind now that this was February of 1974, and this was just the second episode for “Good Times.” Talk about sending a shock wave through a seven-year-old white Southern Baptist sitting in his living room in western North Carolina!
My reaction to J.J.’s black Jesus was neither stunned disbelief nor outright anger. It was simply genuine amazement. I mean, the whole concept of a black Jesus was like something landing from Mars in my living room. I just sat there thinking, “Wow.” It was at that moment that it dawned on me for the first time in my short life that black people were expected to worship a white Savior. (At least, at the time, I thought He was white because of every picture I had ever seen of Him.) Of course, I was far too young back then to process all the differences between white American culture and black American culture, but one thing I did understand was that if Jesus really was black, some white people were in for a big surprise.
I do not for one second condone the institution of slavery. Let me be clear on that. However, God being God, He was able to bring good out of even the wickedness of slavery. And what was that good? It was the fact that thousands of slaves learned about Jesus and believed in Him as Savior by being exposed to the Bible for the first time in their lives. This exposure occurred when they heard their masters read Bible stories or quote passages. As I pointed out in my previous post, Southern Christians before and during the civil war were experts at citing their pet passages in support of slavery. That was the bad. The good was that they also talked about Jesus. As Dr. Lawrence H. Mamiya, Professor of Religion & African Studies at Vassar College, has said:
On the one hand, well, Whites wanted to use Christianity to make slaves docile and obedient. On the other hand, the Africans adapted Christianity for their survival and liberation.
Even though many masters barred their slaves from attending church or assembling together for any type of worship service, some allowed their slaves to hold slave services. These services would oftentimes be led by a slave preacher as long as he did not preach anything smacking of rebellion, uprising, or racial equality. To say that slave preachers had to walk a fine line between offering their congregations something relevant while always staying within the prescribed boundaries is an understatement. And it didn’t help that most slave preachers, no matter how eloquent or dynamic they were in their speaking, were illiterate.
It was this problem of illiteracy that caused Christian slaves to develop a way of praising and worshiping Jesus that did not involve reading and writing. This was the beginning of the negro spirituals. These songs focused on Jesus as the great hero of oppressed people. He was the one who could help you when no one else could. He was the one who could make a way where there seemed to be no way. He was the one who could get you through what you were having to go through. He was the one who could help you leave this old world of pain and misery and make it to the perfect promised land of heaven. In this way, whereas white Christians typically thought of Jesus as a Savior, black Christians came to think of Him as a Deliverer.
Jesus the Deliverer is still preached long and hard in most of America’s black churches today. Jesus can deliver you from drugs. Jesus can deliver you from alcoholism. Jesus can deliver you from poverty. Jesus can deliver you from life in a gang. Jesus can deliver you from a life of crime. Jesus can deliver you from the mess in which you’ve worked yourself.
Do I believe Jesus is black? No, I do not. Do I believe He is white? No, I do not. I feel confident in saying that during His earthly life, He looked like a Jew, which means that He was to a large extent racially ambiguous, neither black nor white.
But what about now? What does He look like right now? Well, all I know is, the last person who personally saw the risen, glorified Jesus was the apostle John. That sighting occurred while John was in forced exile on the island of Patmos. And how did John describe Jesus? He said His head and hair were as white as snow, His eyes were like a flame of fire, and His feet were the color of fine brass (Revelation 1:14-15). That’s a description that shows us that Jesus, with all due respect to J.J.’s painting, is above and beyond all racial stereotyping.
John’s description also explains how Jesus can be a Savior that is every bit as important to a black person as He is to a white person. It’s been said that America’s most segregated hour is 11:00 a.m. Sunday morning, and, admittedly, that’s probably true. In eternity, though, there won’t be a service for white folks and a service for black folks. Instead, eternity’s worship services will incorporate all races (black, white, red, yellow, etc, etc., etc.) into one harmonious blend. This is the heaven the old negro spirituals looked forward to, and it’s the one that I’m looking forward to as well.