Sermon for Sunday, June 28, 2020 || Proper 8A || Romans 6:12-23
Would it surprise you if I told you that I didn’t get to know Jesus until I was in my mid-thirties. You might be thinking, “Wait, Adam, aren’t you in your mid-thirties right now?” Yes, yes I am. I am in what I will charitably call my late mid-thirties. Or you might be thinking, “Wait, Adam, didn’t you get ordained to the priesthood when you were 25? How could you not have known Jesus until years later?” Yes, I was ordained about ten years before I got to know Jesus. Or you might be thinking, “Wait, back in 2014, we hired a priest who didn’t know Jesus! We want our money back!”
Before you go asking me to refund six years worth of salary, allow me to explain what I mean. Obviously, I talked about Jesus a lot. I sang songs about Jesus, preached sermons about Jesus, and read books about Jesus. But I never felt connected in any substantive way to Jesus himself. A perpetual bait-and-switch was going on in my head. I could not square the Jesus the Church taught with the Jesus of the Gospel.
The image of Jesus I had in mind was a strange fusion of two early depictions of Jesus. The first is the Humble Shepherd carrying the lost sheep, a common image found in catacombs where Christians would gather in secret because it was illegal to be a Christian in the Roman Empire. The second image is the Mighty King, which became the dominant image of Jesus once Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire in the late 4th century. After this takeover of the Roman Empire, Western Christianity began a long era of imperial dominance (which only began to crumble in the last few decades). The Church infected itself with the desire for the power of empire, and such desire tainted the Church’s image of Jesus. Gone was the Humble Shepherd with the lost sheep slung over his back. The Mighty King sitting on a Roman throne became the Jesus of record.
When I started reading Black theologians a few years ago, I realized why I had never gotten to know Jesus. I was trying to know the only Jesus I had ever seen: the Jesus of Empire. But the moment I read theologian James Cone identify Jesus as the Oppressed One, my heart was set afire with sudden recognition like the disciples on the road to Emmaus. There he was, the Jesus of the Gospel, the one who said his kingdom was not from this world; the one who was a refugee; the one with no place to lay his head. There was Jesus, a person living under foreign occupation; a person whose life was constantly threatened. There was Jesus, a man who was lynched.
How had I never seen him before?
I can’t think of more diametrically opposed ideas than the Jesus of Empire and Jesus as the Oppressed One. And yet the history of Christianity holds both of them. For most of Western (that is, European) Christian history, the Jesus of Empire held sway. The Imperial Church crowned kings, raised armies, fought crusades, led inquisitions, burned heretics, blessed colonization, forced conversion, and justified enslavement. In fact, the reason I felt moved to preach this sermon today is that our lesson from Paul’s Letter to the Romans is one of the pieces of scripture wielded by slaveholders.
Along with other pieces pilfered from Paul’s letters (especially the household code of Ephesians 5) and most egregiously the story of Noah and his sons, White Christian slaveholders used the Bible to legitimize, even bless, their presumed superiority and the enslaved position of Black people they forced to labor for them. Paul says, “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification.” Paul’s actually talking about the interior disposition of each person moving from sin to righteousness through the grace of God. But you can see how, with just a little twisting and a huge serving of bad intent, these words can be used to divinely bless the institution of slavery as being good for the enslaved. For their sanctification! This is just one example of the theological knots slaveholders tied themselves into to try to live with something they knew, in the unexamined depths of their souls, was evil. They knew it, and they did it anyway, and they used their twisted Christianity as a reason and a shield.
The White Christian Church grew rich off the backs of enslaved Black people. My seminary in Alexandria, VA, was built largely through enslaved labor. Right here along the New England coast, many of our churches were built with money from the Triangle Trade. After the Civil War, the White Church in the North did nothing to stop the rise of Racial Terror Lynching. And the White Church in the South was wrapped up in the gruesome violence, which was a systematic effort to terrorize free Black people back into a subservient role.
Such was the sin of the Christian Church which grew out of the empire that killed Jesus in the first place. But within the Imperial Church survived a strain of the Church of the Oppressed One. This vision of Jesus survived against all odds because it was the true vision of Jesus in the Gospel. Even as slaveholders mangled St. Paul’s words to beat enslaved people into submission, those very same enslaved people managed to catch the true vision of Jesus, the one I couldn’t see until I began reading their descendant’s theology.
This Church of the Oppressed One identified with victims instead of making them; sought liberation for people instead of enslaving them; and fought against oppressive power structures instead of building them. Jesus rarely talked about a Church. But he sure talked a lot about freeing people from that which oppressed them. This version of the Church is more authentic to the Gospel, but for most of Christian history the Church has strayed down the imperial path.
Until recently, I never knew Jesus because I was looking for him in the wrong guise. For centuries the Euro-centric Church had promoted not only a vision of Jesus as Mighty King, but also a Jesus with lily-white skin. The two cannot be separated in this story, for the image of the White Jesus was used to cudgel people of color into a state of forced inferiority. The age-old lie of white supremacy said that the best people were white, and since Jesus was the best person, he was most certainly white. It didn’t matter that he lived in the Middle East and certainly had skin some shade of brown. We’re talking about the Jesus of Empire. The colonizing Empire was white, and therefore Jesus was too.
I need to pause here for a quick aside. There is absolutely no problem with any culture identifying with Jesus through their own cultural attributes, physical or otherwise. I love seeing images of Jesus through the eyes of other cultures. Inasmuch as such depictions go, it’s entirely appropriate for a white European context to depict Jesus as white, just like it would be for a Japanese artist to paint Jesus with Asian features. The problem comes when such depiction is part of a larger structure of domination and forced racial hierarchy, which is exactly what has happened throughout history. Okay, end of aside.
The thing is, Jesus wasn’t white; neither the historical person of Jesus nor the way Jesus addresses the world from the pages of the Gospel. He was “Black Jesus,” which is James Cone’s shorthand for the Oppressed One. When I finally began aligning my faith with the Black Jesus, the accretions of empire began peeling away, and I saw Jesus for who he truly is, the Jesus who proclaimed liberation for the oppressed and identified with those treated as the least of the members of society. Again, how could I have missed this truth for so long? The answer is stark and simple and terrifying: Because, like the church that formed me and the country that bore me, I am infected by white supremacy.
But the good news is this: the very Jesus who proclaimed liberation for the oppressed can heal me of this infection. I believe this to be true. My part – our part – in this healing comes in realizing that confronting racism in our own selves and in society is a spiritual discipline. It is both a political stance for social justice and a deep and recurring cleansing of the self of all that seeks dominion over the other. When we engage in this holy work, we are following the Jesus of the Gospel, who beckons us to walk down his loving, liberating, and life-giving way. As we walk, we remember the words of Psalm 51:
For behold, you look for truth deep within me,
and will make me understand wisdom secretly. […]
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
If you are having trouble aligning the history of the Western Christian Church with the words and witness of Jesus, then perhaps, you too, are trying to view Jesus from the wrong perspective. Jesus walked this world as the Oppressed One, who empowered those he met with the vision of liberation from the collective sins of society. Jesus was never the Mighty King of an earthly empire. His kingdom is not from this world. Whenever we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” remember the spiritual discipline inherent in those words, the discipline to partner with God in washing away all that seeks dominion over the other. We need not repeat the sins of Christian history. The true vision of Jesus beckons us to a hope-filled future of justice, equity, and love.
Banner image: John Legend as Jesus in NBC’s live Jesus Christ Superstar (2018).
Here’s a quotation from James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation: “God’s revelation has nothing to do with white suburban ministers admonishing their congregation to be nice to black persons. It has nothing to do with voting for open occupancy or holding a memorial service for Martin Luther King, Jr. God’s revelation means a radical encounter with the structures of power which King fought against to his death. It is what happens in a black ghetto when the ghettoized decide to strike against their enemies. In a word, God’s revelation means liberation — nothing more, nothing less.”
This is a challenging book, both because it is heavy in theological content and it speaks completely against the “Jesus of Empire” worldview that the white western Church created, in which so many of us, myself included, were socialized. It is essential reading for a basis in liberation theology, but I would not advise it being in the first or even the tenth book you read if you are just starting out reading books that are going to challenge your white worldview. (Make it the 11th.)