For all of us who care deeply about love and unity within the Church, race remains a hot issue. Many solutions have been offered – affirmative action within the Church, shaming seminars for perceived racists, adopting a color-blind mentality, and various forms of “mea culpa,” even for those who have not committed a known racist act.
Christena Cleveland, associate professor of reconciliation at Duke’s Divinity School, answers with a full-color-broadside:
· “Jesus is not white. The Jesus of history likely looked more like me, a black woman, than you, a white woman.” (Christianity Today, April 2016, 36)
However, this assertion of color elevates color to the level of the Gospel itself. It degrades worship to physical appearance. However, Cleveland does have a valid point. In general the Church has elevated color, along with its false and divisive assumptions about Jesus’ appearance. The Church has hosted pictures and made movies showing a white Jesus. Consequently, these images have served to unbiblically influence our worship, causing us to visualize Jesus. However, there are scriptural warnings against this very thing:
· “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:4; ESV)
Do we have scriptural permission to physically imagine Jesus? According to the renowned theologian, J.I. Packer, we do not:
· How should we form our thoughts about God? Not only can we not imagine Him adequately, since he is at every point greater than we can grasp; we dare not trust anything our imagination suggests about him, for the built-in habit of fallen minds is to scale God down. (Growing in Christ; 243)
· Hence, the second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything.” This forbids… imagining the true God as like yourself or something lower. God’s real attack is on mental images… If imagination leads out thoughts about God, we too shall go astray. No statement starting, “This is how I like to think of God” should ever be trusted. An imagined God will always be more or less imaginary and unreal. (244)
The 2nd Commandment prohibition pertains to making any likeness of God, knowing that these likenesses will encourage us to worship through the use of images and imaginations. It was for this reason that God didn’t visually appear to Israel at Mt. Sinai/Horeb:
· “Therefore watch yourselves very carefully. Since you saw no form on the day that the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the midst of the fire, beware lest you act corruptly by making a carved image for yourselves, in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female…” (Deuteronomy 4:15-16)
We are not to worship God through the images of our imagination but through His revealed truths. Although the imagination can be used profitably in other areas, Scripture never gives us the freedom to use imagination in worship, as Jeremiah warned:
· This is what the Lord Almighty says: "Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They keep saying to those who despise me, 'The Lord says: You will have peace.' And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts [“walketh after the imagination of his own heart;” KJV] they say, 'No harm will come to you.'” (Jeremiah 23:16-17; Ezek 13:2; Luke 1:51)
And this did not seem to change with the advent of Jesus. Instead, He insisted that worship must be a matter of spirit and truth, not image and physical appearances:
· “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him MUST worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24)
Therefore, Cleveland correctly explains:
· While Christ the Lord transcends skin color and racial divisions, white Jesus has real consequences. I all likelihood, if you close your eyes and picture Jesus, you’ll imagine a white man. Without conscious intention or awareness, many of us have become disciples of a white Jesus, Not only is white Jesus inaccurate, he also can inhibit our ability to honor the image of God in people who aren’t white.
When physical appearances become associated with worship of God, God is demeaned and humanity is exalted, or at least certain segments of humanity.
Cleveland also laments that “many well-meaning Christian ministers” have reached out to people of color “without truly seeing them as equal.”
This indeed is lamentable. Culture and color can never be the basis of unity and love in the Body-of-Christ. Although this should not become an argument for color-blindness, we must be careful to not elevate color, culture, or ethnicity.
Instead, there are powerfully compelling biblical reasons to affirm our essential equality before God. Paul had confirmed our common brotherhood before the classist/racist Athenians:
· “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth…” (Acts 17:26)
Paul also affirmed our ultimate unity in Christ:
· For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:27-29)
This is a unity that transcends color, accomplishment, education, and any other distinctions that the eye sees. It is an essence and a relationship that dignifies-to-the-max anyone who has received Christ.
And how should we view the redeemed of the Lord? Jesus has given us many portraits of His redeemed:
· “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:13-14)
Paul often echoed the same truths:
· For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. (1 Thessalonians 5:5)
Cleveland concludes by asking us to examine ourselves:
· Those who still perceive a white Christ must ask whether they can and will worship a dark-skinned Jesus.
Better yet, we must ask ourselves if we are worshipping God in the way that He wants to be worshipped – in spirit and in truth.
I am not at all suggesting that we should ignore the feelings, experiences, and cultures of marginalized peoples or to make believe that these differences do not exist. Instead, I am suggesting that we major in the majors.
Deliverance came to me, not by affirming my ethnicity and the pride I had derived from my Jewish identity. In fact, I had majored in this pride to my great detriment. Instead, I found freedom from my debilitating feelings of insecurity and inadequacy from the new “ethnicity” I had been given by my Savior:
· I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
Consequently, it is all about Jesus in whom this inadequate soul is buried for all eternity!