Unlearning White Jesus

On five days’ notice, I was recently asked to speak at a dinner for leaders of student faith groups at the university. The topic: religion and racialized identity. Or, as it applies to me, white privilege and Christian privilege. Two student leaders with years of experience writing and speaking on the intersection of religion and race were already on the program; but the organizers had gotten the feedback that it was important for a white speaker to address white privilege. And I was it. I agreed because I knew it was work I needed to do. And when I spoke, one person after another came to thank me for saying what I did; for challenging privilege in a way that might be perceived as too threatening if the speaker were a person of colour. This is a responsibility I can’t hide from anymore.

Because this is my blog and nobody can tell me to stop talking, I’m including several paragraphs that I had to cut from the final version.

I’ve been asked to speak about being a white Christian, which is a first for me. White privilege is something that’s called to my attention pretty much on a daily basis; Christian privilege is something that’s named much less frequently. Yet at these kinds of interfaith events, I’m very aware that most people know more about Christianity than I know about other faiths. I occasionally worship with members of the Baha’i community; when I first began to join their gatherings, I was rather embarrassed to discover that many Baha’is could articulately compare Baha’i and Christian beliefs about monotheism and the afterlife, when I didn’t even know the names of their prophets. We supposedly live in a secular society – but anyone who has studied literature or history in a Eurocentric educational system has had to learn about the influence of Christianity. And of course, our school and work holidays, even our weekends, are centred around Christian religious holidays.

All this is because Christianity is deeply intertwined with European culture, and European colonialism. I often have to remind myself how weird this is. I would imagine most of us have seen pictures of a smiling white Jesus with blue eyes, long, fair hair, and perfect teeth. And I would imagine most of us have some idea of how inaccurate that portrayal is. Jesus was Middle-Eastern, born into a working class Jewish family, and was executed by the Roman forces occupying Palestine at that time. It’s a pretty strange history that led to Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire three centuries later. It’s a vivid illustration of the twisted logic of imperialism that the poor, brown, nonviolent Jesus of history was made over into a white cosmic ruler who justified the conquest, colonization, and enslavement of racialized peoples across the world.

This certainly isn’t what I learned about Christian history in Sunday school. As it happens, I learned very little about the history of Christianity in Sunday school. I learned Bible stories. Every so often I find myself compelled to dig up the children’s Bibles that my parents chose for me. No blue-eyed, regally robed Jesus in these books, he’s a plainly dressed, brown-haired, brown-eyed man, nearly always surrounded by a crowd of men, women and children. But his skin is a few shades lighter than seems probable, and the dazzling smile remains. Jesus is warm and fuzzy and kind.

The first time I actually read the gospel of Mark, one of the accounts of Jesus’ life, all the way through, at the age of 19, I was a little disconcerted.  Jesus was angrier than I had thought. He got into arguments with religious scholars, chastised his disciples for their cluelessness, and killed an innocent fig tree for no sensible reason. He talked about his death a lot. He also challenged cultural norms in some pretty amazing ways: he treated women and children with respect; he chose both fishermen and tax agents as his disciples; he taught that leaders should serve others. I found myself taking inventory of what I actually knew about Jesus: He was a Middle Eastern Jew from a small town. He healed people. He was a good storyteller. He was homeless for at least part of his life, relying on the hospitality of strangers. He was labelled as crazy by his own family. He had a knack for antagonizing powerful people. He lived under occupation, and was ultimately killed by the occupiers of his country.

I hadn’t exactly realized before then that the central figure of my faith was a racialized, eccentric homeless man. From a young age, my parents had taught me that being Christian meant helping marginalized people and seeking justice. We served meals at a drop-in centre downtown, we wrote letters to politicians about social policy, we went to demonstrations. But it took me a long time to understand that that wasn’t just something we did to show that we were kind, compassionate, good Christians; that in fact, I can’t understand my own faith tradition without listening deeply to experiences that are different from mine.

As a teenager, I struggled to understand the Hebrew scriptures that form the largest part of the Bible. They tell the stories of a people that was enslaved, occupied, and exiled repeatedly by more powerful nations. Their voices lament oppression, plead for retribution, and sing for joy when they are finally freed. Their religious laws demand a level of economic equality that has probably never been lived out. It’s sometimes uncomfortable for me to hear their calls for a radical, even harsh, justice – and it should be. I’m not the protagonist in these stories. I’m called to listen, and to be changed by what I hear.

I’m learning that the most insidious aspect of privilege is that it keeps us unaware of our blind spots – that it prevents us from realizing what we don’t know. I’ve come to understand that my faith tradition is based on the stories of a racialized and occupied people. And clearly, my own perspective can only shed so much light on these stories. Sometimes, hearing another perspective offers small, unexpected insights. For instance, I’m able to understand certain images of fire in scripture in a new way after being told by a Haudenosaunee fire-keeper to think carefully about what we put in a sacred fire; that the fire is not for destroying things, but for offering gifts. Seeing my roommate struggle through Ramadan in summer, I remember that when Jesus talked about fasting, he didn’t mean giving up chocolate for the Lent season, or doing a 30-hour famine for charity with my youth group. Sometimes, a shift in perspective goes right to the core of my faith: I’ve never been able to imagine the crucifixion more vividly than by hearing the spoken-word poet Crystal Valentine declare that Jesus “died in the blackest way possible – with his hands up.”[1] I’m still figuring out the full implications of following a homeless, racialized, executed Jesus. I do know that it means showing up with those who are struggling against racism, religious prejudice, poverty, and all other oppressions; to offer support as I can, to share what I have, but not to save anyone but myself.

[1] ▶ 2:10

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPEdcr_XePk

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