I was raised at the cross. It stood atop steeples high in the sky and marked the front of every church I attended — the only symbol allowed in our iconoclastic faith. We sang about it and talked about it, preached about it in every sermon and invited people to come to it at every altar call. We cherished the cross, embraced the cross, and “took up our cross” every day.
The instrument of the worst torture the Roman Empire could devise, the cross, had been transformed into the symbol of a life devoted to God.
And I was taught that cross was a scandal — offensive to all those who wouldn’t believe and didn’t belong. A scandal to liberals who were “squeamish” about blood. A scandal to secular minds and hearts that didn’t like the idea of personal sin and guilt. A scandal to the self-satisfied who didn’t think they needed forgiveness. A scandal to anyone who couldn’t accept that Jesus bore their sin and shame and failure as he hung on it.
I’ve been thinking about the cross lately, and the scandal and offense of the body that hung on it.
Jesus told us what matters is where we see him and what we do about it (Matthew 25:31-45). Do we see him in the hungry and thirsty? In the homeless stranger? In the prisoner?
Do we see him in a black body hung on a tree?
Or do we see ourselves in a white Jesus, unfairly persecuted and undeservedly crucified?
White American Christianity has taught us to see a white Jesus hanging on the cross, and in him to see our white selves. And so it has crucified our ability to see black and non-white people as our true equals (or betters), and to have empathy for their suffering at our hands.
American Christianity has taught us to honor our own struggle for freedom from royalist overlords (also white Christians) whose oppression consisted of the imposition of a single tax. It has taught us to hear oppression in “Happy Holidays” and persecution in an insistence on the full dignity and humanity of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. It has taught us that following Jesus means being persecuted, and thus when we are criticized and our values questioned or rejected, it is only because we are the persecuted ones.
And American Christianity has taught us to demonize the struggle of black people for freedom from white Christian overlords who starved, beat, raped, enslaved and murdered them, and continue to deny their full humanity through systems designed to benefit white Americans at their expense.
American Christianity has given us a white Jesus to prove our white innocence.
The scandal of the American cross is not, as I was taught, its offense to “liberal sensibilities” that do not like blood and guilt and punishment. The scandal of the American cross is that we have made ourselves its white Jesus while we remain deaf to the cries of the crucified.
Even for those of us who may cringe at the portraits of a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Jesus, images of a black Jesus — or any Jesus with skin darker than the tan a white man might have who spent his days walking the countryside — are “thought-provoking” or challenging or even convicting. What they are not is normative. “Everyone needs to be able to identify with Jesus,” I heard, meaning, those images are for the people who look like them, not for me.
But instead of identifying with Jesus, we have identified Jesus with us. That would be one thing if we were members of a dark-skinned people conquered by and subjected to the whims of the most powerful empire on earth. (Hint: not us.)
What happens when it’s the richest and most powerful who see Jesus in themselves? (“The first shall be last and the last first.”)
We can’t even hear His warnings. (“He that has ears, let him hear.”)
Our identification with a white Jesus is deeply ingrained, even for those of us who squirm at the idea. Because it’s not just my Fundamentalist and Evangelical kin who have made a scandal of the cross.
White Jesus has given American liberal Protestants a savior complex — the conviction that it’s our responsibility to lift up the disadvantaged and give them the benefit of our wisdom and judgement, the benefit of our theology and study, the benefit of our help which they must need. It’s barely a step removed from outright colonialist Christianity, bent on “civilizing the savages.”
We continue to live the (white) Jesus we worship into the world, whether with a persecution complex or a savior complex, because we cannot seem to take ourselves down off the cross and see who is really there.
Others see it and name it as white-centering, erasure, white-privilege, and white supremacy, and that offends us. (“Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”)
White Jesus persists because we cannot seem to de-center ourselves — from the public square, cultural hegemony, or religion; from our personal faith and its collective practice. (“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”)
White Jesus persists because we continue to refuse people of color full humanity, we continue to refuse to “esteem others as better than ourselves.” We continue to refuse to see Jesus as other than ourselves.
Maybe if we can stop preaching from the cross we’ll finally be able to hear the voice of the one crucified. The voices of all those crucified. Because it is only in hearing them that we have any hope of hearing Him.