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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Theological Bankruptcy


In his groundbreaking work, God of the Oppressed, theologian James Cone describes moving to Detroit in the midst of a series of insurrections.  He noted the silence and indifference of white Christians to what was happening in urban centers across America in the late 1960's.  He writes that their lack of response to what was happening in their own nation "was not only humiliating but wrong. It revealed an insensitivity to black pain and suffering but also, and more importantly for my vocation as a theologian, a theological bankruptcy."  Cone's words have never been more prophetic than they are today when faced with the deafening silence of American Christianity in the face of racialized violence.


I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent when unarmed black people are murdered by the state and their killers shielded from punishment.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent when black grandmothers are beaten unconscious by law enforcement officers as they seek shelter across a busy highway.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent when black teenagers are gunned down like animals, but rushes to promote campaigns against "indecent" music.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent about black pain and suffering, but wants to rally to boycott a fictional television show.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent when pregnant black women are placed in chokeholds by police, but campaigns outside of abortion clinics to "protect" life.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent in the face of urban violence, poverty, and joblessness, but wants to figure out how to plant an urban church from a suburban bubble.

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent about racial disparities, but keeps singing hymns in which one has to be washed "white as snow."

I charge theological bankruptcy to a Christianity that is silent about racism, white privilege, and white supremacy, but wants to have conferences about doing "multicultural" ministry.


What will your liturgy on Sunday morning say about Renisha McBride?  What sermon will be preached that speaks out for Mike Brown?  What benediction will be pronounced that considers Marlene Pinnock?  Can you "pass the peace" if you only mean peace for your own neighborhood or community?  I believe our theological bankruptcy, our hypocrisy, our lukewarmness, and our indifference is an affront to God.  We are the richest nation in the world with a deeply impoverished theology. How can we claim to love God, whom we have not seen, but fail to love those we have seen: Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Marlene Pinnock, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Aiyana Jones, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Johnathan Ferrell, Miriam Carey, Tyisha Miller...and the list goes on.


© Yolanda Pierce

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Black Jesus

Before I could even view the trailer of Adult Swim's upcoming television series, Black Jesus, I read articles condemning it and protests against it...despite the fact that one full episode had yet to air.  Like many people, I've long awaited Aaron McGruder's return as a producer and was surprised to hear that an entire series would center around the life of a religious figure.  The protest from various Christian groups center on the "blasphemous" depiction of Jesus in the show - a drinking, weed-smoking, black man from Compton who spends his days hanging out on street corners with his boys, involved in all manner of nefarious activities.  Charges of heresy, blasphemy, and sacrilege dominate the critique being leveled at the show.  Groups are calling for the show to be taken off the air, arguing that its level of satire is unacceptable and a mockery to the Christian faith.

But part of me wonders what the protest is really about...is it really about the level of satire that the show displays or is it about a level of woeful ignorance that Christians have about the Bible and the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth?  Frankly, the fact that the targeted demographic of the show (18-40 year olds) is also the group most likely to not attend church makes me want to applaud the show's courage for taking on the topic at all.  As a minister, I would rather 18-40 year olds have something to say about Jesus, even if prompted by a television show, than to completely ignoring the topic. Perhaps the people protesting the loudest are those whose pews are empty, Sunday after Sunday, for failing to find a way to connect the life of the historical Jesus with a younger demographic.

I think part of the protest has to do with the depiction of Jesus as African-American.  Even in satire, there is no room in our culture for anything but a white-washed depiction of Jesus.  Whether on stained glass windows or in the current slew of so-called Christian movies, we are only comfortable when Jesus is white, has blonde hair and blue eyes, and sports six-pack abs.  Our culture is still uncomfortable with the facts about the historical Jesus: a first-century Semitic man; living in the region we now know as Palestine; likely very short in stature; with wooly hair and feet the color of brass; and with no remarkable or attractive features.  We still demand a white Jesus even in our satire...

The Black Jesus of the Adult Swim television show lives in the urban "ghetto," drinks, smokes weed, curses, hangs out with criminals and thugs, freeloads off his friends, engages in illegal activity, all while performing a miracle or two.  It's easy to think that McGruder is simply making a mockery out of the masses of unemployed black men living throughout various urban centers in our country.  But if we are more careful thinkers and if we know our scriptural context well, we know that there are quite a few resemblances between the premise of the show and the historical Jesus of Nazareth:

The Jesus of Nazareth was essentially homeless; he had no where to lay his head.  He, and his disciples, wandered from village to village, dependent upon the kindness of fellow believers to feed, clothe, and shelter them.  The Jesus of Nazareth befriended and consorted with criminals, preferring their company and companionship over the educated elite of his time.  The Jesus of Nazareth dared to defy various laws of his day: refusing to stone a woman; overturning tables at the temple; breaking the rules of the Sabbath; and defying Roman authority.  The Jesus of Nazareth was tried, found guilty, and executed as a criminal.  And interspersed throughout his life, the Jesus of Nazareth fed some folks, healed some folks, told some stories, and performed a few miracles.  With his motley crew of both male and female followers, the Jesus of Nazareth spent far more of his time hanging out on proverbial street corners than he ever did in a religious sanctuary.  The Jesus of Nazareth was fully human, though (for Christians), no less divine because of that humanity.

I have no clue where McGruder's television series will take the character of Black Jesus.  But as a Christian, I am not afraid of varying portraits and depictions of Jesus, even satirical ones.  A genuine belief and relationship with the Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians claim as Christ and Savior, cannot be shaken by any mere human efforts.  Perhaps the show will actually challenge how we contextualize race, gender, and socio-economic status in our religious conversations.  But maybe the show won't do anything but make some people laugh or other people uncomfortable.  I'm okay with that.  I think I'm much like Flannery O'Connor in my beliefs.  She writes: "a distorted image of Christ is better than no image at all."  I'd rather have the conversation about Black Jesus, fictional and satirical though it may be, than to shut down a dialogue that may include some new voices - voices that haven't found a place of sanctuary in our churches and houses of worship.


(You can listen to my NPR interview about Black Jesus for "All Things Considered" at: http://www.npr.org/programs/all-things-considered/)

© Yolanda Pierce