According to American black theologian James Cone, Jesus is black. Note that Cone is not simply making the obvious point that Jesus, the man who lived and died in 1st Century Palestine, was not Caucasian. Cone is talking about who Jesus is.
Still, Cone’s provocative claim is based on who Jesus was.
Remember, Jesus continued the story of Israel, which is found in what we call the “Hebrew Bible” (AKA Old Testament). In this story, God liberates the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Next, God establishes a “covenant” with the freed slaves, including rules requiring them to care for the poor and vulnerable among them. When the nation eventually needs a king, this leader is tasked with standing up for widows and orphans. When the nation begins to mistreat its vulnerable people, God kicks them off of their sacred land. In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh cares an awful lot about oppression.
In the Gospel stories, Jesus continues the Jewish tradition of locating God’s presence among the poor and the oppressed. Jesus hung out with beggars and outcasts, feeding and healing them. His association with all the wrong people no doubt contributed to his death. After all, Jesus was executed on a Roman cross – the punishment reserved for people who challenged Rome’s oppressive social-political-economic order. Yet as the story goes, God raised this man – this weak, homeless, friend of the poor – to life, thus vindicating Jesus over the rich and powerful men who killed him.
James Cone is quick to point out that the story doesn’t end here. He pays special attention to black American slaves who testified in sermons and spirituals to the presence of Jesus with them amidst their suffering. Despite the constant dehumanization inflicted by whites on the black populace, Jesus reassured and comforted the black community, affirming their dignity and giving them hope that white people couldn’t take away.
If that is who Jesus was, who is Jesus today? In Matthew, Jesus says that the way we treat “the least of these” – that is, the vulnerable members of our society – is how we treat Jesus. So who is Jesus for us, today?
Today, in a country where the black community is still the victim of institutional racism, perhaps most clearly in many criminal justice and education systems, I think Cone is correct: Jesus is black.
Should we be surprised that this connection is not made by so many white Christian thinkers, preachers, and laypeople?
Well, are we surprised when Exxon executives doubt the reality of climate change? Are we surprised when a politician, elected on a campaign funded by the NRA, claims that gun restrictions don’t help?
Of course not! Neither should we be surprised that white religion, created and guarded by white people for white people, chooses to endlessly spiritualize and white-wash Jesus (not to mention the Bible)!
In lieu of a proper conclusion, here’s a song from D’Angelo’s incredible late-2014 album, Black Messiah.
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