Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Is Jesus Black?, Part I

Is Jesus black? Is the son of God a person of African descent? A recent movie, The Color of the Cross, imagines – or rather argues – that Jesus is indeed black.

First brought to my attention by hip-hop intellectual and assistant professor of African American religion at UC-Riverside Jonathan Walton, I went to see this movie recently. It debuted on Friday, November 10. (For those not familiar with Walton’s work, you need to check it out. And you need to mull over his own thoughts about the movie.)

As I watched the movie, my mind went back and forth between what I’ve learned from my reading of James Cone and my deep interest in James Baldwin, two writers who each in their own way interrogates, deconstructs, and ultimately rejects conventional North American/Western images of a Euro-American Jesus. (My comrade Anthony Smith describes the white aesthetic of the Western Jesus as a panopticon and offers reflections here.) Cone makes a profound and compelling theological case borne out of his early life experiences in the American South, while Baldwin muses about the topic in reflections on the vicissitudes of life as a black man in mid-twentieth century America. Similarly, the music of Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu (and here) offers its own critique of society, with redemptive dimensions that pulsate through the beats and emerge poetically through the rhymes.

It is obvious – or is it? – that a movie such as The Color of the Cross would resituate Jesus of Nazareth as a “Black Jew” and therefore offer cinematic commentary on first-century Palestinian society. A laborer from the margins of Palestinian society who spoke funny, who claimed to be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, who claimed to be God? It is also clear that in 21st century North American society such a film would interrogate the white supremacist structures of American society, and in particular the panopticon of many North American churches. To my knowledge no white church rented out theatres for their parishioners to see the movie, no white churches have screened the film in their churches and hosted discussions about what it can teach about Jesus’ life. Sadly, I’m afraid that such a response suggests that most white churches lack the humility to listen and will therefore lose an important opportunity to enact Jesus’ redemptive message and life. Pardon the pun, but in a year’s time, “the Passion” has subsided. Remember the fury and flurry of interest over Mel Gibson’s film?

The silence of the white evangelical community about this film attests to the prophetic power the movie contains. Do they (we) have eyes to see and ears to hear?

Tune in tomorrow to hear James Baldwin speak to these issues.

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