In his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James H. Cone, professor at Union Theological Seminary, writes something that really struck my heart. During America’s “lynching era,” which he roughly situates from 1880 to 1940, he writes that there were essentially two Christianities. White Jesus told believers that they deserved power because they were righteous. Anyone who disturbed that power was blasphemous, and deserved to die.
Black Jesus, by contrast, reassured believers that they didn’t have to face violence and persecution alone. They didn’t need to shrink into despair because the structure of society left them permanently outside the power structure. They always had a force more powerful than themselves to lean on. Whether we believe a literal God provided that strength, or that faith simply bound believers together, Black Jesus gave African Americans reason to persevere.
The classic “negro spirituals” reinforced this countercultural message. They sang: “If I could, I surely would / Stand on the rock where Moses stood,” that is, outside Pharaoh's gates, demanding justice for the people. The images of prophets standing outside the Temple, decrying the “den of thieves” within, permeate African American religious music. So do psalms of the Babylonian exile, which also find homes in Jamaican reggae. Mahalia Jackson sang:
Ezekiel said he saw him
Wheel in the mid' of a wheel
John talked about him
In the book of the seven seals
Some say the Rose of Sharon
Others say the Prince of Peace
But I can tell this old world
He been a rock and a shelter for me
When the Temple elders dragged the woman “caught in the act of adultery” before Jesus and demanded justice, in John 8, Jesus called the elders on their moral inconsistencies. He never denied that the Law of Moses called for this woman’s brutal, violent death. He simply kicked the performance of that death onto one morally worthy: Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.
We know the story. Importantly, Jesus did not countenance the woman’s sins. “Neither do I condemn you,” he said after her accusers fled his truth bombs, but continued: “Now go and leave your life of sin” (NIV). Like the men, this woman will eventually be held to account. But it will only happen before the throne of the one worthy to dispense such justice. It won’t happen in the temple courts before white-robed, male elders. And it certainly won’t happen from a sycamore tree.
Perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to Christianity, was its ascension to earthly power. I’m not the first to say this, and certainly won’t be the last. But the underlying reality shift that accompanied Christianity’s newfound dominion did worse than place Jesus’ representatives on the side of princes and potentates. It gave Christians material motivation to defend worldly power structures. It gave rise to White Jesus.
If we take Biblical Christianity seriously, we do have to call certain things “sins.” But those sins are usually displays of power. Jesus came to “preach good news to the poor,” not to reassure the already righteous of their salvation. We as Christians need to get in the mud with the impoverished, the black and brown, the scared, the powerless. We need, like Isaiah, to challenge the rich in their high places. We need, in short, Black Jesus.