With Christmas approaching, Rev Wale Hudson-Roberts says that Black Christians should eschew the depiction of Christ as humble and passive, and embrace the Christ who stands for justice.
It made no sense for plantation owners to enslave a man or woman who appeared to be ‘up themselves’, since feisty characters might just create a mutiny or two. This would cost plantation owners money, and undermine their power and influence. Compliant, obedient slaves were a better bet than an in-your-face outspoken ‘negro’.
The portrayal of Christ as an accommodating gentleman, angered by protestations, would deter even the faintest whispers of an insurrection – apparently incompatible with the faith of the enslaved (so the enslaved were told, and who sadly believed). In order to maintain slavery, plantation owners and some missionaries worked together to communicate a Christ who sought at all times to be meek, mild, submissive and very humble. This was a strategic posture. Knowing that the enslaved were generally immersed in spirituality, the plantation owners understood that any ‘dumbing down’ of the prophetic side of Christ’s personality would be emulated by the enslaved. Keen to walk in the footsteps of their Christ, and to flee from the stuff of life that sought to compromise their spirituality, many enslaved would not even contemplate an insurrection – much less participate in one – if not encouraged by their divine Master.
This is a legacy that lives on. Today, the images of the blue-eyed Jesus, with His head tilted, soft hands bent limply in prayer, eyes downcast or beautifully turned upward, but never so strong to look anyone in the eye, remain the images that many people of colour continue to imbibe and unwittingly believe. It is not altogether surprising, then, that the images of Christ communicated by plantation owners – typically for their own economic advantage – adorn the homes of many Caribbeans and Africans, and continue to communicate passivity, disengagement and retreat from anything that looks remotely controversial – again discouraging people of colour from raising their heads above the parapet and speaking truth to power. “If Christ did not do it, then why should we?” seems to be our thinking.
My reflections on Christ during Christmas no longer draw me towards a Christ concocted by slave masters and a few misguided missionaries, who had the intent of maintaining control and discouraging the enslaved from standing up for their rights. From beginning to end, I read the Christmas narrative as a story about a Christ who spoke on behalf of defenceless children, vulnerable women and the poorest of the poor. The Lord’s Prayer, which is often simplistically interpreted as a prayer to bring comfort and hope, is actually a covert challenge to the enslavers of the day – the Roman Empire. It offers a prime example of the prophetic side of the character of Christ. In encouraging His disciples to pray ‘Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven’, Jesus is not being meek, mild and submissive. He is calling on His disciples to pray ‘on earth, as it is in Heaven’, which is a request for the earth to touch Heaven, and which cannot happen until Rome falls. This is a prayer for the fall of Rome. What an audacious prayer and, if decoded by those closely associated with the Empire, the consequences for those heard praying it would have been equally audacious – at best imprisonment, at worst execution for treason.
Here lies my concern. As people of colour, we have absorbed the former messages of Christ and are often oblivious to the latter. The former validates our passive responses to injustice. The latter should spur us on to challenge all forms of enslavement, such as contemporary slavery and other forms of injustice, but we might find it problematic until we come to believe that Christ is not a figure intimidated by oppressive regimes and structures, but Someone willing to undermine them when necessary – as reflected in the Lord’s Prayer.
If plantation owners and a few rotten missionaries were responsible for creating images of an insubstantial European-looking Christ, with piercing blue eyes and no fire in His belly, all for the sake of silencing the voices of the enslaved, I wonder how many of our churches are wittingly and unwittingly implicated. Such churches do well to remember that Christmas is not only about presenting a warm, gracious, decorous Christ, but about offering a Christ who had a bias towards the poor. So, this Christmas, might I suggest that our churches preach and reflect firstly on the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus announces that the reason for His anointing by God and the purpose of His mission in the world are one and the same: to proclaim radical economic, social and political change. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me because He has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor…” Secondly, and still on the Gospel of Luke, in which He makes the ultimate political pronouncement: He announced liberation for those who were oppressed by the crushing weight of the Roman Empire.
That said, I do praise the strides that some of our churches are making towards becoming more relevant, through developing a mission focus that is on a quest to be at one with our streets. But I remain convinced that many of our churches need to embrace the notion of Jesus as a political revolutionary, who not only sought to address the symptoms of the people’s suffering, but also to alleviate the systemic causes of their suffering.
From beginning to end, this is the Christmas story.
Rev Wale Hudson-Roberts is the Racial Justice Co-ordinator for the Baptist Union of Great Britain