By Rev. Corey Brown, MDiv
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
(John 12:20-21) I used this passage for my final sermon of my MDiv Preaching class at McAfee School of Theology, titled “We Wish to See Jesus.” The message of the verses was so impactful for me that I wrote “We Wish to See Jesus” on the inside of the tabs of my clergy collar. It reminds me that when I am preaching or teaching that I must do my best to preach G-d’s word so everyone may be able to see Jesus. I believe the ability to see Jesus has so much significance to people. It is the duty of a minister to help people see Jesus in an image that is inviting, welcoming, and affirming. We must keep in mind that there is a fine line between iconography and idolatry. As I reflect on the lives of my ancestors in the United States, I try to imagine the cognitive dissonance between seeing a Jesus in the image of the enslavers while hearing the words of Jesus the Liberator from the Gospels.
One of my favorite television sitcoms, Black-ish, created by Kenya Barris, just completed its eighth and final season. Ruby Johnson, portrayed by Jenifer Lewis, is a member of the extended family living with her son, Andre, and his wife, Rainbow, and their children. Ruby Johnson represents a saved, sanctified, Holy Ghost-filled Black Christian woman, who cries out for “Black Jesus” in times of trouble. Knowing Lewis as an outspoken activist for the Black community, I can only assume that her cries to Black Jesus were not just a part of the script but an embodiment of the African Diaspora’s cry for a savior, a friend, an accomplice in the fight against societal injustices in the United States. Jenifer Lewis has always been about “truth-telling with sass,” especially during the tumultuous presidency of the forty-fifth President.[i] A truth-telling prophet in the form of a Black woman using her celebrity platform to advocate for justice may as well have been a death sentence for her career. She not only survived, she thrived. She made several pro-Black social media posts and they went viral, blowing up “Black Twitter.”
Growing up in the South, it was not uncommon to see a European, blonde-haired, blue-eyed image of Jesus in Black churches in the form of a large painting, a tapestry, and/or a stained-glass window. The issue of a European Jesus is problematic, but it goes beyond the physical representation. The white Jesus of Western Christianity can be compared to the use of statues and monuments of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy in America. The Lost Cause campaign has successfully reimagined and revised the outcome of the Civil War using what has been deemed by many as “sacred parts of the landscape.”[iii] The “white christ” was an invention by white people to solve their moral and practical dilemmas of being Christian while enslaving others. Cleveland writes that “white christ didn’t simply justify slavery; it also made a statement about who God is and what God cares about.”[iv] Whites in the United States did not just stop at the image of Christ but went on to create a Slave Bible. The Slave Bible was the approved Bible for the enslaved because any ideas of liberation and freedom were removed, like the books of Exodus and Psalms.
With the goal of a more inclusive representation of Jesus, Sister Wendy Beckett headed the 1999 National Catholic Report art competition. Janet McKenzie won with her rendering, “Jesus of the People.” McKenzie says the following of her artwork, “This Jesus was definitely one with the poor, the outcasts, the marginalized and women.” Another significance was that the model for the artwork was an African American woman.[v] I see this as a definite use of prophetic imagination, since Janet McKenzie is a white woman and has even received death threats for her painting.
Several years ago, my wife, a proud Black, card-carrying, 25-year member of Alpha Kappa Alpha worked for the Northeast Georgia branch of United Way. One of her co-workers was a middle-aged white woman, a seminary-trained associate minister of the First Baptist Church of Gainesville. One day my wife came home and told me yet another one of her unbelievable stories about interactions with white people in Hall County. The minister approached my wife in her office and told her she was preparing to go on a mission trip to Africa. She then made a request my wife initially assumed was a joke. The minister asked my wife if she had pictures of Black Jesus that she could take on the mission trip to give to the people she encountered. If there was a good place for the emoji with the exasperated person putting his hand on his forehead, this would be that place. Even though it may have been lost on the minister, this is yet another form of microaggression. I could only imagine that this minister was going to use the image of Black Jesus for a sort of “missionary bait-and-switch,” not thinking that the people of Africa have their own Christian icons and images.
Grant suggests the issue of the Incarnate coming in the form of Jesus, a man, has resulted in the divination of men and the subjugation of women.[vi] The subsequent de-“melanization” of Christ makes it harder to understand the notion and the implications of an enslaved woman birthing an enslaved Savior.[vii] Christena Cleveland’s spiritual journey outside of the patriarchal androcentric colonized Protestant faith ended at the feet of the Black Madonna, the “Sacred Black Feminine.” I imagine the “Sacred Black Feminine” Incarnate as a Black transgendered man, Black Jesus. I do not believe it is as simple as just changing the skin color of the image of Jesus. It would not just be about switching one icon for another, but maybe even replacing the icon with an icon that might serve as an iconoclast, destroying the other image. Winborne writes that images of white Christ are “as much about what is not represented as they are about what is.” Consequently, the new image would have the “power to influence human perceptions and therein to influence the shape of religious, political, and other cultural institutions.”[viii] Cleveland claims that the Sacred Black Feminine has a special love for “the most marginalized because She too has known marginalization.” [ix] Even though a transgendered man, the expectation is that this new Jesus would retain the deep empathy and compassion of a woman. With Black Jesus as the center of gravity of Christianity, the oppressive chains of racism, sexism, classism, xenophobia, homophobia, and ableism are immediately broken. Another advantage Black Jesus would provide for the African Diaspora would be the normalization of an “empowering and freeing theology of sass.”[x] Black Jesus’ words speak to the plight of the outsider, the marginalized, and the oppressed. Black Jesus’ theology would have sounded more like today’s Womanist and Mujerista theologies. And maybe, just maybe, Black Jesus’ crucifixion would be seen as what it really was, a self -serving betrayal of the Incarnate by the religious elite ending in a violent state-sanctioned lynching.
Many believe the Black church was the heartbeat of the Civil Rights movement because the face of the movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist preacher and theologian. Dr. King and his contemporaries fought for justice on two fronts, one front was outside the Black church and the other battle took place in the Black church. Inside the church, resistance to the social justice fight is rooted in the embrace of misogynistic, patriarchal, heterocentric ideals. In many Black churches today, women are still not allowed to pastor or even make announcements from the lectern in the pulpit. Male church leadership relegates women to performing duties in which they will not be in a place in which they are teaching or preaching to men. On Father’s Day 2022, T.D. Jakes preached a sermon with the title, “Real Men Pour In,” coming from John 15:9-17 (KJV). Besides apparently performing no exegesis and taking the scripture out of context, his sermon represented all that is wrong in the Black church as it relates to gender relations. Rather than preaching an uplifting message for men on Father’s Day, Jakes decided to use the time to “put women in their place.” He went on to tell women that they had no right to “pour into men,” even justifying it with the human anatomy. Additionally, Jakes justifies his stance based on the fall of humanity being the first woman’s fault for pouring into the man.[xi] Preaching and teaching like this is so pervasive and it betrays half of humanity. One of the most famous movie quotes from the Color Purple is when Oprah Winfrey’s character, Sofia, confronts Whoopi Goldberg’s character, Ms. Celie, “All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my brothers. I had to fight my cousins and my uncles. A girl child ain’t safe in a family of men.” [xii] What if that family of men is a church family? Preaching that does not honor the full humanity and full divinity of women is not preaching, it is abuse.
As for the external battle, the Black Church failed to heed Dr. King’s call to ensure their people were treated justly, with fairness, equity, and dignity. Due to fear from threats and acts of violence, many Black churches shunned King and his acts of protest, even though they were nonviolent and rooted in Christian scripture. King openly chastised ministers in his manifesto, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” “In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’”[xiii] “Black churches were too provincial and conservative to support social justice politics and social gospel theology.” Many Black churches continue to be too provincial and too conservative to participate in the fight for social justice, even when the injustice threatens or enters the Black church. Dr. King and his predecessors in the Social Gospel movement were seen as divisive troublemakers.[xiv] Even to this day, the Black Church shies away from true justice work because of the ever-present threat of violence. Threats outside the Black Church have come in the forms of cross-burnings, vandalism, bombings, and mass shootings.
Threats inside the church come in two forms. One form is the church’s embrace of the theology of the enslavers and the other is the violence of the iconography. Pictures of a blond-haired, blue-eyed European Jesus in the image of the oppressor is the foundation of the ideology of whiteness. The white-skinned Jesus operates in the role of overseer, making sure the ones under his sight do not consider liberation of the mind, the heart, or the soul.
With the “Sacred Black Feminine” and Black Jesus as the icons of the faith, one could only wonder if there would be a need for #SayHerName and #MeToo movements. I would like to stress that these two new images make it easier for people to draw their own intimate connection with Elohim and Jesus in John 12:45. Would women be able to enjoy full autonomy of their bodies under the eye of these new images? Maybe the icons would help answer Terry Eagleston’s question by facilitating hermeneutical engagement between troubling texts and the reader, especially if the reader is able to see themself as an equal participant in the faith.[xv]
“Anyone who believes in Me is not placing his faith in Me, but in the One who sent Me here. If one sees Me, he sees the One who sent Me.” (John 12:44-45) The preceding scripture is about twenty verses after the scripture describing when the Gentiles came and asked to see Jesus. For the sake of this paper, I could see this as an answer to the request to see Jesus. More importantly, if seeing Black Jesus is seeing the “Sacred Black Feminine,” what new theologies and ideologies might we encounter? Instead of having Paul’s letter take up the majority of the New Testament, we might find ourselves reading Mary’s or Martha’s Gospels, letters, or epistles in the Christian canon we call the Holy Bible.
In conclusion, I feel that I need to address the possible issue of swapping one image of Jesus for another, the danger of Christolatry. Since biblical times, there has always been a desire for something physical to worship; consider the Golden Calf created by the people while Moses was away. As a result, there are sects that argue against the use of and icons or imagery in the Christian faith. Howard Thurman warned of seeing Jesus as a religious object because it might lead to enabling one group of people to exclude other groups of people. Thurman believed we should see Jesus as an idea or concept, as the basis for community and fellowship for all peoples.[xvi] Maybe we should define the purpose of the transgender Black Jesus is not only to destroy what was used to control but to also replace it with an image that liberates all people. Black Jesus is a prophetic image, used in the act of truth-telling. “Black Christian iconography is intended to reshape Black consciousness and subvert the white Christian hegemony that masks historical Jesus’s identification with the Black community.”[xvii] I am not naïve enough to believe this could happen in my lifetime. Change happens very slowly when the act of liberation is controlled by the oppressor. It is common to find a Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive in cities across this nation but I have yet to see one in a predominantly white community. This is yet another reason why it is important the oppressor sees Black Jesus as a part of their faith. Yes, also seeing a Black Jesus is important to the marginalized and oppressed but it is also important that we preach a Black Jesus to the same marginalized and oppressed people.
 New Revised Standard Version, unless otherwise stated.
 VOICE translation
[i] Mitzi J. Smith, Womanist Sass and Talk Back: Social (in)Justice, Intersectionality, and Biblical Interpretation (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018), 42.
[iii] Peter M Candler, “Monuments to a Lie: Flannery O’Connor’s Challenge to Lost Cause Myths,” The Christian Century 136, no. 11 (May 22, 2019): 34.
[iv] Christena Cleveland, God Is a Black Woman, First edition. (New York: HarperOne, 2022), 39.
[v] “About Janet McKenzie,” accessed July 30, 2022, https://janetmckenzie.com/AboutJanetMcKenzie.html.
[vi] Jacquelyn Grant, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus: Feminist Christology and Womanist Response, American Academy of Religion academy series no. 64 (Atlanta Ga: Scholars Press, 1989), 162.
[vii] Mitzi J. Smith, “A Womanist Activist Approach to Biblical Interpretation and Justice,” Touchstone 40, no. 1, Interpreting the Bible (February 2022): 40–1.
[viii] Jayachitra Lalitha and Mitzi J. Smith, eds., Teaching All Nations: Interrogating the Matthean Great Commission (Fortress Press, 2014), 161.
[ix] Cleveland, God Is a Black Woman, 16–7.
[x] Smith, Womanist Sass and Talk Back, 43.
[xii] The Color Purple, videorecording (Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 1997).
[xiii] “Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.],” accessed November 24, 2021, https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.
[xiv] Gary J Dorrien, “The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel,” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 33, no. 1 (2020): 90.
[xvi] Howard Thurman, Walter E. Fluker, and Catherine Tumber, A Strange Freedom: The Best of Howard Thurman on Religious Experience and Public Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 1998), 131.
[xvii] W. Selassie, “White Jesus Must Die: Decoding Black Jesus: The Iconography of Coon Christ and Jesus of the People,” Delos: A Journal of Translation and World Literature 37, no. 1 (June 1, 2022): 20, accessed August 4, 2022, https://journals.upress.ufl.edu/delos/article/view/1872.