Category Archives: Race and the New Testament

Lessons on Leadership

“Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to him with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him.  And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’  She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.”  But, Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking.  Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’  They said to him, ‘We are able.’  He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’

When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers.  But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and their great ones are tyrants over them.  It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life (as) a ransom for many.’”

~ Matthew 20.20-28, NRSV

Last year, I became the mother of a son whose name is John no less.  Consequently, this story takes on a new, richer and deeper meaning.  While known as nurturers and caretakers, mothers are leaders in their own right.  This is clearly demonstrated in the story of James and John’s mother.

Earlier in the story, there had been a discussion among the disciples as to who was the greatest and while Jesus had provided the answer, setting a child before them, it probably was not what they wanted to hear.[i]  And for a few of them, perhaps James and John, the question had not really been answered.  “Really, Jesus, who is the greatest?  I know what you want us to believe but be honest, which one of us is your favorite?”

It’s American to want to be preferred and in turn, to receive special treatment, whether we are leaders or not.  We need only look at the strip of red carpet that is placed in airports for platinum and gold members, for example.  It’s human to question God’s love and His ability to relate to each of us as individuals, too difficult to believe that we are all special to Him, that “God shows no partiality.”[ii]  However, despite our doubts, God does not love certain people or cultural groups.  God’s love is not prejudicial or stereotypical.

The mother in Matthew’s story didn’t seem to have a favorite either as she presented both her sons to Jesus.  She is thankful for the great example and role model that Jesus has been to her sons.  She appreciates the lessons that he has taught them.  But, she wants something more.  She is aware that there are twelve disciples but like most parents, she thinks that her boys are special maybe even better than the other ten disciples.  And she has every intention of ensuring that they get what they deserve.

We are not told where the desire originated, whether James and John had asked their mother to talk to Jesus on their behalf.  We don’t know if this position would be the fulfillment of her dream or theirs.  But, like many mothers, she wanted the best for her sons and wanted to ensure that for their labor they had a sort of retirement package, which included VIP seating with Jesus.

Jesus’ question is a sobering one: “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?”  While we seek position and visibility, are we prepared for what is required?  Do we even know what we have asked for?  It is not a cup made especially for them but it is Christ’s cup.  They will drink from the same cup!

I don’t know how much time elapsed; the scripture does not tell us.  But, the conversation continued so they did not go home and sleep on it.  They did not confer with one another and then respond.  No, they said, “We are able.”  Perhaps, it is because they thought themselves to be like Jesus.

They had seen him teach and maybe they thought, “This seems easy enough.  We can do that.”  They had witnessed Jesus perform miracles and perhaps they believed, “We have walked with him.  We have the faith.  We can do that.”  But, they had not yet drunk the cup; they are not aware of its content.  And though Jesus says that they will and they believe that they are able, Jesus tells them that he does not choose the seating arrangement.  Though the persons will be sitting right next to him, they are not persons that he has selected.  No, these persons will be picked because they have been prepared by God, the Father.

As the Master teacher, Jesus sees a lesson here.  He reminds his students of what they have seen in the culture, how the godless leaders treat those under their guidance and influence.  Jesus says that they are oppressive, dictators, bullies even.  They use their power to persecute. They use their leadership to their benefit but to the detriment of others.  But, Jesus reminds them that they are not to behave in the same way and that we, as Christians, lead differently.

Redefining leadership and rearranging the social hierarchy, he says that those who are leaders are servants.  We serve in order to lead or because we are called to serve, we are called to lead.  Great leaders are great servants and great servants make great leaders.  This teaching is often associated with Robert Greenleaf’s servant leadership model.[iii]  But, Jesus goes a bit further, saying, “If you want to be first, you have to be a slave.”  The word servant sounds better than slave as one image calls us to imagine a person in a clean uniform and white gloves while the other, due to American slavery, might suggest to us a person dressed poorly and in chains who is abused and held against her or his will.  But, this was not the case during the days of Jesus and this harsh reality should not prevent us from answering the call to serve as Christ’s slave.

Still, in “the land of the free,” this is a hard saying for many as slaves serve at the pleasure of their master.  Their will, purpose and subsequent goals are not their own but that of their master.  But, the Westminster Catechism provides a bit of insight in its declaration that “man’s chief end is to glorify God.”[iv]  It is to say that all that we do is not for our pleasure but to the praise and credit of God.   All that we do is for God and through God and because of God.  Our ability and our subsequent accomplishments are possible because of God.

Becoming a slave, Jesus says this is the way that we become number one.  Not in the “head honcho” sense but “just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life (as) a ransom for many.”  The disciples had listened to his teachings and had witnessed the miracles of his hands but they had also lived with him.  He had shared with them the purpose of his life.  They knew that he had come to serve, to give his life and who were they to assume that they should behave any differently.  If they were to be his disciples, then they were not to think themselves greater than the Teacher.  Sadly, they had already shown signs that they might think themselves to be like him and might begin to credit themselves with his work.  We need only look at the story of the Canaanite woman and their response: “Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’  But he did not answer her at all.  And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”[v]  They were so close to Jesus that they had taken on his name.

We learn many lessons from this story but as it relates to leadership, I would like to suggest a few morals.  Primarily, leadership can be requested. The mother of James and John asked that they be placed in key positions.  Without an interview, a leadership assessment or even Jesus’ thoughts on their abilities, she asks that they be placed in closest proximity to him.  I am not suggesting that they were “mama’s boys” or that her desire is wrong but our aspiration must align itself with the will of God.  It does not matter who our parents desire us to be but it is ultimately up to God our position in his kingdom and in Christ’s ministry both of which require preparation.  And it should not be done as a favor.

We all think ourselves to be leaders and there are persons who are willing to ask that we be.  For our family members, it does not matter if we are called or equipped but it is because of their relationship to us and their love for us.  They simply want the best for us and the best are in the front and the center of attention.  This is one of the downfalls of many leaders who have been placed in positions of authority because of a favor, familial or financial connections.  Leadership is inherited in some churches as the church is passed down from father to son.  In this case, the church becomes a personal possession, believed to be a right of ownership.  However, despite the fact that James and John were his disciples, their proximity did not guarantee a position.  We can ask for a leadership position but it does not mean that we will receive it.  Ultimately, we should not follow Christ because we want to lead.

Secondly, leadership has requirements.  It is not a position of leisure but if one is to serve then there is a cup.  It is the cup of Christ’s suffering.[i]  We will drink it because we will suffer in his name.  Jesus did not hide this harsh reality from his disciples.[ii]  The sufferings will come from various directions and will seem to multiply.  Paul knew this truth well.  He writes to the church at Corinth: “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods.  Once I received a stoning.  Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day, I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.”[iii]    We do not simply become leaders, at least not good ones, because of who we know.  We become good leaders because we know that it will be a sacrifice and we decide to serve anyway.

Thirdly, leadership is a service.  Though leadership can be requested, it is not often the story of those who serve.  It certainly was not mine and we need only look at the biblical narrative for a list of excuses as those chosen did not want to lead.  Moses didn’t think that he spoke well; perhaps, he had a stutter.[iv]   Isaiah described himself as a man of unclean lips, the result of community in which he lived.[v] Jeremiah said that he was too young and inexperienced to speak and the list continues.[vi]  We lead at the request of God.  We answer a call to serve.

Paul says it well, writing “it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry.”[vii]  Anyone who is called to serve and who practices any amount or form of self- reflection knows that we serve because of God’s mercy.  God has extended mercy to us.  Knowing the depth of our depravity, He still enlists us in the work of His divinity.  And it is a merciful work; we both give and receive mercy.  We serve and are served in Jesus’ name.

Finally, leadership is modeled.  Future leaders are born but they must be made.  There must be an example, an illustration or a pattern.  Oswald Chambers said, “There is no such thing as a self- made spiritual leader.  He (or she) is able to influence others spiritually because the Spirit is able to work in and through him (or her) to a greater degree than in those he leads.”  With that being said, I am not suggesting that Jesus is asking leaders to be martyrs.  He has already died for us; we don’t need to die for our congregations.  Though many would describe their treatment at church meetings as persecution, he is not asking that we be crucified.  Instead, Jesus is saying that our service is selfless and he is not asking us to do something that he has not already done.  In fact, he tells his disciples that this is the reason why he came.[viii]

Though he is powerful, he did not come to subject us to it.  Despite his position, he did not use it to his advantage.  This is how race tells us to lead and unlike “race men,” Jesus did not come to only help “his people.”  No, Jesus is not only the Lord of lords but the Leader of leaders because he is the greatest servant.

[i] Luke 22.42

[ii] Matthew 10.16-23

[iii] Second Corinthians 11.24-27, NRSV

[iv] Exodus 6.12

[v] Isaiah 6.5

[vi] Jeremiah 1.6

[vii] Second Corinthians 4.1

[viii] Matthew 16.21

[i] Matthew 18.1-4

[ii] Romans 2.11, NRSV

[iii] This phrase and concept was coined by Robert Greenleaf in the essay “The Servant as Leader” in 1970.  He writes, “The servant- leader is servant first … It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.  Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.  That person is sharply differently from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions… The leader- first and the servant- first are two extreme types.  Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature.”  He was not inspired by the story in Matthew but by Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East.

[iv] Psalm 86; Isaiah 60.21; Romans 11.26; The Revelation 4.11

[v] Matthew 15.21-23, NRSV (emphasis added)

A freedom that does not enslave us

“Whom the Son sets free is free indeed.” ~ John 8.36

Issued on January 1, 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, today marks the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.  But, despite what was written on these sheets of paper and proclaimed from the mouth of one of this nation’s political leaders and even the Civil War wherein countless lives were loss, the people of the United States of America were not free.  Truth be told, we are still not free.  We are not free of the hatred, cultural pride, greed and willful ignorance that led to this proclamation because human words and weaponry are not true tools for human liberation.  And no amount of human blood will restore what has been broken within us.

We remain bound in ways we know not because of sin, uncertain of where the rope begins and the knots end, unable to remember when the first loop was made around our wrists and ankles.  So tangled are we in the mess of race and its progeny that we have come to believe that our lives are the rope and knots– tied, tight, constrained.  We are used to moving and living with restrictions.  We have a love that is bound, restricting the fluidity of our relationships, the circulation of our forgiveness and the activity of our faith.

What we write on paper, proclaim from our mouths or fight for and against cannot and does not free us– not in the manner in which we need.  Despite the fact that no word yet exists that could fully capture the feeling of this expansive healing power satisfying the need for deliverance from sin, the wholeness to be enjoyed and the fullness of life experienced, we know as believers, that it is possible in and through Christ Jesus.  So, there are no words and our mouths are mere participants not the agent of this inward change.  They could not express the power of such a reality, this freedom that Christ gives.  We can only confess our need for it, the ways in which we are bound and the desire to be released from these personal, familial and social bondages.

This freedom that Christ grants us cannot be bought.  It is not something that we can pay Jesus back for.  It is not a gift given in exchange for the position of servant for Christ’s freedom was given in and out of love, paying a debt that we could not possibly satisfy, wanting only our friendship (John 15.15).

But, the freedom that we, humans, offer always desires or requires something in return.  This freedom is never full or forever.  It is not without stipulation or the possibility of reversal despite our best intentions and good feelings around the event.  So long as we are slaves to sin, we are slaves to each other, binding and being bound, loosing only to change the rope or tighten its grip.  It is only in Christ that we are truly emancipated, granted a freedom that does not enslave us to the master of history and with it, unforgiveness.

Color of the Cross

“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hided their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.”

~Isaiah 53.2-3, NRSV

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”

~Luke 1.1-4, NRSV

A film written and directed by Jean Claude LaMarre who also portrays this interpretation of a socially colored black Jesus Christ and released in 2005, Color of the Cross proposes that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was racially motivated, a hate crime to employ a twenty- first century lens (which is the problem with this new narrative).  This “Jesus” is described as a “dark- skinned Nazarene” whose Messianic identity is questioned because of the social construct of race.  But, even if I suspended disbelief and ignored the continued use of unfounded and irreverent commentary poorly justified by a weak racial conspiracy theory and inspired by the historical mistreatment of African and African Americans, I cannot excuse the changing of the story, His story.

What has been described as the “greatest story ever told” is in Color of the Cross the story of millions of persons around the world, that of discrimation and hatred based on the social coloring of skin. Debbi Morgan who portrays Mary, the mother of Jesus asks Joseph, “Do you think they’re doing this because he’s black.”  Joseph responds, “No, they’re doing this because he is the Messiah.” He, this “Jesus,” is considered a false prophet because he claims to be the Messiah though a socially colored black man.  In fact, it is described as blasphemy: “He is black.  To say that he is the Messiah is blasphemy,” says one of the characters.  Another unnamed character says later, “A kingdom of dark- skinned Jews?  I want no part of such a kingdom.”  And when the Roman soldiers come to arrest this “Jesus” in the Garden of Gethsemane and asks, “Which one of you is Yeshua of Nazareth?”, Peter identifies himself as the man they are looking for.  The Roman soldier tells Peter that “he is not black enough.”

This is another gospel with a knife fight at the passover meal and a “Jesus” who says to the disciples who could not watch with him while he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Excuses. All I ever hear is excuses.  Don’t you think that I am tired?”  Not only were sacred Scriptures used out of context and out of chronological order but “verses” were added that suggested another reason for the life, ministry and death of Christ.  He did not come into the world to save sinners– at least not in Color of the Cross (I Timothy 1.15).  No, the story of Jesus Christ is subjected to the American story of race; it serves its purposes.

The movie ends with his death on the cross and then a flashback to his conversation with Thomas who asked, “How does it feel to be different?  This “Jesus” laughs and says, “In my Father’s eyes, we are all different yet we are the same.”  He shares the story of his birth, saying that his mother was denied lodging at a local inn because of this difference.  This was why she had to give birth in a manger.  Thomas says that he understands this difference being a poor fisherman and “Jesus” repeats the words of his Father, “In my Father’s eyes, we are all different yet we are the same.”

The end.  There is no resurrection.  Perhaps, this is because LaMarre had not read the words of Paul, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection from the dead?  If there is not resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith is in vain.  We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testifed of God that he raised Christ— whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.  If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.  Then those also who have died in Christ have perished.  If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people to be most pitied.” (I Corinthians 15.12-17, NRSV, emphasis added).  The fact that Christ is raised from the dead is what separates him from all others; it is the distinguishing characteristic of the Christian faith.  The songwriter says, “I serve a risen Savior/ He’s in the world today/ I know that he is living/ whatever men may say.”

The story of our precious Lord, Jesus Christ is not about the “color of the cross” or the social markers of a world he came to save.  If death had no power over him and he, in fact, “made captivity itself captive,” how could he then be a prisoner of race, which did not exist during the time of Jesus by the way (Ephesians 4.7)?  And “since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is the devil and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.  For it is clear that he did not come to help angels but the descendents of Abraham.  Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respec, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 4.14-17, NRSV).  He came into the world in the form of human for this purpose alone.

I would hope that Christian believers would not allow 300 years of a racialized history to distort more than 2,000 years of resurrection history.   Color of the Cross has misrepresented His message and only its faith in race is in vain.

Unseeing Eyes: How Race Blinds Us

In Mark 8.11-21, we read of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and later His disciples. The Pharisees were arguing with Him, demanding a sign from heaven to test Him. Jesus seems tired, disgusted perhaps, having suffered rejection in Nazareth while teaching in the synagogue (Mark 6.1-6) and having grieved the loss of his cousin, John, beheaded by King Herod (v. 14-29) after He commissions the Twelve (v. 7-13). Jesus later feeds 5,000 men, the number not including women and children (v. 30-44), displays His rulership over the water and wind (v.45-52) and heals the sick (v. 53-56). He will feed 4,000 more in the opening of chapter eight.

Jesus sighs… deeply. He asks, “Why does this generation demand a sign?” I wonder if He is sighing over the reality that His presence and His words are not enough. He knows that He is the Messiah but they just can’t see it. He knows that His revelation is from the Father but they just can’t hear it. But like the people in His hometown who cannot see Jesus because of their seeming familiarity with His family and place of origin, the Pharisees are not able to see the true identity of Jesus because of their familiarity with the law. The Pharisees don’t want to be re- educated; they have no plans to entertain the thought that He is the Messiah. And Jesus, knowing this, departs.

Once Jesus and His disciples have boarded the boat, they realize that they do not have enough bread for the journey. They had forgotten to bring more onboard. Consequently, the disciples began to discuss among themselves this lack and Jesus warns them of the “yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.”  The yeast or leaven is used as a metaphor, representing “inveterate (deep rooted, firmly established, habitual) mental and moral corruption, viewed in its tendency to infect others.” Though they have seen more of Jesus, it only takes a one experience with the works of King Herod or a conversation with the Pharisees to cause them to forget or to lose sight of who Jesus is.

And then Jesus, the Master Teacher, does something that I find to be amazing. He reviews the lesson for His students, His apprentices: “Why are you discussing that you do not have any bread? Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Is your heart hardened? Do you have eyes and not see, and do you have ears, and not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the 5,000, how many baskets full of pieces of bread did you collect?” “Twelve,” they told Him. “When I broke the seven loaves for the 4,000, how many large baskets full of pieces of bread did you collect?” “Seven,” they said. And He said to them, “Don’t you understand yet?”

There are those who say, “They all look alike.” But, unless you are talking about a blood- related family member (and even then, it may not be true), then statements like these speak of our belief that persons of the same social construct of race look alike. We are so familiar with race that we feel as though we have seen persons we have never met and experienced persons because they lived in a particular neighborhood. Without introduction or conversation, we know how they are. When in fact, all we see is the representation of race; all we hear, all we know are the laws of race. We only see social colors and by this I do not mean the physical people, but the meanings that these words represent.

But, the world’s cultures are not composed of pair upon pair of identical twins. We do have a common origin as the Genesis narrative as well as the present anthropological findings inform us that human beings originated from a single set of parents. But, we are not all born of a single set of cultural parents. There is not one socially colored black Eve and Adam, one socially colored yellow Eve and Adam, one socially colored white Eve and Adam and so forth and so on though there are persons who believe in this theory known as polygenesis.These socially colored groups did not all grow up in the same household, sit at the same table, go to the same schools, have the same experiences. We do not all share the same last name, much less the first. We are different. The social coloring and thereby categorizing of people groups has more to do with membership and belonging. Which persons belong to me? Which persons can I possess in mind because I know how they are (which is not synonymous with who they are) through this fictive relationship and understanding created through race?

Race, this leaven, has changed the way that we see and do not see people. Like the disciples of Jesus’ day, we have eyes but do not see. We look away. We look past. We look around. We look down. Though we have heard the words of Christ and have the indwelling of God’s Spirit, we are not able to see past our social traditions and racialized experiences. No matter what we have seen or heard, we remain unable to be a witness of the regenerative power of a new life in Jesus Christ because of our familiarity with race. Despite our confession of Christ and our regular Sunday morning attendance, we can only see what race tells us to see. Its prejudices has stopped our ears and unfortunately, we don’t want to become the answer to the prayer of Christ for unity (John 17).

Friends, race does not provide sight; instead, it reveals our inability to see people as they are. We are not seeing people but turn to the caricatures in our minds and the stories that we have been told. We have never really seen a black/ white/ red/ yellow/ brown/ beige person and we never will. These socially colored people don’t exist much like dragons, tooth fairies, unicorns, leprechauns and Santa Claus. Race has caused us to question our own sight. We have no confidence in our eyes. We do not trust what we see but instead, depend upon the vision of race. This is how race blinds us. Lord, recover our sight. Amen.

Race Has Divided Us

The words found in I Corinthians 1.10-18 record an account of division among the Christians at Corinth.  Much like the quarrels among them where each of them says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ,” today many Christians say or their lives speak to the belief, “I belong to Black,” or “I belong to White,” or “I belong to Brown,” or “I belong to Yellow.”  Or, though arguably for the purposes of cultural consistency and religious tradition, “I belong to the Black Church” or “I belong to the White Church.”  But, has Christ’s Body been divided?  No, race has divided us.

We cannot dismember His body neither should we attempt to color- code it.  We know that Christ will not come back for a Black Church or a White Church, a Southern Baptist Church or an American Baptist Church, a conservative or a liberal church?  No, Christ will return for a church “without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5.27).  Unlike American social categories, right-standing with Jesus Christ is not a matter of position but condition.  Which begs the question, “How have we cared for His Body?”

Still, we cling to our colors; oftentimes our racial convictions appearing stronger, more relevant, and purposeful than that of Christ’s challenges to us as His disciples. But, race was not crucified for me neither would a baptism by race provide regeneration.  And it has been argued that God created the races, that God has set up this system of social powerlessness and privilege.  But, to assert such a position would suggest that God shows favoritism, that He too ascribes to Herbert Spencer’s philosophy of “survival of the fittest” made popular by Charles Darwin, who used it as a synonym for “natural selection” despite the overwhelming scriptural proof to the contrary that easily invalidates such erroneous characteristics.   There are no divinely sanctioned racial divisions for we all belong to Christ.  Amen.

This post also appears on the Grace and Race Ministries, Inc. website.