Tag Archives: The Black Christ

“Christ Recrucified”: Examining Our Christs and Our Crosses

“For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened and have tasted the heavenly gift and have shared in the Holy Spirit and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.”

~Hebrews 6.4-6, New Revised Standard Version

Though Countee Cullen considered poetry “raceless,” his early writings are reflective of a colored in experience.  By colored in, I mean that he is simply commenting on the already created “Negro” or “black” life as opposed to living without its designations and the historical/ social/ cultural/ familial conclusions.  He is not responding to life as he now sees it, without the lens of race and before he is told that he is negro or colored or black.  His writings and even often their titles are reflective of a racialized view of American life: The Ballad of a Brown Girl, Near White, To a Brown Boy, For a Lady I  Know and his first volume of poetry, Color.  Consequently, though I appreciate the use of the term and his striving toward such, it appears that Cullen was not able to create a space for himself outside of the context of race.

Still, Cullen did seem to express hesitation at making Christ “black” in his poem “Heritage.” He writes,

Lord, I fashion dark gods, too, 
Daring even to give You
Dark despairing features where, 
Crowned with dark rebellious hair, 
Patience wavers just so much as 
Mortal grief compels, while touches
Quick and hot, of anger, rise
To smitten cheek and weary eyes.
Lord forgive me if my need
Sometimes shapes a human creed.

 

He nevertheless went on to write about Jesus Christ as “black” and as a member of the “black” experience.  Though not the first to connect the African American experience with that of biblical figures or lynching with the cross of Christ (The Negro spirituals often drew upon the stories of the Bible.) and certainly not the last (See James Cones’ The Cross and the Lynching Tree), “The Black Christ”, written in 1929, is written from the experience of lynching.

But, perhaps more trying for me is Cullen’s poem written in 1922 of Christ embodied in the lynched bodies of African Americans titled “Christ Recrucified.” In it, he charges the South with “crucifying Christ again.”  Consequently, these crucifixions are unlike the first as recorded in the New Testament Gospels wherein Christ died for the sins of the world “once and for all” or that Christ is crucified again and again because of believers who have fallen away from the faith as indicated in Hebrews 6.4-6 (I Peter 3.18).  No, the crime of crucifixion is only charged to one group: those socially colored white.  This is an example of the racialization of Christ’s gospel.

To further my point, in Cullen’s retelling, Christ is wrong: “Christ’s awful wrong is that he’s dark of hue.”  Christ, the Son of God and the second Person of the Trinity whom the prophets declared was without sin and thereby the perfect sacrifice for ours, for the sake of race, becomes guilty.  The identity, character, witness and purpose of Christ all sacrificed to further the goal of race, to drive home its point, to make its statements clear. Sadly, we will use anything and anyone to prove its truths.

For Cullen and many others, “black” skin is sinful. In the racialized gospel of Jesus Christ, it is the physical or external representation and symbol of evil. Despite the biblical accounts of Satan as the adversary and the believer’s accuser, American Christianity has historically associated evil not with a spirit or demonic force but with a cultural group (cf. Ephesians 6.12).  In the racialized gospel, we do wrestle against flesh and blood.  And this label of evil is also associated with that of socially colored white people as persons like Malcolm X will later give voice to the long held view that they are “white devils.”

Still, it troubles me even now the ease with which Christ is given sin and it is a sin, according to Cullen, “for which no blamelessness atones.”  Christ has no way of escape and is no longer a savior but trapped within the same socially constructed body.  There is no resurrection, no ascension into heaven.  There is nothing that God can do about this social construct.  It is outside of and should not be included as a part of our salvation, of Christ’s salvific work. God forbid.

In Cullen’s effort and that of many others to identify Christ with one’s humanity, Christ’s divinity and in this case, his sinless nature is tossed aside so that he might support the plight of socially colored black people. It is so necessary that all of Christ be identified with this socially constructed group that Cullen even adds to the narrative of Christ.  He is also burned and persons “battl(e) for his black and brittle bones.”  Christ’s gospel is made part of the narrative of African Americans and Christ’s story becomes a part their story, now belonging to them.  Christ has now been made a part of the tug of war of race and this is how the very Body of Christ is pulled a part.

Lord, help us to know when we are creating our own Christs, crosses and human creeds.  Amen.

Additional Readings & Resources

The Boy Who Painted Christ Black by John Henrik Clarke

Black Theology by James H. Cone & Gayraud Wilmore

The Black Christ by Kelly Brown Douglas

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone

James H. Smylie,”Countee Cullen’s The Black Christ”, Theology Today 1981 38:160.

When Race Becomes the Judge

“I would… suggest that the revelatory canon for theological evaluation of biblical androcentric traditions… cannot be derived from the Bible itself but can only be formulated in and through women’s struggle for liberation from all patriarchal oppression… The personally and politically reflected experience of oppression and liberation must become the criterion of appropriateness for biblical interpretation and evaluation of biblical authority claims.”

Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Reconstruction of Christian Origins 

Responding to Fiorenza’s claim, William H. Willimon wrote in Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, “In other words, if my experience and therapeutic goals collide with those engendered by the Bible, too bad for the Bible.  My experience becomes the judge of Scripture.”  I have seen this happen more often than not in matters of race.  When an incident involving race occurs, we do not turn to the Bible for a response.  We turn to ourselves; the Bible is not allowed in the huddle.  And it is because we have already judged the Bible to be irrelevant, not applicable or unhelpful.  When it comes to race, there are some things that even the Bible can’t fix.

Also, the experience of the racialized life seems to have a wider impact upon the lives of believers than the goals determined in the Bible. The ministry of reconciliation, the journey of discipleship even the cosmic war over good and evil is surpassed by the personal and social struggles of race.  Here, the Bible appears to be disconnected from our real experience and for some, out of touch with reality.

Worse still, the truth of the Bible has been subjected to the judgments of race. Michael Joseph Brown in his work Blackening the Bible: The Aims of African American Biblical Scholarship wrote this regarding the discipline of African American biblical interpretation: “(It) looks for the potentially liberatory readings of biblical texts, the kerygmatic proclamation, behind what otherwise presents itself as a repository of patriarchy, ethno- religious exclusion and heterosexism.”  Here, the Bible is treated as a tool employed in a greater work.  It is judged and consequently, only of interest when it serves the purposes of the interpreter.

Another clear example of this is Kelly Brown Douglas’ The Black Christ.  The Black Christ is an expression of Black Nationalism and this Christ is he who identifies with the suffering and oppression of Africans enslaved during American slavery and later those African Americans who experienced injustice and inequality due to Jim Crow segregation.  The White Christ is connected to slave- holding Christianity and “characteristically allowed for (1) the justification of slavery, (2) Christians to be slaves, and (3) the compatibility of Christianity with the extreme cruelty of slavery.”  While it is true that there were persons who interpreted the Scriptures to justify slavery, to label those beliefs as accepting a racially divided Christ misses the point.  Jesus Christ “came that we might have life and life more abundantly” and to assert the deeds of darkness with the Light is blasphemous (John 10.10).  Jesus didn’t come to earth to serve the purposes of humanity but to do the will of God.  Again, the truth of the Bible and the identity of Jesus Christ is subjected to the experience of slavery and racialized oppression.  Instead of naming the interpreters as misguided, self- serving or even sinful, Christ is used as a descriptor for two experiences, labeled black or white and in turn, subjected to our reality as opposed to Him bringing us into His reality.

The identity of Jesus Christ as Messiah, as the Son of God, as our Master and Teacher don’t even enter the conversation.  What is more important is the experience.  And based on the experience, one can determine that Jesus Christ who came to save humanity was a Black Christ to some and a White Jesus for others. The experience serves as the argument and reduces Jesus Christ to a point. 

Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am” (Mark 8.29)?  Don’t repeat what others have said about Him, don’t name Him based on your experience; instead, allow God to reveal the identity of Jesus Christ to you.  God is, in fact, the only true Judge.  Amen.