I am one of those non-black, light-skinned people who wants to “get it” when it comes to race in America. Until about age 20, the only understanding of race I had was from a ninth grade class about slavery, and my own musings about people’s appearances. I’m half Chinese and half white and I grew up in Uganda, where race obviously works quite differently than it does in the US. Compared to many other people of color in the US, I’ve hardly suffered from being racially ambiguous; usually it just amounts to people asking, “What are you?” or comparing me to Lucy Liu, who I do not “look identical to.”
Two of my best friends in college were black, though. That doesn’t mean I have any claim on understanding race better than others; it just means they were incredibly patient as I blundered ignorantly around them. Even though I would touch their hair without asking and comment on their “black-sounding” phrases, they patiently introduced me to things like hair politics, and how white people tend to exoticize blackness. I still cringe thinking back on it, not only because it’s embarrassing but because my friends of color were educating me when I should have been researching these issues myself.
They definitely got the ball rolling, and thanks to a few Africana Studies classes and many more conversations, I began to stay up late reading Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, and Frederick Douglass.
As my friends and I grieved for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and countless others, I finally felt I was beginning to grasp the scope of evil against black Americans.
Something big was missing, though: I was (and am) furious that conversations about race were hardly taking place in white/Asian-American/etc. churches. If they were taking place, they weren’t productive, as my husband, Chris, will write about below. How could I help to empower the oppressed? How did Jesus do that in his lifetime, and, at the risk of sounding too cliche, What Would Jesus Do today?
Cue in my husband, with his different writing style and wonderful wisdom.
There’s an old joke about a Sunday school teacher who says to her class, “I’m going to describe something God made, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The children perk up and lean forward.
“I’m thinking of something that lives in trees and eats nuts.” No hands. “It’s small and brown.” The kids look at each other nervously, but still no hands. “It chatters and it’s got a bushy tail.”
Finally, one boy slowly raises his hand. The teacher sighs and says, “Okay, Johnny. What do you think it is?”
“Well,” the boys says, “it sounds like a squirrel, but I know the answer’s Jesus.”
American Christians have the same rap as this kid: no matter what the question is, we’re sure that the answer is “Jesus.” But too often, what we’re giving people isn’t Jesus but a distorted version of him that’s more comfortable and convenient. Nowhere is this pattern more evident than in the evangelical church’s response to America’s resurgent race consciousness.
Before we dive into the murky waters of political commentary, let’s review some facts about Jesus that we Westerners so easily forget. Jesus was a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew. He and his countrymen lived under the occupation of white Romans, who oppressed them on the basis of their race and religion. Jesus himself was a poor tradesman from a rural backwater who spoke the vernacular with a thick accent. He was a dropout; a bright student who had nevertheless failed to continue his education past childhood. And on top of all of that, everyone in his village assumed that he was born out of wedlock and mocked him as a bastard son.
Given this context, it shouldn’t surprise us that the group of people Jesus spent the most time with were the weak and the oppressed. Our accounts of his life are filled with stories of him showing compassion for the less-abled, feeding the hungry, and rebuking the elites who exploited the underclass. He fought gender violence, rejected slut shaming, and entrusted some of his most important truths to women when his sexist society wouldn’t even permit them to testify in court. He shattered stigmas attached to race, gender, disease, and class. And he denounced economic and religious structures that burdened the poor while benefiting the rich. Just three years after Jesus started speaking out, the political and religious establishment sentenced him to execution on trumped up charges. His body was hung on a cross as an example to other would-be troublemakers, but his message still resounds in our hearts thousands of years later.
Jesus’s first major teaching, known as the Sermon on the Mount, starts like this:
God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.
God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth.
God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied. […]
God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God. (Matthew 5:3-9)
Jesus explained his mission this way:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come. (Luke 4:18-19)
And this is how Jesus described the way that our lives will be judged in the end:
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’ […] And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’ (Matthew 25:34-40)
I could go on, but the message is clear: given Jesus’s life and teachings, a reasonable person would expect Christians to respond to America’s oppression of people of color with compassion and action. But instead, white evangelicals have largely met the Black Lives Matter movement with indifference, skepticism, or outright hostility. The Christian ideosphere teems with dismissals that range from the reductive (“all lives matter”) to the trite (“it’s a sin problem, not a skin problem”) to the outrageous (“these thugs need to repent for their anger”). The Religious Right’s rhetoric on immigration evinces a similar disdain for the plight of the black and brown at home and abroad, and I have little doubt that Native Americans would receive the same treatment if they got the press they deserve.
It seems that much of the church has made a massive exception to Jesus’s doctrine of radical compassion, choosing instead to appropriate him as a mascot for the status quo and an excuse for our complacency. This posture is unchristian in the most basic sense: it’s nothing like Christ. If we really want to follow Jesus, we need to shed our comfortable cynicism and engage in the deeply uncomfortable work of empathy. After all, Christ didn’t respond to human suffering by speculating about the home life and arrest records of the sufferers over Facebook. Instead, he became human and came to know human suffering personally.
As Jesus’s friend John wrote in the prologue to his biography of Jesus, “the Word [Jesus] became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness.” (John 1:14) This is what Christians call the “incarnation.” But incarnation is more than just a theological concept—it’s an essential practice if we seek to love the oppressed. Paul was one of the first Christians. He was a religious scholar who gave up his strict legalism to preach the good news of God’s grace for our mistakes. Paul was at his finest in a letter to the early Christian church in Philippi. Paul told the believers there, “You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)
Jesus’s compassion wasn’t abstract or sterile. It wasn’t the result of a syllogism or the implication of a utility curve. Jesus’s empathy came from his personal experience of what it means to be human. And it was his incarnation—his decision to become human, despite all of the discomfort, pain, and vulnerability involved—that opened our world to him. If we want to love like Jesus, we have to love incarnationally.
How can we follow Jesus’s example? I think the first step is leaving the comfortable familiarity of our world for the dauntingly unfamiliar world of the oppressed. Stereotyping, exclusion, otherness, exoticization, and racist violence are a daily part of the experience of people of color in this country. How many times have we white Americans sat at a table where we are the only representative of our ethnicity? How many times have we turned on the television to watch a show in which none of the actors look like us (or worse, when the only actor who looks like us is cast as a grotesque caricature)? How many times have we walked into a job interview saddled with assumptions about our character that were drawn from nothing but the name on our resume? How many times have police officers and passers-by assumed that we are law-breakers because of the shade of our skin? (For more on the invisible privileges we enjoy because we are white, see this excellent list.)
If we want to understand a struggle that is not our own, we have to step outside of our bubble. Right after Paul talked about Jesus’s incarnation, he told the Philippians to “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:3-4) This is the heart of Jesus’s message. We have to genuinely value others above ourselves. James, Jesus’s brother, issued a challenge to the early church that is as timely today as when it was written two thousand years ago:
What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. (James 2:14-17)
If we’re not seeing opportunities to serve and learn from people who are oppressed, we must consider whether we have made room for them in our daily rhythms and social circles. We need to listen to the stories and experiences of people of color. We need to invest in friendships with people who are different than us, even if that means being the only white person in the room. We need to stand with protesters who are raising their voices against injustice. We need to open our hearts and homes to those in need. And we have to do all of this with humility, rather than trying to burnish our social justice creds or feel better about ourselves. This isn’t about our image, our comfort, or our guilt. It’s about how we can love others the way that God loves them: incarnationally and sacrificially.
Opening ourselves up to the worlds of others can be a jarring experience. It requires us to be vulnerable to an uncomfortable, and even painful, degree. And for me, being in a new environment always brings back the old playground jitters from elementary school: What will others think of me? How should I act? What if they reject me? But the risk we face when we put our narrow view of the world on the line is nothing compared to the joy of being able to love someone for who they are and help them shoulder the weight of their struggle. That was the prize that Jesus lived and died for, and it’s the prize we should live for too.