So we’re reading the Rev. Lenny Duncan’s Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US for an online book study group in my ELCA parish. We’re the “whitest denomination” of his title (although I have to wonder if the Old Order Amish aren’t kinda white, too), so it’s been interesting.
An outreach pastor at Messiah Lutheran in Vancouver, Wash., Duncan is a self-identified “high school drop out, drug dealer, sex worker, street corner poet, hitchhiker, dharma bum, small town drifter, seminarian, political activist, father, pastor, lover, public theologian, and writer,” and now he feels called to be a “frequent voice at the intersection where the cries of the oppressed meet the Church.” According to his author’s bio, he “pays special attention to Black Liberation movements in his work, but lifts up the many intersections with other marginalized peoples as well.” He believes “the reason the ELCA has remained so white is a theological problem, not a sociological one.”
Full disclosure up front: I think Duncan rides his hypothesis a little too hard. But that’s what I think about most authors, so we can take my thesis about his thesis with a grain of salt.
Besides, he makes some valid points.
Dear Church, as the title suggests, is a love letter. Duncan’s story, in a nutshell, is that he encountered ELCA through an “church-planting movement of Evangelical-style free churches,” and ECLA took him in, embracing “the marginalized identities I carried with me” in all their intersectionality. Now he wants to extend that same hospitality to other people on the margins. A variety of different margins.
(I hear a lot of talk about “intersectionality,” and I’m never quite sure what the word means. But if I want a quick refresher on it, I can go back to Dear Church now. I don’t think Duncan ever uses the word, but his life story is a case study in intersectionality.)
Anyway, I was sailing right along till I got to the chapter on “Decolonizing the Liturgy and the Power of Symbols.” The term comes from a group calling itself Decolonize Lutheranism, that says “we cannot be defined solely by northern European, cultural identity markers” and therefore “seeks to raise-up alternative historical and theological narratives to take center stage in our church’s culture.” I’d rather think in terms of inclusively sharing center stage, but I can’t disagree with Duncan’s thesis:
Dear Church, I’ll say it again: systemic racism, white supremacy, and the whiteness of the ELCA constitute a theological problem, not a sociological one. And theological problems are often rooted in the symbolism of our liturgy and ritual. After all, we access God primarily through symbols and ritual.
So I was nodding my head, agreeing we access God through ritual and symbol, especially in common worship. But then I saw this, after a discussion of a pastor’s white vestments worn during services:
And symbols of whiteness show up in so many other places, too. I’m willing to bet there is at least one image of a white Norwegian Jesus in your church right now. …
Uff da! I stopped cold.
So what’s so wrong, I thought, with a Norskie Jesus?
Duncan answered my question, sort of, when he went on to say:
… Since I was a child, I have been bombarded by images of Jesus that look nothing like me, my people, or my culture. All of the images of Jesus I saw growing up looked like the teachers who were overwhelmed at my local beleaguered public school or like the police who saw my mother as a race traitor for marrying my father.
Well, yes. He’s got a point there. I’ve probably seen as many images of Jesus as anyone else, on everything from Renaissance paintings to funeral home fans down South, and almost all the Jesuses were white. They tended to have long auburn hair and beards, and they wore white robes.
Especially the Jesuses on the church fans before air conditioning.
And billboards like the one on old U.S. 25W in Knox County, Tenn., proclaiming, “Jesus is Lord of Knoxville.” (No, I’m not making that up. My friend, who was riding in the passenger’s seat, turned to me and said, “Wouldn’t he aspire to more than that?”) The church fan Jesuses don’t look particularly Norwegian — we tend to be tall, blond and clean-shaven, although some of us have brown hair — but there was definitely some ethnic stereotyping going on there.
(Speaking of ethnic stereotypes, the summer I studied in Oslo I was told there are two types of Norwegians — big, blond, dumb Norwegians in the mountains and little, dark, clever Norwegians in the port cities. I kinda liked it, since my father’s family was from Bergen and I have brown hair and brown eyes. But neither stereotype was particularly Christ-like.)
We don’t know, of course, exactly what the historical Jesus looked like. But I think we can safely say he didn’t look Norwegian.
In 2002 Popular Mechanics magazine commissioned a forensic anthropologist to reconstruct what it billed as a “real face of Jesus,” more accurately a representative first-century Palestinian, from skeletal remains, contemporary descriptions and archaeological evidence. The result was a young man with a dark complexion, brown eyes, curly brown hair and a short beard.
In other words, Popular Mechanics’ Jesus looked pretty much like what I’d expect. Even without the benefit of forensic anthropology, I’ve always imagined the historical Jesus looked a lot like Yasir Arafat.
Or the dreadlocked Rasta man Jesus in the BBC Three comedy skit linked above.
“I was born in the Middle East 2,000 years ago,” says the BBC’s Jesus, appearing to a bewildered white kid in a very English-looking church. “The bible’s very clear about that. [It] should be pretty obvious I don’t have blond hair and blue eyes. … Besides, have you heard my story? I was arrested by an angry mob of government officials, and beaten for a crime I didn’t commit. That shit doesn’t happen to white people.”
Now that’s my kind of Jesus.
Or Woody Guthrie’s. “When Jesus come to town, all the working folks around / Believed what he did say / But the bankers and the preachers, they nailed Him on the cross, / And they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.”
Or, putting it another way, I accept the scholarly consensus that the historical Jesus was a Jewish peasant from Galilee who preached a gospel based on the law of Moses and believed the God of Israel would overthrow the Roman Empire and bring in the Kingdom of Heaven, restoring the vision of prophets like Isaiah and Elijah. Since the Romans weren’t particularly tolerant of social justice movements among their conquered peoples, they saw him as a threat to law and order and had him executed. Not so much different from the BBC’s Jesus or Woody Guthrie’s.
Or, for that matter, if I’m reading Dear Church right, Lenny Duncan’s.
According to Tom Gjelten of National Public Radio, Duncan’s favorite bible passage is Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth where he says, quoting Isaiah, he is called “to preach good news to the poor and to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and liberation for the oppressed.” Duncan says his mission is “to see a world that actually reflects the world our savior talks about.”
But I don’t want to associate Jesus with any one ethnicity or historical period.
In an interview on the “Jesus of History v. the Christ of Faith” for the Public Broadcasting Service, historian Elaine Pagels noted that millions of Christians, “[w]hether they’re Russian Orthodox or whether they’re Roman Catholics or whether they’re Baptist or whether they’re Quakers. … have found, in the figure of Jesus, a spiritual focus for their lives.” This “spiritual presence of Christ,” she adds, “is quite different from what would you say as a historian. Because there are many people today who base their lives on a relationship with Jesus as they perceive it.”
And in our art we tend to see Jesus as looking a lot like ourselves.
I think I’ve realized this since I was taking art appreciation courses in undergrad school. But Eric Copage, author of the Black Pearls series of motivational books targeted to African Americans, has an article in the New York Times that brought it home to me in a new way.
Among other pieces of art, Copage’s article features a lovely woodcarving by Yoruba sculptor Lamidi Olonade Fakeye, showing a Yoruba Transfiguration of Christ. We all know the story of the Transfiguration. But instead of Moses and Elijah, Fakeye’s Jesus stands between priests of Osanyin, the god of healing, and Shango, the god of thunder and lightning. Jesus, Osanyin and Shango are all recognizably African, as is the iconography. And Fakeye’s message, says Copage, is that Christ came to fulfill the traditional Yoruba religion.
Copage’s article also features, among others, pictures of an Indonesian Jesus, a gay Jesus, an Ethopian Jesus with 12 Black disciples at the Last Supper, a crucified woman Jesus, an indigenous Australian Jesus, a Filipino Jesus, a rural Chinese Jesus, a Maori Jesus, a South Asian Jesus sitting Buddha-like on a lotus flower and a post-colonial Black Jesus from Brazil. They reflect a variety of artistic styles and cultures, and they’re altogether lovely in their own way.
These images Copage contrasts with the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, auburn-haired “Head of Christ” copyrighted in 1940 by an Indianapolis publishing house, Kriebel & Bates, and immortalized on innumerable church bulletins, funeral home fans, Sunday School wall posters and calendars throughout America.
The normative Jesus, in other words — the one we’ve all seen before.
I wouldn’t mistake the Kriebel & Bates Jesus for the Jesus of history. But I wouldn’t mistake him for a Norwegian, either. I don’t particularly relate to him one way or the other. I do have to wonder if he was really on that “Jesus is Lord of Knoxville” billboard. (The licensing fees might have cost too much.) I don’t think we ought to consider a WASP Jesus as normative, but I’m not particularly bothered when I see one.
And I think, I’d like to hope we’re taking baby steps to reconcile all these different Jesuses.
Several years ago our pastor at old Atonement, a ELCA Lutheran church on the outskirts of a mid-sized metro area in downstate Illinois, had a lovely African tapestry hanging in his office. He’d been a missionary in West Africa, and sometimes he’d tell stories of Cameroon and Senegal or quote a familiar text like the 23rd Psalm in the West African Pular language from the pulpit on Sunday morning. (Other times, his sermons sounded like the news from Lake Wobegon.) During the Christmas season, we had a nativity scene of Yoruba-style woodcarvings set up by the altar.
If anybody was trying to “decolonize” anything, I was oblivious to it.
I thought the tapestry and the creche were just fine pieces of religious art, and I thought it was cool we had a pastor who knew so much about other cultures and religious traditions. Come to think of it, I don’t remember seeing any pictures of Jesus in the church, Norwegian or otherwise.
But some years at Christmas, we’d sing the Norwegian children’s carol Jeg er så glad hver julekveld (I am so glad each Christmas eve). I recognized it, I guess because it was on an LP recording of the St. Olaf College choir that my father played at Christmas, but I didn’t think of it as being particularly central to my religious experience.
At church, Jeg er så glad was just one of the songs we sing at Christmas. Some of our older parishioners grew up in the old-fashioned Hauge synod Norwegian pietist Lutheran tradition. But we had other members, and we sang other songs, too. One was “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” (Which was written for the Fisk Jubilee Singers — Jesus is Lord of Nashville, too!) As a matter of fact I liked it better, because I could swing it a little when I was singing. Frankly, I think a lot of the beloved Christmas carols are kind of insipid.
We had a wide variety of music in our little Lutheran congregation all year around, and hymns from South Africa, Brazil and Ghana were part of our repertoire, along with “Children of the Heavenly Father,” 16th-century German chorales and more recent hymns like “Cantad al Señor,” a Brazilian song that found its way into ELCA hymnals. I especially liked “Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love,” set to a Ghanian folk tune, because it’s syncopated (at least the way we sing it) and I could swing it, too.
My musical background is in southern Appalachian folk music, which combines Scots-Irish and African American influences (in fact Sparky Rucker, an old friend from UT-Knoxville, and his wife Rhonda call it Affrilachian). And when I joined the church, I was more familiar with gospel and early American shape-note singing than I was with Lutheran hymnody.
So I still like to cut loose and belt it out when I get a chance. I’m sure ELCA includes world music in our hymnals as part of a conscious effort to diversify, but I just liked being able to sing as loud as I wanted without drawing stares in the choirloft.
So I understand the need for us to “raise up alternative historical and theological narratives to take center stage in our church’s culture,” to quote the Decolonizing Lutheranism folks. And I think we all understand the need for the churches to stand up for racial justice. Especially now. But at least to me, the hymns and the African art, the quotations from a Senegalese language and all the rest of it was part of our congregational culture at old Atonement, and I loved the diversity.
I didn’t think of us as decolonizing anything, though. It was just what we did in church, and it all fit together, both symbolically and theologically. I’m sure the steps we took were only baby steps, but I think they were in the right direction.
Nicholas Bridger, “Africanizing Christian Art,” exhibition at SMA African Art Museum, Society of African Missions, Tenafly, N.J., 2013 http://smafathers.org/museum/africanizing-christian-art/.
Eric V. Copage, “Searching for a Jesus Who Looks More Like Me,” New York Times, April 10, 2020 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/10/arts/design/jesus-christ-image-easter.html.
Tom Gjelten, “Black Pastor Wants His Mostly White Congregation To Understand Racial Justice,” Morning Edition, National Public Radio, Sept. 9, 2020 https://www.npr.org/2020/09/09/911005948/black-pastor-wants-his-mostly-white-congregation-to-understand-racial-justice.
Elaine Pagels, “Jesus of History vs. Christ of Faith,” From Jesus to Christ, Frontline, Public Broadcasting System, 1998 https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/jesus/tensions.html.
[Revised (slightly) and published (finally), April 23, 2022]