It is always a comic moment when a TV character prays to “Black Jesus”, that distinction suggests that the Jesus of black people differs from that of mainstream Caucasian depictions of Jesus, the one accepted by churches across the world. I am sure the ‘black Jesus’ trope occurs in varying forms across the globe as people seek to see themselves reflected within the religion not just spiritually but physically also.
Whilst I am amongst the team of people that laugh heartily at a good “Black Jesus” reference, it is also concerning to see that divide within the Christian community. The essential message of Christianity is oneness – God sees us all the same, as reflections of himself. As a father, anyone who wholeheartedly follows him becomes part of the family, coming essentially into a siblinghood. But it is becoming clear each day that race and perception are affecting the unity we are supposed to have within the church.
Sometimes, I respect the Muslim dictate that bans any and all depictions of the Prophet Muhammed. The idea that the essence of ‘God’ cannot be captured by man and as such should not be attempted is a sensible rationale because it stops people from spending time debating the physicality of God and keeps their focus on serving him. However, I also understand that as a people, we are very visual. Documenting our histories through pictures as well as words helps us to remember. Looking at the creation narrative, we see that the first thing God added to the formless earth was light. Inherently sight, and seeing were an important base in the creation narrative. On completing creation, the Bible explicitly tells us that “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31), meaning that there was a link between sight and appreciation for our Creator in whose image we are made.
Race: whatever its origin, is essentially separatism based on physicality. What a person looks like creates an idea of who they are before we even have a conversation with them. This assumption be it positive or negative dictates our approach to that individual and usually sets the tone for that relationship. Within the church, race is a conversation very markedly ignored because of the discomfort it incites; to acknowledge race is to challenge the notion of singularity in God’s house. However, irrespective of the race dominant in the church, race is still an issue within Christianity based simply on the accepted physical representations and symbols the church uses.
Because of the assumption that Christianity – despite Biblically having origins in the Middle East – is a Western religion, its symbolisms are highly Westernised. From the depictions of Jesus to the acceptance of the King James’ version of the Bible as standard, there is a very Eurocentric image that has been normalised. There was a period where I was very aggravated by what I deemed Nigerian Christianity and so I fled from predominantly black churches, assuming already that they were all talk and no walk.
Walking into a predominantly white church made me think about my understanding of culture and how insidious my belief that ‘white culture’ does not exist was. The ‘us’ and ‘them’ discussions that came up on the pulpit, where ‘white saviour’ complexes came into play gave me great insight into how ingrained the belief in Christianity as a white birthright is. A great deal of the outreach was geared towards foreign countries with local and national affairs being less of a concern. The goal always being to recreate models of Christianity that worked in the U.K in these countries regardless of economic and cultural circumstance.
I do not condemn these efforts to ‘go ye therefore into the world and make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19), what I question is the singular model of Christianity that seeks erasure of one culture to make room for another. While it is easy to spot the infiltration of church with certain cultural practices close to home, I can’t help: based on experience, question the foundation of modern Christianity as a whole, especially when it comes to representation.
Conversations with black women especially who are leaving the church owing to feeling unseen or under represented has led me to ask: who built the church as we know it? I cannot help but wonder if there is a fundamental flaw to how church is being practiced and how we can fix it.