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"What Did You Expect? Reflections on White Jesus" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - April 9, 2017

posted Apr 12, 2017, 3:40 PM by Plymouth Church UCC   [ updated Apr 12, 2017, 4:59 PM by Andrew Warner ]

I always wondered how to capture the meaning and energy of Jesus’ triumphal entrance into Jerusalem.  How does one tap into the excitement of a protest?  Make sense of purpose?  Capitalize on the uplift?  


Well I certainly learned how not to do it.  This week Pepsi launched an ad featuring Kendall Jenner.  It opened with a young, vibrant, multicultural throng of protesters marching down the street carrying signs - Unity, Love, Join the Conversation.  Jenner, in the midst of a photo shoot, stopped what she was doing and jumped into the protest.  A few nods, winks, and fist bumps later, and Jenner led the march up to a line of police officers.  Mimicking a classic image from a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge, Jenner stood in front of the officer.  The tension broke when Jenner offered a Pepsi to the cop; the crowd cheered; carbonated hosannas.  


People were quick to comment.  A once arrested justice advocate mused, “If someone had just brought some soda.”  In the real-life protest Jenner mimicked, a woman named Ieshia Evans walked up to three police officers dressed in so much body armor that they looked like Robocops.  Unlike Jenner, the cops arrested Evans.  And unlike Jenner, her protest had a message: Black Lives Matter.


Watching Jenner jump into leading the crowd reminded me of that old joke about the French radical who said, “There go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”  In Pepsi’s ad, we don’t know where the people are going, but we know Pepsi and Jenner will lead them there.  Ice cold soda saving us all.


Pepsi quickly pulled the ad, apologizing to its customers and to Jenner for the worst cola marketing decision since New Coke.  But the ad left me with a lingering aftertaste.  I thought: Pepsi replaced the black and brave Iesha Evans with the white and opportunistic Kendall Jenner.  Tone deaf marketing, certainly.  But what did you expect?  In a country deeply affected by racism, Pepsi’s not the only one to retell black stories with white faces; not the only one to switch calls for justice with sugary sweet platitudes.


On the surface, Jesus’ parade and Pepsi’s might have looked similar.  The disciples might have carried signs like those in the ad: Love, Unity.  And Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem was its own media event.  Not broadcast, of course; but certainly described, discussed, and debated.  Yet while Pepsi chose to parody the oppressed, Jesus mocked the powerful.


Jesus mimicked the marches of kings and their celebrated entrances into cities.  His entrance evoked long traditions of grand royal entrances.  And more immediately, he echoed the way the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate ceremoniously entered the city.  In all of this, Jesus played off of expectations for the display of power.


People in the time of Jesus deeply longed for a messianic leader.  Jesus was one of nearly two dozen messiah figures in the century in which he lived.  Expectations were clear: a messiah would come to defeat the Romans and restore an independent Jewish state.


Initially it seemed Jesus would fulfill the expectations of the crowd.  The description of his entrance reverberated with scriptural allusions, especially the prophecy of Zechariah, whom the Gospel of Matthew quotes.  Scriptural texts like Zechariah shaped the messianic expectations in the time of Jesus.


Which makes it all the more curious that Matthew seemed to deliberately misuse the saying of Zechariah.  First, Matthew dropped a key line of Zechariah.  Zechariah had said, “your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he.”  Matthew dropped all reference to Jesus being triumphant and victorious.  This was a key part of the definition of a messiah: people would recognize the messiah because he would successfully defeat the Romans.  Of course, instead of becoming a victor, Jesus died a victim.  And so, Matthew is already teasing with the expectations of the crowd, promising a messiah but foreshadowing his defeat.


And, Matthew treats Zechariah’s prophecy humorously.  Zechariah had said, “[he will arrive] humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  Zechariah, like much of the Old Testament, used double statements to underscore a point, saying something twice to give emphasis.  But Matthew, who clearly understood at a deep level the writing style of the Old Testament, takes this emphatic statement and turns it around.  Jesus arrived riding both a donkey and foal, one rider on two steeds.  It’s a playful image meant to open our minds to how Jesus will confound all the expectations of the crowd.


This sense of parody will continue throughout Holy Week and into Easter; most especially in the painfully mocking sign “king of the Jews” over his cross and then more slapstick in the disciples and soldiers running around the empty tomb saying to one another, “Where did he go? Where did he go?”


Jesus, in his dramatic entrance, pressed on the expectations of the crowd and all of the cultural baggage he inherited in order to redefine the meaning of messiah.  On that day, and even now, Jesus challenges our assumptions and our expectations.  Jesus asks, “What did you expect?”


And so, because Jesus disrupts expectations, it becomes important to look at the implicit expectations of our hearts. Last month our congregation hosted a talk in Shorewood on “How Children Learn about Race and How Adults Can Help.”  Dr. Erin Winkler upended many expectations about children and race.  At the outset, she asked, “When do you think children first begin to identify race?”  While many offered guesses, the research shows babies as young as 3 months old can recognize race.


And almost as soon as children learn to recognize race, they begin to attribute meaning to what they see.  Most adults don’t talk to children about race so children construct their meaning out of what goes unsaid but what they perceive.  I was particularly struck by how this plays out in children’s developing notions of race.  Dr. Winkler wasn’t saying that children are racists but that children show what’s called ‘implicit racial bias.’  For instance, researchers asked white children aged 5 to 10 to allocate resources between white and black children.  The younger children were clear: I’m picking people who look like me.  They gave their resources to other white children.  The older children in the study - 8 to 10 year olds - still made the same choice; they gave their resources to the other white children.  But they rationalized their choices in a race-neutral way: he looks fun, she has a smile, he plays sports, she looks athletic.  This social research shows children will work out of a racially biased framework but learn to make those biases covert.


But, as Dr. Winkler made clear, we can interrupt the formation of implicit racial bias.  We need to ask, “What do our kids see?”  As Erin explained, “[young] children may notice when going to the store or the doctor’s office or riding the bus that height and hairstyle do not seem related to occupation or neighborhood, but that skin color does.”  Therefore, we need to think about the diversity our children see and experience and engage; something especially true in a community as segregated as Milwaukee.


What children see gets compounded by what they hear from adults.  If no one talks about segregation as bad or racism as a problem or diversity as good then young children just think what is is what ought to be.  


So interrupting the formation of implicit bias - and by extension raising anti-racist children - means paying attention to what children see and hear.  


Dr. Winkler pressed the audience in Shorewood about these issues: who’s at our dinner table, how are people shown in the media we watch, what do we talk about, how are we engaging children and youth in the rich and varied cultural diversity around us?


Our task becomes harder when our language itself subtly reinforces racial hierarchies.  Just think; we call people of color ‘minorities.’  Did you ever wonder, “minor to whom?”  Minor is but a synonym to inferior.  To call someone minor league is not a compliment.  Minorities: our very language perpetuates what we want to move beyond.  

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Or consider the portrayal of people of color in books and TV, especially children’s shows like “Lab Rats,” in which a white scientist makes three white children with superpowers and then marries a black woman with a son of her own.  The show follows the four youth: three supercharged white teens and their black sidekick; superior whites, average black, just one more in a long American tradition of entertaining ourselves with racialized hierarchies.  We wonder where racial bias comes from; but given the stories we tell, what did we expect?


Erin Winkler’s talk both surprised me with how early children form implicit bias and made me think more urgently about our own conversations about race.  And even more specifically about Jesus.  To be blunt: why is Jesus almost always white?  And what does it do to our racial imagination to always have a white savior?


Of course the historical Jesus wasn’t white.  I put on the back of your bulletin a best-guess as to what Jesus might have looked like based on the work of forensic anthropologists.  But this is not our dominant image of fairest Lord Jesus as even a brief glance from your bulletins to our windows would prove.   In the church we’ve done much the same as Pepsi.  Pepsi took the courageous story of a black woman facing off against the police and turned it into a tamer tale with a white Kendall Jenner.  And in American Christianity we turned the savior white.


This week I ran an unscientific internet study: I googled Jesus and then counted the racial profile of the images.  I had to look through 126 images before I found a clearly African Jesus.  The first 26 images I found were all brilliantly white.  Number 27 surprised me: an image of Trump as Jesus.  The middle eastern Jesus on the bulletin was 48th; Jesus with a cheesehead 57.  And even more oddly: Justin Bieber showed up as my 64th image.  But all of these Jesus’ came before a black Jesus.


In a society warped by racism, the ubiquitous image of white Jesus reinforces racialized hierarchies and supports white supremacy.  If a child is trying to figure out why whites have it best and the child only sees a white Jesus, then the child will reason that God wants it that way.  Or, as Traci Blackmon, a national leader in our movement said, “White Jesus is a reminder of the dominant culture's insatiable need for supremacy and the toxic roots of racism woven into the fabric of American Christianity.”


Beyond how it affects children: what does it do to our spirituality to conceive of Jesus as white?  If we only see our savior as white, then how much harder do we make it see Jesus in others?  And what does it mean to tell people to “be like Jesus” when we only portray Jesus as white?  Is it just another not-so-subtle message: act white?


Decades ago Stokely Carmichael asked, “How can white society move to see black people as human beings?”  The question still remains, in so many ways, woefully unanswered.  But what did we expect?  White Jesus to bring us racial paradise?


The Board of Christian Education began to talk about this after Dr. Winkler’s address and as a result of the white privilege work of our community.  The Board committed to making sure every classroom has diverse images of Jesus and other biblical characters.  We’re in the process of hanging new artwork.


But I’d also challenge each of you to find your own images of a non-white Jesus.  Not because Jesus can’t be white but because we’ve already had so much of white Jesus.  What images appeal to you?  We don’t typically pray with icons, but I’d encourage you to print out the images you find and to use them in prayer.  Or, when you close your eyes, picture yourself praying to a black Jesus or an Asian Jesus or a Latino Jesus.  What would it be like to allow many more images of Jesus to permeate your soul?  What would change inside of you as you change your image of Jesus?


Jesus came as a messiah who defied all expectations.  And yet, too often in America we confine him to the tight boundaries of our racialized expectations, creating a white Jesus who reinforces that racial status quo of our country.  But just as Jesus broke expectations on the first Palm Sunday, he calls us to break our racialized expectations today.  Amen.



Sources

  • Fillon, Mark, “The Real Face of Jesus,” Popular Mechanics, 2015.

  • Gross, Daniel, “How Could You Possibly Make This Ad?” Slate, April 6, 2017.

  • Instone-Brewer, David. 2003. "The two asses of Zechariah 9:9 in Matthew 21." Tyndale Bulletin 54, no. 1: 87-98.

  • Kendi, Ibram X., Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, 2016.  Kendi details the rise of white Jesus.  See especially p. 153, 251-252, 346, 369-370 among others.

  • Siker, Jeffrey, “Historicizing a Racialized Jesus: Case Studies in the ‘Black Christ,’ the ‘Mestizo Christ,’ and White Critique,” Biblical Interpretation, 15 (2007), p. 26-53

  • “White Privilege - Let’s Talk,” ucc.org.

  • Winkler, Erin, “How Children Learn About Race and How Adults Can Help,” Mar. 8, 2017, talk at the Shorewood Public Library, Shorewood, Wisconsin.

  • Winkler, Erin, “Why Does Latin@ Youth Literature Matter?” The Americas Award: Honoring Latin@ Children’s and Youth Adult Literature of the Americas, Laretta Henderson, editor, (Lexington Books, New York).

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