Tupac's Song: Coloring Jesus
April 8, 2018
Rev. Dr. Althea Spencer Miller
Recommended Readings: Titus 1:10-16 and
“What Has Been Done? What Can We Learn?
Racial/Ethnic Minority Readings of the Bible in the United States”
by Tat-Siong Benny Liew
My Siblings in Christ, Queer, trans, and cisgendered, progeny of our Parent God, seekers of Jesus, fruit of a brave mother’s womb, and emboldened by the Holy Spirit our strength, we are here together and it is good!
Dismantling Racism must be one of the most difficult and treacherous of paths that any community and individuals within it can undertake. It is difficult because of its vulgar manifestations that outrage the spirit of decency, love, goodwill, and commonsense that dwells richly in so many of us. It is also difficult because it is entwined with social and political power and with wealth. Its difficulties are complexified because it is invidious – vile, evil, treacherous, pernicious but it is also insidious. It is surreptitious, dispersing and imposing its vileness upon unsuspecting individuals, peoples, communities, compelling commitments to its way on pain of loss of livelihood, death, and destruction, not only for its perpetrators but also for its victims. Caught in its vicious entanglements, it’s an invitation to avoid death and destruction by befriending their evil minions. It deludes us by invitations to pretensions through which we can believe that friendship with the “other,” her food, her ethnic styles, his music, his walk, their wisdom, means that we are free of that bondage. It abuses us with false promises that proficient participation in the behaviors of racist oppressors is the guarantee of acceptance and advancement. So we learn to modulate our voices, master bi-culturalism, that is living by the Duboisian veil and double consciousness, practice a Euro-centric culture capital, and yes, believe in their religion in the ways they taught us to do, that is, in their way. To believe in their religion so as to leave our ancestors behind and become adopted, not only by Jesus Christ, but also by our oppressors – as though we were foster children in the practice of faith. This last occupies the forefront of my reflections this morning – the practice of faith.
This morning, I share in the outrage of the all too frequent, outrageous, and murderous events among us that are signs of our racist underpinnings. Too many people of color, African American adults and children, Native Americans, Latino/a Americans are being murdered by the police. Demeaning stereotyping language is too frequently applied to peoples of color. The public face of unabashed and embarrassing white supremacy lacks for shame and hides no more. And while the list of atrocities could be much longer I end with this. It is almost a truism and enjoys mounting consensus that racism and multiple other forms of bigotry, hatred, and condescension govern our country, are imbricate in the decision-making that shapes our national policies with lasting impact. Most worrisomely we have a leader of intemperate mind, incapacitated for truth, ignoble in manner and intent, base in interpersonal relationships that are public, and fueled by the strongest of hatreds in the U.S. – racism. I am roiled by the bigoted tempers of the present, angry, worried, frightened, sometimes immobilized, sometimes energized, and also find that the worst expletives are insufficient to express the profanation of our times. I am all those. But today, in this community, I am going to be studious. I invite you to join me in that posture and walk with me carefully because the topic is difficult.
For I propose that in dismantling racism, we first look at our participation in the religion that has been its accompaniment, legitimization, reinforcement, and vehicle for a few centuries. What do we as Christians need to change, what can we change within our own faith content, mechanisms, and practices in order to defuse the capacity of racists to continue deploy the best and dearest of our faith traditions to the advantage of their traditions?
You might have wondered about the weirdness and negativity of the passage read this morning from Titus 1:10-16. Why not an exhortatory passage that would lift our minds to the most important qualities we need to dismantle racism, such as love, justice-seeking, advocacy, etc. I suggest we go for discernment in this quiet space rather than for soaring and rousing our hearts and minds to acts of resistance and engagement with the phenomenon. So I turned to Titus’ letter, one of the neglected letters of the NT and perhaps rightly so. Who wants the dose of vitriol that this morning’s reading spouts? I am highlighting it because the seeds of inter-ethnic vituperation are unhooded, to use Wil Gafney’s term, in a couple of our NT letters. This is one of them. I highlight it because our understanding of the role of Christianity in the promulgation of racism is very circumscribed to selected texts that either support or disapprove. But here in Titus 1:10-16 is stereotyping, vilification, and exclusionary speech.
Remember that the Titus community may have been a mixed community of Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Jesus. They are having to protect their beliefs and gains from competition and alternative viewpoints around matters of following Jesus. Scholars think of Titus as written towards the end of the first or beginning of the second century. That’s important to know because we think that by that time the connection to Judaism had loosened considerably. There is likely to have been a greater acquiescence to the practices of Roman morality among the general populace according to Naomi Koitun-Fromm. That may be to say, that the mores of Empire both overshadowed and influenced this community’s thinking about and responses to challenges. Given that dating, talk of the circumcision may be more symbolic than neighborly or actual. There is a negative idea about people of the circumcision. There are derogatory notions about them that are serviceable for further belittlements. It gets attached to lying Cretans, laziness, accusations, and impurity. What is invisible is that any Jews in this Cretan community must bear the stigma of their people in the face of the vituperative and frightened energy undergirding their community’s growth and protection.
When a beleaguered community vilifies its oppressors or those that threaten, the language of vituperation has a very localized weight. It does not form policy. It does not oppress anyone else. It might be of comfort only to that community. When that same language gets into the mouths and ownership of oppressors, it gains new weight. It can create stereotypes that matter. It can connect stereotypes to policies, laws, regulations, social organization, and powerlessness. So the person of color can be the one in view when the passage is read, appropriated, and deployed. The body of color, i.e. African, LatinX, Native American, Asian or East Indian among others. We easily become the target of negative connotations. We are detestable, disobedient, unfit for goodness, lazy, corrupt, lying, unbelieving, rebellious upsetters. We must be silenced, suspected, rebuked and add controlled and yes, converted. The Great Commission in Matt. 28:18-20 becomes an order to conquer the primitive, inept people of the non-white world. Our Bible can be the text of bigots because the language of an oppressed people can be misappropriated by powerful bigots and co-opted for the service of bigotry and hatred. These are examples of the mechanisms, stereotypes, and content that need attention in the community of faith.
But let’s go a little further in Christian history. There’s a turning point where the contacts with and opinions of Europe about people of color form as prelude to the Colonial period. I lift up the highly influential European philosopher Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel. He represents an attitude developing in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries about Africans. While Hegel is celebrated for his influence on European philosophy those who teach him usually overlook this comment of his:
“In Africa proper, man has not progressed beyond a merely sensuous existence, and has found it absolutely impossible to develop any further. Physically he exhibits great muscular strength, which enables him to perform arduous labours; and his temperament is characterized by good naturedness, which is coupled, however with completely unfeeling cruelty.”  In addition, he described Africans as devoid of history, cannibalistic, lacking in moral sentiment, being of impoverished religiosity, and well suited for slavery.”
As Teshale Tibebu inveighs, “Hegel justified African enslavement in the Americas, rationalized the American holocaust, and articulated a sophisticated theory of the rationality of European colonial expansion on the grounds that the inherent contradictions of bourgeois civil society need a colonial outlet into the Third World.”
Further, Tibebu indicates the astounding eventuation, that, “This philosopher who saw no fault in the enslavement of Africans in the “New World,” the genocide of Native Americans, and colonial power over the majority of the world’s peoples has been described by many of the most talented thinkers of modern times as the philosopher of freedom, progress and even humanism.”
It is very unlikely, within Progressive and Conservative Traditions in the U.S. U.K. Germany, Italy, France, South Korea, Latin America, the Caribbean, that a seminarian can graduate without coming in contact with the works of German scholars such as Hegel, Martin Heidegger, and later Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, and Emanuel Hirsch who were architects and renovators of Christianity’s racism.
In other words, my siblings and friends, with Germany and the U.K. as the motherland of Christian theology German supremacist teachings, white supremacist teachings infuse the atmosphere of Christianity. It inheres in our liturgies, architecture, art, hymnody, organizational polities, cultures. Hence it is that Resolution 3374 in the UMC Book of Resolutions addressing the responsibility of Annual Conferences’ Districts’, and Local Congregations’ Responsibilities for Eradication of Racism acknowledges that, “racism has been a systemic and personal problem within the US and the United Methodist Church and its predecessor denominations since its inception …” Further it implies that developing racial justice policies be contextualized as the work of an interdependent global community. I am pointing a little beyond the phenomena of racism with an invitation to discern the Christian mechanisms and content that support, advise, and legitimize racism. In the case of Christianity, I am implying, with sadness and grief, that racism is not only systemic it is the very oxygen of our faith. That to say, I commit my life to Jesus Christ for the person of color, indeed for anyone, is to commit to and enter into a European history of imperialized racism, colonizing racism, and interpersonal racism.
Please do not hear me as saying Christianity, following Christ is therefore worthless. By no means so! That would be a truncation and a betrayal of my heart. I am Christian. I am a Child of God who bears the pain of multiple stigmata within the faith tradition to which I adhere. I am a believer who understands that the word of God is indeed a two-edged sword and an invitation into life’s complexities and compromises. I yearn for the vision of God’s kin-dom to be realized, a time when black bodies like mine, and other bodies of other colors can hear our ancestors, our life experiences our histories treated as meaningful resources for faith, theology, ethics, community processes, social organization, and institutional polity within the practice of Christianity – for when our songs can be sung the way we sing them and not always in translation, unspiced and reseasoned for those of more bland preferences, as valued and as the treasures of our European heritage.
My heart then beat with Tupac’s song, “Black Jesus.” More than replacing blond hair, white skin, and blue eyes with locks, black skin and eyes; yes more than cosmetic changes, Tupac pines for a Black Jesus:
Searching for Black Jesus
Oh yeah, sportin jewels and s**t, yaknahmean?
(Black Jesus; you can be Christian
Baptist, Jehovah Witness)
Straight tatted up, no doubt, no doubt
(Islamic, won't matter to me
I'm a thug; thugs, we praise Black Jesus, all day)
Young Kadafi in this bi**h, set it off ni**a..
Who's got the heart to stand beside me?
I feel my enemies creepin up in silence
Dark prayer, scream violence - demons all around me
Can't even bend my knees just a lost cloud; Black Jesus
give me a reason to survive, in this earthly hell
Cause I swear, they tryin to break my well
I'm on the edge lookin down at this volatile pit
Will it matter if I cease to exist? Black Jesus
My Black Jesus, walk through this valley with me
Where we, so used to hard times and casualties
Indeed, it hurt me deep to have to sleep on the streets
And haven't eaten in weeks, so save a prayer for me
And all the young thugs, raised on drugs and guns
Blazed out and numb, slaves to this slums
This ain't livin... Jesus
Searchin for Black Jesus
It's hard, it's hard
We need help out here
So we searchins for Black Jesus
It's like a Saint, that we pray to in the ghetto, to get us through
Somebody that understand our pain
You know maybe not too perfect, you know
Somebody that hurt like we hurt
Somebody that smoke like we smoke
Drink like we drink
That understand where we coming from
That's who we pray to
We need help y'all
So too, I yearn, for a Jesus who knows how to dance to the beat and rituals of African drums, drums that resonate with Native Americans and South Koreans, who knows that Pentecost yields to the sacredness of all languages, who declares the limitations of our cultural conveniences and opens his church to the dominance of cultural multiplicity against the constraints of cultural monopolies in countries in the U.S. where cultures are no longer homogeneous. I yearn for a Jesus who replaces protectionism with open-heartedness.
I pray for a Jesus who will continue to teach people of color about our sacredness. That sacredness has to help us to question and understand why we continue in institutions that have treated our races with disdain and even now still host conferences and consultations that will not get to the nitty gritty of our internalized racism. Howard Thurman was confronted with this question by Mahatma Ghandi in 1935. I paraphrase How can you worship the God of your enslavers Ghandi asked Thurman. Jesus and the Disinherited may well be Thurman’s protracted response. That book and the following excerpts are the reminders I leave with all of us who are perpetrators and victims of a power and wealth based arrogance that has manifested itself as racism among us and globally.
Thurman reminds us in the Magnificat,
He scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
And again of Jesus’ words:
Do not fear them therefore.
“Fear not little flock because it is your God’s pleasure to give you the kingdom.
His last word (read p. 102 the last paragraph.)
I wish we had all day though you may differ on that. This sermon is only a beginning. It only suggests to you that racism is not only out there but it is also in here. It is surreptitious poisoning the souls of all of us in different ways. It must be confronted on all its fronts. We must not shy away from the ways in which its most difficult questions are painful in different ways for all of us. We must bear each other’s pains, especially the pain of people of color. While Titus exposes us to the ambiguous possibility for the word to be both a vanguard of protection and a weapon of oppression, the Gospel of Christ invites us to food for the journey. We do not need to hasten to victory nor too readily to words of hope. Sometimes we must walk patiently through the quagmire so that we can know what to hope for. Sometimes we must cast our eyes wide so that we can see the scope of our swamps. Sometimes we must look inward for the problem begins there in ourselves and our beloved institutions. If Jesus does not always appear beautiful, happy and shining, it might just be because he is in the swamp with us. Therein is our capacity, our possibility and our hope. Ashe.
 Hegel, Lectures in the History of Philosophy
Copyright © 2018 by Althea Spencer Miller
All rights reserved.