The stabbing of Joseph Igbineweka, student body president of California State University, Chico, is only the latest tragic event escalating racial tensions in the California university systems.
During Presidents Day weekend at the University of California, San Diego, a black member of a white fraternity threw a party in “celebration” of Black History Month. Those who were invited were encouraged to dress ghetto, speak loudly and use a limited vocabulary. Those who came were served fried chicken, watermelon and malt liquor. The incident escalated when the editor of a campus paper went on the campus TV station and referred to people who were rightly annoyed by the party, and the depiction of black culture, as a “bunch of ungrateful” (insert improper “n” word here).
Within a week of the initial outbursts, a sign was hung over the TV station with the words “Compton Lynching,” a noose was hung in the central library, and a KKK hood was placed on a prominent statue.
We have not reached the promised land. Racism still exists, just as racialism still exists, and just as self-hatred still exists. But Christians are in a unique position to speak more openly about race. After all, we are the ones called to love our neighbors regardless of who they are and what they look like. We are the ones who desperately try to follow Jesus, even when Jesus expressed grace by forgiving the people who beat and tortured Him. We are the ones who followed the tradition of the Rev. King fighting for civil rights and social justice. But if we are the ones who follow Jesus, why are churches less likely to engage this volatile issue?
When the most segregated hour in the U.S. is still 11 o’clock on Sunday mornings, and when academic theologians still refer to white or Western theology as simply “theology,” it’s easy to recognize what theologian J. Kameron Carter calls “the problem of whiteness.” With this phrase, Carter critiques white culture’s struggle with humility, submission to authority, and how it often places itself above and sometimes against the standards and experiences of other cultures. However, the same criticism Carter levies on white culture can and should be levied everywhere else.
African or Asian, Emerging or Orthodox, we have all committed the same sins of racial superiority. Far too often, we think of our own experiences as normal and anything other than our experiences as abnormal. We create distinctions so we are not like the infamous “them.” And by separating ourselves from “them,” we inflict damage upon ourselves. The notion that we might not be normal is beyond comprehension and is dismissed as severely as heresy. But this shouldn’t surprise anyone—we do the same thing with Jesus.
For literally hundreds of years, Christians have depicted Jesus in images they find familiar. Instead of worshiping the Jesus who was from the Middle Eastern Town of Nazareth, most churches still depict Jesus in ways that reflect their own cultural and ethnic heritage—which is fine. Diverse groups of people should connect with the Son of God in any way they can. What’s not fine is when we think our images of Jesus are the only valid images of Jesus and every other image of Jesus is somehow less faithful.
Many of us find comfort in old theologies even if these theologies do a poor job of confessing what God is doing in our midst. What we need is something more than a black and white theology, and more than a black vs. white theology. We need a new way of thinking about faith that begins with our primary identity in Christ. We can’t be Latin Christians or American Christians, Presbyterian Christians or Post-denominational Christians. When we identify ourselves first by our differences, it distracts from the very real fact that we are Christians first.
And we need to be Christians first—in our politics, in our actions, in our theology and in our worship. We need to make everything else secondary. Instead of trying to transform Jesus into someone who looks and acts like us, we need to be transformed into someone who looks and acts like Him. It’s not about getting to heaven or bringing heaven here to Earth. It’s not about a one-time conversion experience or being raised in faith from a young age. It’s not about being predestined or choosing faith. It’s about being open to follow Jesus where He will take us. It’s about being humble enough to learn from the way others follow Jesus. We all have different experiences of faith, and there is much we can learn about Jesus from those we encounter on the journey. But if we don’t walk in love—the kind of love that is kind and patient and humble—then we will miss out on all the things Jesus wants to show us.
Chris Bernard is the son of a South Korean immigrant, the husband of a beautiful Italian New Yorker, and a young theologian finding his way. He is also the Pastor for Youth and Families at St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in La Jolla, Calif., and a Mentor for InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network.