The year 2019 marks 400 years since enslaved Africans were brought to North America via the transatlantic slave trade. Some researches and self-made scholars have sought to claim that those enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas on a slave slip named Jesus. They are only partly right. Jesus of Lübeck was an actual slave ship. It was commonly referred to as the Good Ship Jesus. However, that ship set sail several decades before the first enslaved Africans landed in Jamestown.
Since Jesus arrived in America he has been associated and mostly aligned with the oppression of black bodies and the exploitation of black labor. For black folks, Jesus and America has always been a site of crisis.
Cornel West once said, “September 11th was the first time many Americans felt unsafe, unprotected, subject to random violence and hated. But to be black in American for the past 400 years is to be (at all times) unsafe, unprotected, subjected to random violence and hated.”
Rev. Jim Wallis deals with this critical quagmire throughout his book “Christ in Crisis: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus” by righteously redressing the relationship between race and religion. My inference here, is that the ideological and tangible influence of Christ (and Christianity) in this country has been in a state of crisis for black folks ever since we were forced into hush harbors which gave birth to black churches, African American spirituality and the slave revolts that sustained us.
To that end, I’m somewhat inclined to reject the idea that the Christianity we need to produce, embrace, promote or practice can be “reclaimed.” The Jesus of America has always been the conduit for slave theology and plantation prosperity. We see clearly in the foundations of the country through Ibram X Kendi’s seminal text “Stamped from the Beginning,” which details the theological conflictions of (among others) Thomas Jefferson.
The American Jesus that has become commonplace in our social-political-religious psychology is a whitewashed and blasphemous version of the radical and revolutionary liberator – a northeastern Afro-asiatic black man who was born to single parent mother who got pregnant before she got married and people were not certain who the baby’s father was. That sounds much more like Tupac Shakur than Donald Trump.
This is the historical reality of Jesus that has provided us with the inspired interpretive tension and prophetic potential laid out in works like Kameron Carter’s “Race” a Theological Account,” Edward Blum and Paul Harvey’s “The Color of Christ,” Kelly Brown Douglass’ “The Black Christ” and (one of my favorites) Albert Cleage Jr.’s “The Black Messiah.” Rev. Wallis’s book can be a companion to these types of works because of his courageous investigation of how the historical and biblical Jesus has been defaced and defamed by a white evangelical theology that is so closely aligned to white supremacy that we can hardly tell them apart.
What Rev. Wallis has sparked for me most provocatively is a more intentional engagement with religion, politics and power. He has challenged us to be more lucid in our interrogation of who Jesus is (not just who Jesus was) and how well we practice what Jesus preached.
Rev. Wallis helps us clarify and lean into political theology – the innate relationship between theology and politics. This is critical and crucial because too many of us have been deceived by the mythical separation between “church and state,” despite President Bush’s claim that God told him to invade a country with no weapons of mass destruction. Rev. Wallis’s book (much like his work “God’s Politics”) reminds me that all theology is political because it is ultimately concerned with power. Therefore, any theology that does not take into account our social and political realities is an irrelevant and irreverent theology.
I believe Rev. Wallis hones in on this idea most readily in Chapter 3 of the book, “The Image Question.” Our ideological, philosophical and rhetorical construction of the Image of God (the imago dei) is foundational when understanding who our neighbors are, what the truth is, what makes us afraid, how we deal with corrupt political power and other themes Wallis renders throughout the books spiritual sojourn.
Our theology impacts our anthropology and influences our sociology. Theology is how we see God. Anthropology is how we see our neighbor. And sociology is how we see our neighborhood. And if we have a slave-ish (or white-supremacist-adjacent) view of God, we’ll make it legally justifiable to enslave our neighbor and absolutely fine to force folks to live in a 21st century plantation.
While Rev. Wallis was in Detroit, he might’ve heard about what happened on Easter Sunday in 1967 at the Central United Church of Christ. Rev. Albert Cleage unveiled a mural of the Black Madonna and Child in the sanctuary which revised the church to become the Shrine of the Black Madonna. Can we imagine what that image did to the social, spiritual and political psychology of the parishioners?
And in that same spirit, allow me offer the recommendation of Rev. Laura Mayo, senior minister of Covenant Church in Houston, who mused, “What if white Christians had a more realistic image of Jesus, a dark-skinned, religious minority refugee?”
When I shared Rev. Mayo’s article on Facebook, Rev. Christopher Michael Jones of New Jersey said, “Many would more likely leave the Christian faith altogether. At least, their version of what they ascribe to be the Christian faith.” My response to him was, “That’s exactly what we need…because their ‘version’ is white supremacist evangelical theology, which is blasphemous when compared to the Jesus of Nazareth Movement.” A sista scholar said, “It would cause the same kind of dialectical tensions and cognitive dissonance we see with men and the subject of religious headship and societal leadership based in an essentialist paradigm.”
Maybe we need more tension and dissonance. Maybe the answer is not shying away from the crisis, but instead of reacting to the crisis, embracing and revolutionizing the crisis.
We need to move beyond the symbolic into the structural. We have to advance from mere conversation to moral and militant transformation. Stokely Carmichael said, “It is not my responsibility to transform the soul of a racist thug. I’ll simply settle for a change in his behavior.” This change can only happen when our image of God is revolutionized in a way that moves us to intentionally politically empower those who have been rendered powerless.
This happened most critically for me in November of 2016. The bottom line that conflicted me was how voter turnout was so low. I looked at where it had been the lowest in Memphis – not just in 2016 but in the past several elections over the past 10-15 years where we’ve seen an increase in poverty and disinvestment in black neighborhoods in a city 65 percent black. I discovered the precincts that had the lowest turnout were black churches. And we don’t have a voter registration problem. We have a voter education, engagement and turnout problem.
I wondered how we had disconnected the shouting, singing, dancing and preaching that happened at these hubs of black dignity on Sundays from the need to organize for political power on Super Tuesdays. And I vowed to put my faith into political action because the lives of disempowered people (made in the image of God) depends on it.
I realized we didn’t need another revival or prayer breakfast or Sunday School class or worship retreat. We need to organize our people for political power – like Jesus did. This is what got him killed. Jesus was killed (executed by the state) because he had the audacity to inspire and organize oppressed people and convinced them that they possessed a divine power within them that the seal of the Roman government could not conquer.
So in November of 2017 I organized #UPTheVote901 – a nonpartisan collaborative that is committed to giving more political power, information and representation to more people and increasing voter turnout in Memphis and Shelby County. And despite establishment subversion, being demonized by the mayor, ostracized by white and black clergy and scrutinized by some of the same people we aim to help, we trained pastors to canvas their congregations for increased voter engagement and we helped increased turnout in three of the four elections we’ve had since 2016. And we’ve ushered in a more (potentially) progressive slate of candidates with a group of people more engaged and empowered to hold them accountable.
This is a ministerial calling for me. My theology is political and intentional. Because we do not have the luxury of presuming we can just pray these problems away. We need to put our pocketbooks in synchronicity with our prayers. We must be willing to be moral and militant. We must be willing to disturb, disrupt and deliver. We’re going to have to write, fight, march, mentor, preach, teach, organize, mobilize and whatever else this moment calls for to make justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
God is calling us to face this crisis head on and understand that some of us have never had the luxury of doing anything other than that. It will take all of us. It will take our time, our talent and our treasure. And I’m grateful to Rev. Wallis, who reminded me there are at least some white brothers and sisters who are willing to fight this good fight with us.
Rev. Earle J. Fisher is senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Memphis and founder of #UPTheVote901.