Updated: Nov 23, 2018
I was around 15 or 16 years of age when I first heard the term "Black Jesus". It was a song by Tupac Shakur and the Outlaw Immortals on their "Still I Rise" album from 1999 (this was released posthumously. Pac had been fatally shot and died in 1996). The song carries a sense of brokenness and a desire for hope that represents strugglers all around the world, and their search for someone to help them. I forgot about this song until it came back to my memory when I encountered the anti-Jesus black, nationalistic rhetoric one day at a campus in Durban, South Africa.
In Zimbabwe, I have met people with a real sense of being against Christianity because of its association with European missionaries who they view as people who brought the Bible and the gun to colonise the people of this great continent. Certainly, this is a general statement and belief for many, but my little experience in South Africa has had me outdone at the prevalence of such thought in the rainbow nation south of the Limpopo.
Of course, it is understandable why this thought it prevalent. Apartheid in South Africa was a form of imperialism and colonisation that was unmatched anywhere else on the continent. It is known as one of the most perfect racist systems ever adopted anywhere in the world. And at the front of this was the Dutch Reformed Church.
When the Dutch settled in South Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries they transplanted their Dutch Reformed theology to the African continent. Jan van Riebeeck formally established the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) of South Africa in 1652. The history of the church has been very much bound with the politics of the Afrikaner community of South Africa. The church supported the system of apartheid, which institutionalized separation and stratification of the people of South Africa according to race. Without a doubt, a huge majority of the native African population invariably viewed Christianity then as a tool for racial segregation and oppression.
Reporting in 1982 for the Christian Science Monitor, Paul Van Slambrouck wrote an article where one particular minister who led a small congregation in Mamelodi, a township outside Pretoria, asked the confusing question of why and how come the church supported racial segregation. The Mamelodi Church Council had asked this gentleman, Nico Smith, to be minister of a small black congregation just as his outspoken anti-apartheid views were making his life difficult as a theology professor at Stellenbosch University. I mention this to show that there were voices of reason even during that time among white ministers of the DRC. Mr. Smith noted with sadness how the blacks he served continued to be bitter as the conditions they lived by were dire by the day.
The BBC reported:
"Most of the country's Presidents and Prime Ministers during the apartheid years were members [of the DRC] and it was only in 1992, two years after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, that the Church acknowledged aparthied as a sin. The Reverend Swanerpoel, speaking on behalf of the Church, confessed to great wrongs in the past and said the Church was guilty of spiritual and structural injustices under apartheid. Not everyone was happy with that apology: one theologian said a great opportunity had been missed because the Church authorities made no mention of amends for past wrong-doings.
Many people who have come before the Truth Commission confess to gross human rights violations such as murder and abduction have cited the church as the spiritual inspiration for their gruesome work in support of the former apartheid regime. The Dutch Reformed Church submission brings to an end three days of testimony from the religious community about their role in the apartheid system. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chairs the body, said much had been achieved and expressed the hope that the Church's truth-telling would lead to an improved moral climate in South Africa."
Now, I know a lot Christians do not like such conversations because it feels like an attack to them personally, but listen, it really is not. We cannot make sense of anything today without going back to where we are coming from, seeing where we are, and moving on into the future. I would like to submit to you that the apparent disdain among black people worldwide towards Christianity has to do with the historic abuses of the Judeo-Christian faith in the oppression of those of negroid descent. This is not a political statement, but an unfortunate reality. Of course, theologically they are blind to the truth and we believe only God can open their eyes, but this point still remains: the Church has been complicit in the past.
For anyone who has tried to do ministry among black people who have this view of Christianity as a tool used to annihilate and destroy black tribes, cultures and families through slavery and colonisation, you would know that it is not a thing you can just ignore as the gospel is presented. An apologetic will have to be presented that presents Jesus as a Jewish man, and not a white man, that presents the Christian faith's Middle Eastern roots, and not as a European or an American construct and also presents the global expansiveness of the reach of the gospel to people of all nations, languages and tribes - not just a faith for those of European descent.
One of the ways in which black people have responded has been to establish their own "quasi-Christian" belief systems which are meant to be exclusively for black people. A detachment from orthodox Christianity is seen as freedom from oppressive systems that have been used in the past to disnfranchise Africans. Those that are even closer to orthodoxy in their view of Jesus also often see their African Traditional religions as an equally important way to get to God, so they practice a mix of both Christianity and their ancestral worship.
On Sunday they may go to Church, quote Bible verses but when trouble hits their families they find a way to get to a tradition healer, who will help them connect with their ancestors as a medium and help them get help from "god".
The idea for them here is this: "white Jesus" cannot solve blacks' problems. In fact, "white Jesus" is not only unable to solve the problems, he actually cannot relate to the troubles of blacks because He supported them and perpetuated them. So, they look for other 'black' ways to solve 'black problems'.
It is important to note that you will be hard pressed to find Africans who actually do not believe in "god". They are there - I am sure you know one or two people, but the general vantage point is theistic, but the relationship between deity and the human being is mediated by a "Jesus-figure", and this looks different depending on the problem at hand.
We can pray to the "white Jesus" when we are about to eat, but when our families are faced with constant deaths, we need the "black Jesus" who will help us. We need another power that "gets" these deep spiritual problems.
The African is typically theistic. And is aware of their need for divine help.
In times of war we need somebody raw, rally the troops Like a Saint that we can trust to help to carry us through [Lyrics Black Jesuz, Tupac]
Do We Need a Jesus Who Understands Our Problems?
For many black people, when the Gospels are eventually opened up to see a portrait of the Real Jesus, it is so amazing to them to see how much he cared for people - and his whole life was dedicated to serve them. Jesus cared about people's suffering - especially spiritual suffering. His greatest offer to us is that He can save us from ourselves and be the one through whom we can be reconciled to a Holy God through. Jesus himself grew up under an oppressive Roman regime. His own people were oppressed by the Romans for all His life, and were waiting for a king who will come and save them.
The mission and teaching of Jesus is clearly summarised in Luke 4:18-19. He wants to give sight to the blind, liberty to the captives, and deliverance to the oppressed. If we look at the actions of Jesus throughout the Gospels, He did these things both spiritually and physically. Sometimes Jesus met people’s physical needs before He addressed their spiritual needs, and other times He addressed their spiritual needs first. So yes, Jesus cares for all the problems of all people but especially that they might be reconciled to God.
But does He even understand us?
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
[Lyrics from Black Jesuz, Kastro]
If the general sentiment is that this Jesus, who is viewed as a white people's Jesus really cares for us, cool, but then maybe he actually doesn't get it. He hasn't been to where we are from. He hasn't struggled. He hasn't been tempted. We can clearly see this in Kastro words in the Black Jesuz song.
But the historic Jesus is the only one who went through all the hardships of life that we all go through and prevailed at the end of it all. David Mathis in an article on Desiring God shows how he is just like us in his body, his heart, his will and his life:
He was born (Luke 2:7). He grew (Luke 2:40, 52). He grew tired (John 4:6) and got thirsty (John 19:28) and hungry (Matthew 4:2). He became physically weak (Matthew 4:11; Luke 23:26). He died (Luke 23:46). And he had a real human body after his resurrection (Luke 24:39; John 20:20, 27).
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus clearly displays human emotions. Here it begins to get a little more difficult for us. When Jesus heard the centurion’s words of faith, “he marveled” (Matthew 8:10). He says in Matthew 26:38 that his “soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” In John 11:33–35, Jesus is “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled,” and even weeps. John 12:27 says, “Now is my soul troubled,” and in John 13:21, he is “troubled in his spirit.” The author to the Hebrews writes that “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7).
As John Calvin memorably summed it up, “Christ has put on our feelings along with our flesh.”
Jesus is like us in every respect — human body, heart, mind, and will — except for sin (Hebrews 2:17; 4:15). How amazing that the divine Son of God would not just take on part of our humanity on that first Christmas, but all of it — and then take that true humanity all the way to the cross for us, and now into heaven and the new creation.
Jesus took a human body to save our bodies. And he took a human mind to save our minds. Without becoming man in his emotions, he could not have rescued our hearts. And without taking a human will, he could not save our broken and wandering wills. In the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, “That which he has not assumed he has not healed.”
This Jesus of Nazareth sounds nothing "white" or European to me. He is fully human, and fully man, and He came to the mediator between God and mankind - blacks, whites, mixed, Asian, Indian - all mean! Blessed be His name.
Do We Need A Black Jesus?
Jesus of Nazareth was a Jewish man. He was possibly brown in skin colour. This is the race which God chose to reveal himself through. And you know what? It does not really matter what race he is. What matters is if His claims are true and His power is real.
Look, there has been abuses of the Christian faith that are wicked and evil, and in many cases have been acknowledged to be so. But I want to challenge the black people of this world to actually consider the very claims of the historic Jesus who actually doesn't fit the stereotypes that we have assumed he carries. Yes, we have our own races, cultures and customs - but there is only way to God, and His name is Jesus - He is fully man and fully God - and cares for lost people who have been oppressed by their own sins, the sins of others and the general sinfulness of a post-Genesis 3 world.
Decolonise the Gospel
Cops patrol projects, hatin' the people livin' in them I was born an inmate, waitin' to escape the prison Went to church but don't understand it, they underhanded God gave me these commandments, the world is scandalous
[Lyrics to Black Jesuz, Tupac]
To Christians who are not black who might not understand or relate to this at all, but do ministry among black folk, my encouragement is that you put effort into decolonising the gospel you preach and teach. It might not be natural to you, but black people, and other groups that have been oppressed in the past unfortunately have to wrestle with believing in a Jesus that was misrepresented so that they could be made "meek and humble", and imbibe the stinky slime of oppression.
The truth of the gospel should show the sinfulness of the human heart, and point them to a Saviour, without seeking to erase cultural identity and ethnic norms - especially those that are neutral and non-sinful in the eyes of God. What a beautiful picture of the gospel when Jesus worshippers from across the world sing praises to Him in their vast expressions, languages and this gospel is preached faithfully in their pulpits.
Blessed be the name of the Real Jesus!