Was Jesus black?


One of the (several) highly contentious issues in the Church of England at the moment is the question of racism, its extent in the Church, and appropriate and effective responses to it. It has long been a question of interest to me, since soon after coming to faith I felt that God might be calling me to inner-city, multicultural ministry—a call which has not worked out in the way I expected, but which nevertheless has shaped various decisions over the years. Working in industry prior to ordination, I chose to live in the multi-ethnic town from which the factory drew its workers, and during ordination training, I chose placements in multicultural inner urban contexts. I currently live in a multi-ethnic (and multi-generational) household of nine, and lead a multi-ethnic group in our church.

I have previously written about the theological imperative of ethnic diversity amongst the people of God, and the evidence for the way that worked out in the primitive church. But I am not convinced that the Church of England is tackling this in a helpful way, and it is in danger of allowing ideological approach to ignore the historical reality. So when I heard of the day conference on changing our thinking about race in the Church, organised by the Archbishops’ Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns (CMEAC), in collaboration with the British & Irish Association for Practical Theology (BIAPT), I felt I needed to attend.


My first and overall impression of the conference was (ironically) the lack of diversity. Although the main speakers were ethnically diverse and coming from different places around the world (one big advantage of doing things on Zoom rather than in person), there seemed to me to be a distinct lack of theological and philosophical diversity: all came from a radical/liberation/womanist position, and there were no real disagreements between their perspectives. One of the discussion sessions did involve evangelical and orthodox voices, exploring the role of UKME people in church planting and mission. But there was a notable absence of voices from conservative black-led churches, such as the major Pentecostal perspectives, or from orthodox and evangelical churches who are engaging effectively with questions of race.

This illustrates one of the major fault-lines in the discussion within the Church of England at the moment. A friend of mine who was a member of CMEAC some years ago said that this reflected her own experience; as an orthodox/evangelical on the committee, she felt as though she was a lone voice. If those who are most concerned about seeing questions of race addressed in the Church are speaking in a different register of language, with different theological assumptions, and a different philosophical approach to the issue compared with the majority of the Church, then we are bound to find the conversation frustrating.


Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop of York and a long-standing member of CMEAC, gave a good and engaging opening comment, highlighting the kinds of things I have explored in my previous articles, and landing on Rev 7.9 as a key text.

The first main speaker was Anthony Reddie, who is Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture at Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford, and is a well-known as a speaker and widely published in this area. I don’t think I can summarise his presentation (and the papers are not being made available; I asked) but there were several things from his paper and his answers to questions that stood out.

First, he immediately commented ‘Black Liberation Theology has nothing to do with Marxism or Critical Race Theory’. I can see why he wanted to say this up front, in order to anticipate and address common criticisms that have arisen in response to the prominence of Black Theology in the debates about race. But it was notable that Reddie used the phrases ‘Black Theology’ and ‘Black Liberation Theology’ interchangeably, and he has previously been quite clear that ‘Black Theology’ does not refer to the theology done by black Christians—indeed, that you do not have to be a Christian to engage in Black Theology, and that most people in black-led churches would not espouse Black Theology. Liberation theology, in its origins in Latin America, was strongly shaped by Marxist assumptions and interpretations of society, in two main ways. The first was to see society in binary terms as clearly divided between the ‘oppressors’ and the ‘oppressed’, and the second was to understand this in primarily material terms. These both felt like strong themes in Reddie’s presentation.

It should be noted that, whilst something of a ‘trigger’ term in popular discourse, Marxism as an intellectual position is not that uncommon in the academy. I think my own PhD supervisor, Christopher Rowland, would be happy to be described as having a Marxist outlook, and this led him to both a practical and academic interest in marginal and liberation movements in the history of Christianity. But this outlook tends towards seeing the world in terms of power dynamics, rather than any other kind of meaning. Chris ended up despairing of any possibility of anyone knowing what a text like the Book of Revelation might actual mean, in any objective sense, and so his interest shifted rapidly to the various different ways the text had been used in history, without any particular regard to whether such uses connected well with the text itself.

Critical Race Theory was similarly born out of a frustration that apparently objective discourse (in science, economics, government and theology) was actually no such thing, but a disguised way of exerting power by a dominant group over subordinate groups. One of its main aims, therefore, is both to prioritise the existential experience of the ‘oppressed’, and to engage directly with questions of power deployed in different modes of discourse, rather than engaging with questions of meaning. My first experience of this was listening to a paper about eight years ago at SBL, the global Anglophone conference on biblical studies, on ‘A Critical Race Theory reading of the Book of Revelation’. The presenter (who was white) outlined the existential experience for black people of seeing the words ‘black’ and ‘white’ in texts, and then asserted his claim that Revelation was an oppressive text for black people because of its use of these terms—black as having negative connotations, and white signifying good things in general and the presence of the divine in particular.

The central problem with this approach is that this not actually what the text says! The word ‘black’ (μέλας) only actually occurs twice, in Rev 6.5 describing the third horse, and in Rev 6.12 describing the darkening of the sun. The parallel negative sign of the moon is that it turns ‘blood [red]’, yet no-one suggests that ‘red’ is a universally negative term. The great prostitute in Rev 17.4 is described vividly in the colours of scarlet, purple, and gold, and adorned with jewels and pearls. White is mostly a positive term, describing the hair of the risen Jesus in Rev 1.14 and the raiment of the redeemed repeatedly (Rev 3.5, 3.18, 4.4, 6.11, 7.9 and so on), but it also describes the first horse of Rev 6.2, previously thought by some commentators to be a reference to Jesus, but now almost universally agreed to be one of the four bringers of judgement and disaster, and therefore a negative figure. I asked the person giving the paper, ‘Does it matter that your analysis is not actually supported by the data of the text?’ to which the simple reply was ‘no’.

The issue here is where we locate meaning. For this person, it was the existential experience of responding to the term ‘black’ which mattered. The difficulty is that the terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ did not have these racial and ideological overtones in the ancient world, and they clearly play no part in the text of Revelation when it is read in its social, cultural, historical and canonical context. It is people from ‘every nation, tribe, people and language’ who are dressed in white before the throne!

(Other forms of Critical Theory similarly prioritise the ideas, perception and emotions of the reader, over against what the text might ‘mean’; for a Queer Theory reading of Revelation, see Stephen Moore’s Untold Tales from the Book of Revelation. For Moore, the God of the apocalypse is like a modern bodybuilder in competition, surrounded by studio mirrors so that he might indulge in a narcissistic orgy of erotic dominance over creation. This interpretation does not bear much relation to the text itself but rather expresses Moore’s own projection onto the text.)

So whilst Reddie could rightly claim that his thinking was not derived from Marxism or CRT, his argument appeared to have much in common with them. He repeatedly spoke in binary terms of ‘black’ and ‘white’, and stated explicitly that his concern was to prioritise the ‘existential experience of black people’. This led to two important claims about how we see Jesus, and how we understand the nature of the gospel.


The first claim was that ‘Jesus was a black man’. By this, Reddie was using the term ‘black’ to mean ‘the subject of systematic oppression’. He unambiguously and straightforwardly identified Jesus in his crucifixion with all ‘black’ oppressed, and Roman imperial power (since Jesus was crucified by the Romans not by the Jews) with white supremacy and its exploitation of black people. At one level, this claim is doing not much more than those who ‘inculturate’ their understanding of Jesus in terms of their own cultural context; Justin Welby exemplified this in a Tweet last summer:

The difficulty here—if we do take inculturation seriously—is that it actually encourages white people to portray Jesus as white; as one person commented in response to this tweet:

Let’s not be carried away by this “Jesus-was-not-White” rhetoric. All people, races and nationalities painted Jesus as per their own imagination. So did the Anglo-Saxons. Nothing odd.

But this move has two effects. First, it means that claims and counter-claims about who Jesus is are located in the clashes between cultures, and the power dynamic between them. The second is that it de-historises the Jesus of the gospels, and ends up being implicitly anti-semitic. As Angela Tilby immediately responded: ‘Jesus was Jewish’.

But this also leads to an ambiguity in language. Who counts as ‘black’? I am the son of a migrant who belonged to a despised group who has been systematically oppressed by white British power, and needed both to change her name and disguise her accent in order to prosper in this country immediately after the Second World War. I am half Irish. Does that make me or my mother ‘black’? I asked the question in the seminar:

If ‘whiteness’ is not about white people, and ‘blackness’ is not about black people but about the oppressed, wouldn’t this discussion be helped by coining new terms?

Reddie responded by saying that, yes, there could be some confusion. If black people were systematically oppressing others, then they would indeed be ‘white’. And yet the primary experience of oppression in our context is of black people being oppressed by white people, so this terminology is still legitimate and helpful. But using the terms ‘black’ and ‘white’ at one moment to refer to different ethnic groups, but at another to refer to social power dynamics of oppression is indeed confusing, and it is not surprising that people are now seeing this as ‘racist anti-racism‘.

The identification of the crucified Jesus s ‘black’ is not new, but was first popularised by the late James H Cone in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2011), and Reddie mentioned Cone at several points in his talk. This is a powerful identification, and it is easy to see how important it has become—but I think making this identification in such a strong and uncompromising way leads to a second, related problem.


Additional note: I was challenged on Twitter by Zachary Guiliano for my comment about Cone. He notes that Cone actually argued that ‘Jesus was black’ in his earlier work of 1970 on Black Theology, and that Cone in turn notes that it was coined earlier by others. Zachary helpfully shared shots of a couple of pages of the 1970 book, and I share the texts here:

The definition of Jesus as black is crucial for christology if we believe in his continued presence today. Taking our clue from the historical Jesus who is pictured in the New Testament as the Oppressed One, what else, except blackness, could adequately tell us the meaning of his presence today? Any statement about Jesus today that fails to consider blackness as the decisive factor about this is a denial of the New Testament message. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus reveal that he is the man for others, disclosing to them what is necessary for their liberation from oppression. If this is true, then Jesus Christ must be black so that blacks can know that their liberation is his liberation.

The black Jesus is also an important theological symbol for an analysis of Christ’s presence today because we must make decisions about where he is at work in the world. Is his presence synonymous with the work of the oppressed or the oppressors, blacks or whites? Is he to be found among the wretched or among the rich?

Of course clever white theologians would say that it is not either/or. Rather he is to be found somewhere in between, a little black and a little white. Such an analysis is not only irrelevant for our times but also irrelevant for the time of the historical Jesus. Jesus was not for and against the poor, for and against the rich. He was for the poor and against the rich, for the weak and against the strong. Who can read the New Testament and fail to see that Jesus took sides and accepted freely the possibility of being misunderstood?

There are several things to note here. First, that Cone works with the absolute binary of black and white. Second, these categories of race have little or no basis in biology, but clumps together a variety of issues around culture, country, language and skin colour, and the modern emergence of the term was rooted in classifications from the colonial era in the 18th century. The language of ‘race’ is, ironically, rather racist! Thirdly, this does not prevent Cone from imposing his ideological construction of race on the New Testament and the picture of Jesus we find in the gospels. And fourthly, this leads him to a skewed reading of the texts themselves. Jesus was ‘for’ the poor, but (perhaps uncomfortably) he came to the ‘marginalised’ to call them to repentance, as a doctor comes to ministry to the sick, and he was also ‘for’ the rich and respectable; indeed, he was not particularly poor (in socio-economic terms) himself. It is rather sad that anyone offering a critique of Cone’s reading is quickly dismissed as a ‘clever white theologian’.

Cone is clearly aware of the need to relate the claims of Black Theology to the New Testament, but I don’t think he actually succeeds.

What evidence is there that Jesus’ identification with the oppressed is the distinctive historical kernel in the gospels? How do we know that black theology is not forcing an alien contemporary black situation on the biblical sources? These questions are important, and cannot be waved aside by black theologians. Unless we can clearly articulate an image of Jesus that is consistent with the essence of the biblical message and at the same time relate it to the struggle for black liberation, black theology loses its reason for being. It is thus incumbent upon us to demonstrate the relationship between the historical Jesus and the oppressed, showing that the equation of the contemporary Christ with black power arises out of a serious encounter with the biblical revelation.

Black theology must show that the Reverend Albert Cleage’s description of Jesus as the Black Messiah is not the product of a mind “distorted” by its own oppressed condition, but is rather the most meaningful christological statement in our time. Any other Statement about Jesus Christ is at best irrelevant and at worst blasphemous.

1. Birth. The appearance of Jesus as the Oppressed One whose existence is identified exclusively with the oppressed of the land is symbolically characterized in his birth. He was born in a stable and cradled in a manger (the equivalent of a beer case in a ghetto alley), “because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). Although most biblical scholars rightly question the historical validity of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, the mythic value of these stories is important theologically. They undoubtedly reflect the early Christian community’s historical knowledge of Jesus as a man who defined the meaning of his existence as being one with the poor…

Again, notice the anathematising of all alternative views. And again, there is a systematic misreading of the text in order to fit with the narrative. Jesus wasn’t born ‘in the ghetto‘ and his birth was not in particularly poor circumstances. In context, Cone’s ambition is clearly to reclaim Jesus as the messiah for oppressed black people who feel as though Jesus has been made ‘white’; but in doing so he seems to make absolute claims which appropriate Jesus for a particular cause, instead of correcting previous bias by reading the text better—and recognising that none of us ‘owns’ Jesus for our own agenda.


On the question of Roman imperial power and Jesus as oppressed, I asked the question:

If Roman occupying powers are to be identified with white colonial Christianity, how do we account for the rise of affirmative comments about the Empire in eg Romans 13, and how do we read these positive comments alongside more negative ones?

Reddie’s answer was that Paul was just offering a compromise here, encouraging Christian to accommodate themselves to an evil regime about which they could do little. The question of accommodation is not unimportant, but both Paul in Romans 13 and Peter in 1 Peter 2 offer a much stronger theology of the state than this will allow. We must, of course, read Romans 13 alongside Rev 13, but even doing this does not allow us to interpret the Jesus of the gospels as primarily concerned with the overthrow of an oppressive regime. I asked Reddie this question on Twitter, since it was not picked up in the session:

But his answer didn’t really address my question: he simply replied that

the historical Jesus was as much against Jewish hypocrisy as he was Roman occupation. So Black Theology is opposed to unjust systems not people. It’s not unconditionally pro-Black if that is oppressive in practice.

This is still answering the question is quite humanist, material terms: the problem that Jesus came to save us from is not sin and its offence against God but social and material oppression and our offence against our fellow humans. Reddie quoted (as many liberation theologians do) Jesus’ ‘Nazareth manifesto‘ when he quotes from Isaiah 61 in Luke 4. But he completely detached that from its wider context, and also the Benedictus in Luke 1, where the hope for the Messiah is not just liberation from oppression, but also the right worship of God.

This approach fails to make sense of the historical fact that there were plenty of Jewish liberation movements in the first century (often in conflict with one another), but Jesus appears to have rejected them all. This is hardly a marginal question in our reading of the gospels: it is issue behind the repeated question to Jesus ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect another?’ (Matt 11.3, Luke 7.19). The only plausible explanation for this is that Jesus did not do what the Jews hoped for! One of the major questions about the early Jesus movement is: why didn’t more Jews recognise Jesus as the promised messiah? And a central part of the answer to that is: Jesus did not throw off Roman power and liberate his fellows Jews from social and political oppression—at least, not directly.

There is a serious danger that this historical reality can lead to a ‘spiritualising’ of the gospel, and a failure of the church and the followers of Jesus to take seriously the political consequences of the gospel. But it cannot be the right answer to push the pendulum back in the opposite direction and claim that political and social liberation is the gospel. It might be an essential consequence of the gospel, but to claim that it is the gospel can only be done by ignoring what the New Testament repeatedly says.

If the human problem is primarily about social relationships, and not about offence against God, then that is going to have serious implications for what we think about the meaning of the atonement. Is Jesus’ death exemplary, demonstrating his solidarity with the oppressed, or does it actually effect anything? I think Reddie would likely answer the former, whilst orthodox Christian theology has majored on the latter. I asked him about this in the Twitter conversation, but at that point he stopped replying.


One final thing that was notable in the whole seminar was a complete absence of any mention of Jesus’ resurrection. This omission takes us a long way from the proclamation of the good news that we find, for example, in Acts, where the message appears to be ‘Jesus was God’s anointed Messiah; you have rejected him; but God raised him from the dead and he ascended to God’s right hand; one day he will come as judge; therefore repent and be saved’.

More broadly, this day conference was billed as a joint seminar offered by BIAPT and a Church of England committee. At a purely academic conference, you would expect to come across a wide range of views, some of which might be consonant with a confessional, orthodox Christian position, and others not. But at a church conference, you might expect to be able to raise the question ‘How do these approaches relate to historic Christian understandings of Jesus, the gospel, and atonement?’

Without asking such questions, it is no wonder that there continues to be a serious divide between the views expressed at the event, and the outlook of the wider Church.


The image above is part of A Last Supper by Lorna May Wadsworth, which casts Jamaican-born model Tafari Hinds as the son of God. It was installed in St Alban’s Cathedral in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.


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69 thoughts on “Was Jesus black?”

      • Yes, he was religious a Jew, and lived in the region which has often been called Palestine, following the name of the broader areas as Syria Palestrina by the Romans. (The second half here always needs careful qualification…!)

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        • Would it be too much to ask that Christians call it what the New Testament calls it, i.e. Israel?

          ‘Palestine’ derives ultimately from ‘Philistine’.

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          • …which is why I said ‘needs careful qualification’. The issue with using the term ‘Israel’ in relation to questions of ethnicity and culture is that there does not appear to have been any hard and fast demarcation, in relation to many issues of culture, between ‘Israel’ and ‘non-Israel’ in the region.

        • Indeed and I am surprised by the ignorance of Christians in the matter. I was not able to read the article to the end. It is too much. Through the Church history people imagined Jesus in different ways, enough to look at peintings, but this is too much. It is going to absurdity and I do not go for it.

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      • I imagine Jesus had a haircut and close beard trim for the last time just before his invite to the wedding at Cana. Thereafter he was always too busy, so that by the time he invited the disciples to his last supper his hair had gone all Nazarene. Ie. dreadlocky!

        Reply
  1. I enjoyed reading this article and your careful analys6of the current confusion in many areas of debate not just in theological debat6of confusing the specific experiences of black born people with oppressed people both in history and in different countries and contexts today. I have read your article carefully but am still confused by the term ‘womanist’. I have not come across it before and couldn’t understand how it related to your critique. Could you explain what this term means please.

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  2. Very interesting – I’ve not seen this dual meaning of terms (“black” / “white” meaning “oppressed” / “oppressor” as well as being mere descriptions of skin colour) explained this clearly before.
    And as a Swede, born two years before the WCC meeting in Uppsala where (as far as I understand) the good news was assumed to be all about political liberation, I acutely aware of the perennial tension between individual sin and the call to repentance on one side, and the social conscience that aims to always oppose systemic, societal sin on the other…

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  3. On a tangential topic why do most images of Jesus depict him with long hair while his disciples normally have short hair?

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  4. One of the things that most confuses me about (my admittedly limited understanding of…) ‘Black Theology’ is that it seems often to embody a strange, to me at least, christian utopianism; one that sees the complete destruction/abolition of the oppressive power structures as something that can be accomplished on earth if we only did x/y/z….

    I suspect that this is largely a justified response to the reverse; a tendency to apathy and sluggishness of the church to come to terms with their complicity in the power imbalance, and an ‘oh well, Jesus will fix it eventually’ outlook. And that’s putting it mildly.

    I’d just love a little more realism. I don’t want pie-in-the-sky theology that fails to come to terms with and work towards justice, forgiveness and reconciliation, but neither do I want the secular-humanist’s gospel; that everything is possible if only we’d just work together…

    Mat

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    • Or it’s most popular form, as we saw in the 20th centaury – everything is possible, if only we just get rid of ‘them’.

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    • I agree. I think I expressed it as a ‘humanistic’ approach to the kingdom. It is all about the horizontal dimension, and hardly at all about the vertical.

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    • Mat,

      You wrote: “I don’t want pie-in-the-sky theology that fails to come to terms with and work towards justice, but neither do I want the secular-humanist’s gospel; that everything is possible if only we’d just work together”.

      I couldn’t agree more. It’s a pity that reactionary alarmists are so suspicious of “work towards justice” until it relates to hot-button issues for them, such as religious exemptions from equality legislation, abortion and euthanasia.

      Reply
  5. Thanks for this, Ian. Very good. Very helpful.

    I wondered about this, though—or wondered on from this: “The only plausible explanation for this is that Jesus did not do what the Jews hoped for!”

    If what they hoped for was throwing off the Roman oppressor, then, no, Jesus does not look that far ahead—in fact, he expects the oppressor to do a lot more oppressing. But if what they hoped for was eventual Jewish rule over the nations of the currently ruled by Rome, which is indeed at the heart of much Jewish apocalyptic and sectarian thought at the time, then this certainly became the proclamation and “hope” of the apostles (Rom. 15:12). The question then was about the means rather than the end.

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  6. A sane and beautifully expressed presentation of an insane debate. The debate itself sounds like a theological version of the Mad Hatter’s tea-party, or Animal Farm. The pseudo-intellectual push to externalise the source of evil is essentially the spirit of heresy. To call it out as such would be the unmannerly end of dialogue, but then where is the dialogue going? The debate gives respectability to ideas that are fundamentally hostile to Christianity. There continues to be a serious divide between the views expressed at the event, and the outlook of the wider Church is a very gracious way of summing things up.

    It is people from ‘every nation, tribe, people and language’ who are dressed in white before the throne! Yes, they are all white, and they’ve all lost their ‘diversity’. Though there are many references to tribes and nations, Scripture does not anywhere refer to the colour of a person’s skin, so far as I can recall (in contrast to the skin colour of horses). It is not interested in these differences.

    The whole issue would evaporate if all concerned agreed that we human beings all descend from one man, the racially nondescript Adam, and in Christ we are all again united in one man. Our identity lies in Christ, not in our own ‘whiteness’ or blackness or Irishness. Those who accept Jesus’s atonement are a new creation, and at the resurrection they will have new bodies, clothed in the colour of purity. European skin colours are not white, they are pinkish, buff or brown, depending on pigmentation and degree of exposure to the sun.

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    • Thanks–though I don’t agree that in Revelation people have lost their diversity. The seven repetitions of the four-fold diversity of the people of God, all dressed in white, says to me that they have a unity *alongside* their diversity.

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      • The fourfold diversity of mankind (peoples, nations, tongues, tribes) is repeated seven times, but mankind is not the people of God – their diversity is not repeated seven times. What *is* stressed is that, the other side of death, they are all uniformly white (Rev 3:4, 3:5, 3:18, 4:4, 6:11, 7:13, 7:14). I suppose we shall not know for certain until we join them whether we shall still be speaking different languages and have different skin colours, but I suspect not.

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        • Every part of the diversity of humanity is represented amongst the redeemed. I have no idea where you get the idea of ‘uniformity’ from. The only ‘uniform’ they wear is that of redemption. But they still all speak different languages—just as they did at Pentecost.

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          • You are determined to differ, but all I said was that they are uniformly white, which is merely stating what the seven scriptures say. You seem to be reading these as descriptions of the present state of the redeemed, whereas most if not all of them are referring to their state the other side of death.

        • A renewed earth is the final abode, joined with heaven in some wonderful way, so I suspect the differences between peoples we see now will continue. But those differences showing the creativity of the Creator will bring joy, as it should now.

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  7. I’m not supporting Reddie’s thesis, but I do think you’ve not addressed the rhetorical significance of such a controversial statement.

    For example, if, in support of missions for multiply deprived neighbourhoods, I declared: “Jesus was poor”, I could cite 2 Cor. 8:9 in support of it: ” for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

    I might also mention James 1:10, which states: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?”

    Furthermore, James also states: “The brother in humble circumstances should exult in his high position. But the one who is rich should exult in his low position, because he will pass away like a flower of the field.”

    Of course, some might contend that, as a skilled craftsman, Jesus was hardly poor, and that, even towards the end of His earthly ministry, the apostles admitted that they had lacked nothing.

    Here, the dichotomy between rich and poor is rhetorical. It presents the justice of world to come as a stark reversal of the injustice and evil of the world today.

    If anything, it is despotic evil (whether Roman imperialism, Nazism, apartheid, or tacit racial solidarity) that imposes and enforces this dichotomy, such that its beneficiaries and those who connive at it are promoted and rewarded, while any uncompromising adversaries are forcibly dispossessed.

    So, when Jesus states: “But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full” (Luke 6:28), it’s not a broad-brush denunciation of all successful commercial enterprise. Jesus isn’t declaring the doom of Joseph of Arimathea, or Lydia, or Cornelius.

    Instead, the previous verses (Luke 6:26,27) provide a context of overt persecution via ‘police powers’. In that context, the ability to thrive and flourish materially would connote compromise with despotic evil. And it’s upon this compromise that Jesus pronounces a woeful end.

    No, ‘Jesus is black’ is not literal, it’s no less a rhetorical expression than ‘Jesus is poor’.

    To my mind, **despite my grave rejection of the underpinning thesis behind black theology**, I do appreciate the rhetorical identification intended by the statement.

    Is it literally true? No. Is it rhetorically expressed and affectively intended? Yes.

    Even if it’s theologically erroneous, it’s important to engage with the language as it’s intended.

    Reply
    • I understand this concern—but to say to a person who is poor ‘Jesus was poor just like you’, and to a person in the ghetto ‘Jesus was born in a ghetto, just like you’ plays a rhetorical card at the expense of truth. As I say elsewhere, Jesus ‘became poor’ by becoming human in 2 Cor 8.9, not by becoming society-economically poor.

      And I have been struck by the fact that, for rhetorical purposes, James Cone claims that the idea that ‘Jesus is Black’ is made in a quite totalitarian way. Despite the fact that is actually leads him to distorting and misreading scripture, to question this is to be a ‘clever white theologian’.

      Reddie’s claim that Jesus was the liberator of Israel against the ‘white supremacy’ of Roman rule flies in the face of major elements of both the gospel narratives and Paul’s letters.

      Reply
      • While I agree that Jesus became poor by becoming human, Luke’s narrative still states: “Blessed are the poor”.

        Even the Magnificat rejoices in the Lord that “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”

        However intent we are on distinguishing this as an indictment on the worldly exercise of power and the love of wealth, rather than wealth per se (based on 1 Tim. 6:10), what is inescapably in view is the propensity for self-deception and distorted values among the wealthy (cf. Mark 4:19; Mark 10:23)

        In a world that “lies in wickedness” (1 John 5:19), there is excessive deference towards those who possess wealth and blatant contempt for those who don’t (James 2:6 – 9)

        As Paul reflected on the composition of the first century church, he wrote: “ Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.” (1 Cor. 1:26)

        So, i wouldn’t apply a “just like you” suffix to declare that: “Jesus was poor”. However, I would emphasise the incarnate reality of Christ’s exemplary humility.

        This clearly inspired apostolic ministry (“remember the poor” – Gal. 2:10) and teaching: “Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited” (Rom. 12:16)

        I appreciate the concerns you’ve expressed in your reply about “Jesus was black” as a rhetorical expression.

        However, my point is that the OP would have benefited from directly addressing the rhetorical and affective intent behind such a controversial statement, rather than trying to de-bunk it literally.

        Reply
        • I am not sure I have anywhere tried to debunk it literally in this post. I am addressing the ideological claim that ‘Jesus is The Oppressed One’ ie was for the social and political liberation of Israel from the ‘white’ tyranny of Rome. The gospels and rest of the NT simply do not support this idea.

          Reply
          • I appreciate the thrust of your argument and I’m not disagreeing with its overall reasoning.

            However, to explain my comment, I refer to the question that posed to Reddie: “If ‘whiteness’ is not about white people, and ‘blackness’ is not about black people but about the oppressed, wouldn’t this discussion be helped by coining new terms?”

            That question appear to suggest (and feel free to correct me on this) that, if ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ are not literal categories, but rhetorical, then they are unhelpful and inappropriate.

            Again, I stress that I’m not supporting Reddie’s thesis. However, a sceptic might pose a similar question about the gospels, asking: “If ‘rich’ is not about rich people, and ‘poor’ is not about poor people…wouldn’t the gospel have been helped by coining new terms?”

            That’s what I meant by de-bunking literally.

  8. David,
    Jesus became poor, giving up the riches, palace as it were, of heaven, and came to enemy occupied territory.
    Poor is what believers are! (Beatitudes). We give up our strength, riches, for dependence on God and a union and identity in Christ, adopted.
    To me the whole debate is deeply, intellectually, ignorant not only of the reality of the life-changing, transforming, Good News, gospel, but also the experiential aspect of being born again/ from above.
    And sure, this does not in any way negate, social (in)justice. But even here we delve into, whose justice, (of intellectuals, capitalism, communism, democracy, theocracy? )
    jurisprudence) and the root of Christian ethics and justice.
    The greatest liberation, as St Paul found in prison, was not from the opening doors, but from the shackles of sin (Romans).
    Wesley, C, captured the joyful experiential essence, aspect of liberation from sin in his, And can it be; My chains fell off, my heart was free …
    What I find concerning is when language is mangles, manipulated and purloined in the name of the intellectual academy to put forward a conformist view, set up as described by Ian with an undiscussed, unevidenced, assertion, of what the topic is not, along with an assumption that there would be a common understanding.
    The format seems to have fallen into the category of oppression or suppression, stifling of dissenting views.
    What is concerning is the divisiveness the whole debate engenders, dividing crudely into good guys (oppressed), bad guys (oppressors), stimulating a need for self -justification, a need to ggive reasons for your own existence, such as Ian giving a brief history of his family and working life. What happend to innocent, till proved guilty?
    It is further concerning that the papers are not available for scrutinity and that Ian’s follow – up questions went unanswered or were curtailed.
    Open disscussion it is not.

    Reply
    • …dividing crudely into good guys (oppressed), bad guys (oppressors)…
      This brings to mind the exchanges between Bartimaeus (Honourable Son) and, immediately afterwards, Zacchaeus (Pure).
      First was dishonoured, poor and presumably oppressed, the other was an oppressor. Jesus bought salvation to both.

      Reply
    • Hi Geoff,

      Ian’s brief history of his family and working life speaks to the ethos of his argument. We all use this aspect of rhetoric to add persuasiveness to our arguments. So, I don’t consider it to be evidence of an end to the presumption of innocence.

      While there is danger in encouraging a villain/victim dichotomy that neglects the importance of spiritual regeneration (as Reddie does), there is just as much danger in the connivance and collective inertia that avoids addressing the immediate incarnational impact of sin.

      All public issues suffer from the over-simplified dichotomy that you describe. Ardent Pro-Life campaigners are readily (to paraphrase you) “dividing crudely into good guys (Pro-Life), bad guys (Pro-Choice), stimulating a need for self -justification.

      And, as long as they’re the “good guys”, most UK evangelicals are happy. Some will even declare pursuit of the ‘greater good’ as a rationale for uncharitably caricaturing their opponents.

      Of course, when they cast as the ‘bad guys’ in debates about racism, they change their tune and cry ‘foul’.

      There’s surely a lesson to be learnt from that.

      Reply
      • Hello David,
        The example of Ian’s history wasn’t put forward as a point in relating to burden of proof, but followed the point I made
        relating to stimulating a reason for existing, for who we are!
        So far as the the good/ bad guy is concerned, we all are both, sinners, none superior to the other. Jesus after all came to save sinners of all stripes, not the righteous in their own eyes.
        Both the legalist and antinomian have the same root, a root in the unbelief in the Goodness if God – see Sinclair Ferguson’s, The Whole Christ.
        Simul Justus et Pecator is an adage we all disregard and a phrase I heard growing up is there but for the grace of God, go I. I hear it no longer. We just don’t accept that there is no heirachy of sin in a fallen world. And that offends deeply us. We care not that it offends and is opposed to God and his ways. Nor that we really know how much it cost God to reconcile us his enemies to him.
        There are seriously oppressed people who are deeply and offensively sinful with hard hearted bitterness and unforgiveness. And of course there is a multiplicity of mini Pharaohs, again of all social, cultural, political, class, sex, gender, national stripes.

        Reply
      • Well, life and death is as ultimate and clear-cut an issue as one can get.

        Sometimes people think it is unscholarly to classify *anything* as clear-cut. It would be far more unscholarly to propose dogmatically that *nothing* can possibly be clear-cut. The presupposition is that there will be a sliding scale. Murder and taking other people’s lives (especially the lives of relatives) will always be at one end of that sliding scale.

        Reply
        • If youre referring to abortion, I dont think it’s as clear cut as you suggest, otherwise everyone would conclude that abortion is murder. Im not convinced of that at all, and I suspect a considerable number of Christians would agree.

          Peter

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          • It is not murder as defined by law in England and Wales, but it is without doubt a taking of human life not an embryonic frog but the endryomic image of God!

            And as far as Christianity is concerned there is a distinction here between criminal law (an act against the state) and morals (more heinous, God’s laws). And as such it can not be reduced to mere free will choice, bodily autonomy, to trash human life, putting own interests before interest of others, including the unborn.

            But again I emphasise we do not accept how repellant, odious, all sin is to God; lies and deception, gossip and on and on. Fallen human nature follows in the line of Adam choosing to live off the fruit of the wrong tree.

          • Hey PC1

            There is no way that this can be addressed by looking at people’s ‘conclusions’ rather than at their arguments. After all, (a) the conclusions may have never considered any arguments, (b) conclusions by their nature postdate arguments, (c) conclusions bear no weight apart from the weight of the arguments.

            (1) A human
            (2) is killed
            (3) premeditatedly,
            (4) deliberately
            Now draw a Venn diagram comparing that to murder and see where the lack of overlap is, if any.
            The only differences from other sorts of murder (size, visibility, degree of abilities, degree of consciousness) do not confer any moral difference, and moreover also figure among born people.

            As for agreeing, a proportion of people will always ‘agree’ with anything that is normal in their own culture (however good or bad that thing may be) – surely that is unarguable.

            Murder is a legal term, and we have often noted how law tries to make a parallel universe, sometimes in defiance of scientific reality.

            The way our own law privileges implantation (a mere change of position) over conception is an example of this. (I won’t mention the entirely unscientific 24 week thing.) Laws can form as a result of the conditions people already wanted for lifestyle reasons.

  9. https://i.pinimg.com/originals/c2/89/f7/c289f7e86ed4767f00123d9a955a6245.jpg
    This is a link to Jesus as a Maori (I’m from New Zealand).

    And this is the the window from an Anglican church in Rotorua, NZ, showing Jesus as a Moari in chieftains cloak. http://www.davidwallphoto.com/gallery/NewZealand/Rotorua_Bay_of_Plenty/NRot286R.jpg

    I put these here to illustrate that you rightly point to as to how monocultural ideologies tend to be. I come from NZ and worked in south Asia with people from a Muslim background who now follow Jesus. The lessons and outlooks from those parts of the body are not reflected, or even known, in the ideologies talked about here.

    Michael Gorman points out that the Gospel is irreduceably mutlicultural. We need to bring multiple voices to these conversations and not be silos that act as echo chambers for one approach.

    Reply
  10. Much I could say on this, but I’m not sure where to start, given that I am currently about 40k words into what is turning into a book length an examination of Cone, BLT, Reddie, and BLT/CRT’s rewriting of British 18th and 19th Century history. So I think I will restrict myself to responding to Anthony Reddie’s insistence that BLT has “nothing to do with Marxism or Critical Race Theory”.

    This is not the case – it has everything to do with them and there is ample evidence from the actions and statements of British BLT’s leading proponents, of whom Reddie is one, to confirm that.

    Robert Beckford, the UK’s other leading Black liberation theologian alongside Reddie (he and Reddie lead two different BLT university departments – one in Birmingham, the other in Oxford), said the following in an interview in 2010:

    “Mainstream theology [is] resistant … to racial justice. Theology is the last bastion of white supremacy in Britain. Most disciplines have woken up to the need to engage with **critical theory**. They’ve engaged with diversity at the core, thinking more critically and constructively about how they shape things. The sociology students here at Goldsmith’s take courses in “critical whiteness”. In theology circles they’d think you were dealing with the tablecloths they have at different times of the year!”

    CRT is a subset of Critical Theory which, via the Frankfurt School and postmodernism, is a direct philosophical descendant from Marxism.

    ‘Critical whiteness’ is in turn a subset of CRT. Reddie hosted a conference entitled ‘Dismantling Whiteness: Critical White Theology’ in April this year. ‘Critical white theology’. is the application of Critical Race Theory to theology.

    As an aside on the word ‘critical’. ‘Critical’ in the context of Critical theory, critical race theory, etc, has a very specific meaning. To be ‘critical’ in the sense in which it is used there is , in the words of academic James Lindsay:

    “to be aware of and resist (systemic) power and disrupt established systems and ways of thinking. his is understood as a form of activism to end systemic oppression by criticizing all systems and undermining them (see also, subvert, deconstruct, disrupt, **dismantle**, and revolution). It is not the same “critical” as we encounter in “critical thinking” and, in fact, means something more specific.”

    I highlight ‘dismantle’ because Reddie is using Critical Theory terms even in the title of his ‘Dismantling Whiteness: Critical White Theology’. Any denial of a connection between his conference and CRT would only be tenable if he was blithely ignorant of this major philosophical stream within academia – inconceivable for a Professor at an Oxford college.

    And on Marx and BLT, James Cone, the founding father of Black liberation theology, who Reddie cites as his major influence, also acknowledged his debt to Marx:

    “I think that blacks can overcome the problem of Marxism being white and racist the same way we overcame the problem of Christianity being white and racist. We can indigenize Marxism, that is, reinterpret it for our situation. We do not refuse to ride in cars or airplanes, nor do we reject any other useful instrument just because they were invented by whites. Why then should we reject Marxism if it proves to be of use in our struggle for freedom? …. Perhaps what we need today is to return to that “good old-time religion” of our grandparents and combine with it a Marxist critique of society. Together **black religion and Marxist philosophy may show us the way to build a completely new society.**”

    Cone made little mention of Marx in his first books but later confessed this as an oversight which he regretted and thereafter took the view expressed in the quite above.

    There are other examples I could quote but these broadly outline my case. I expanded on the connection between the BLT and CRT in an article I wrote in UnHerd a few months back.

    Reply
  11. Black people do not have a monopoly on being oppressed and white people do not have a monopoly on being oppressors. This terminology is insidious, inaccurate, and a confusing hindrance to the gospel in some parts of the world where people who are neither black or white in skin tone have fought each other for centuries.

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  12. I would take issue with the false notion that Liberation Theology embraces Marxism wholesale.

    Frederick Herzog described the relationship between liberation theology and Marxism in this way: “what we need to see is the mirror the revolutions are holding up to the church. In almost every instance, the church had been on the side of the mighty not the poor. We cannot make Marx responsible for all the abuses of his theories. We would not want to make Jesus responsible for the Crusades or the Inquisition and all the dehumanisation church history has brought. So there’s just one point we want to let Marxism etch into our minds: in spite of all the drawbacks of Marxist theory we might discover, the fact that poverty is a political not a natural phenomenon that cannot be circumvented.”

    Furthermore, Herzog wrote: “The point is that those who read the bible ought to have been able to see what Marx saw so well-that the poor and oppressed have a claim on justice. The Marxist revolution holds up a mirror to the church…This does not mean we should fuse the justice of the God of the bible with modern revolution, which usually results in a Christian ideology for revolutions-no theological gain at all. Rather, Christianity needs to own up to its very own revolutionary dynamic. Where divine justice is not embodied by the church, people outside the church take matters into their own hands. This is the story of Karl Marx.”

    To the extent that liberation theology rejects the notion of divine justice as an alternative rationale for Marxist revolution, Black theology does not seek to provide a ‘Christian’ ideology or rationale for a Marxist revolution.

    Instead, BLT holds that segregationist policies and behaviour (Jim Crow. apartheid, discrimination) impose the oppressor-oppressed dichotomy that bestow validity on Marx’s analysis.

    Marx’s error was his over-simplified notion of economic determinism. (1) that economic relationships are the invariable basis of all other societal and political institutions and (2) that a person’s intrinsic tendencies, interests and basis for collective action are invariably predicated upon their economic identity.

    Cultural Marxism commits the same error by extending this determinism to social identity. (i.e. race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, etc.).

    If economic determinism were true, then Oliver Cromwell would not have deserted his revolutionary ideals, to install himself as Lord Protector with a salary of £100,000. Yes, he turned down the crown, but he still succumbed to the temptation of dynasty, nominating his son, Richard, as his successor.

    If economic determinism were true, then Robespierre would not have flattered his ego at the ‘Festival of the Supreme Being’ by leading the procession in full regalia up the man-made mountain at Champs de Mars and descending in Moses-like fashion.

    If economic determinism were true, then the cult of personality would not be endemic to all Marxist revolutions.

    In his lecture on Christian faith and political praxis, James Cone insisted that: “anyone who would be a Christian by taking their stand with the victims must connect their obedience with praxis.”

    While that lecture is vague in defining exactly what political praxis entails , it does point to Marxist praxis by stating:
    “From the very beginning, black theology was interpreted as the theological arm of black power, with the responsibility to define the religious meaning of our prior political commitment to black liberation. The initial move in this direction was the publication of the “Black Power Statement,” July 1966, in which an ad hoc ecumenical group of black church people defended the right of black people to empower themselves against the encroachment of white racism.”

    “Following the “Black Power Statement,” many black church people began to move away from Martin King’s rigid commitment to nonviolence; and to express their solidarity with James Forman’s Marxist and revolutionary black manifesto: “Although we respected the integrity of Martin King’s commitment to the struggle for justice, we nonetheless felt that his nonviolent method for radical change in society structures was not radical enough, and also, too dependent upon the possibility of change in the hearts of white oppressors.”

    In the Black Manifesto, Forman’s rationale for resorting to violent revolution is overt: “Hence if churches in colonial territories were established by military might, we know deep within our hearts that we must be prepared to use force to get our demands.”

    Dr. Reddie needs to explain why his own understanding of BLT differs from this.

    Reply
    • the fact that poverty is a political not a natural phenomenon that cannot be circumvented.

      That’s not true though, is it? Or at least the first half isn’t. Poverty is a natural condition — indeed in a fallen world poverty is the natural condition of all mankind. It’s wealth that’s unnatural, wealth that requires effort and ingenuity to create. Left to nature, we would all be hunter-gatherers scrabbling in poverty just to survive. It’s only entirely unnatural inventions like agriculture and division of labour and markets that enable people not to be poor.

      Reply
      • Perhap Herzog should have written “poverty can be political”.

        It is political for race, instead of ability, to be the legal basis for one nation to establish a policy of enslavement and segregation. That can and has impoverished those who are thus subjugated.

        Reply
        • Consideration of climate and geography, particulary temperate climates in the Western world is a significant factor in its economic, social, educational, economic, intellectual, creative. entrepreneurial, historical, development.
          Jarard Diamond’s, Guns, Germs and Steel, is on point.
          The spread of Christianity is another, see Tom Holland’s, Dominion.

          Reply
        • Perhap Herzog should have written “poverty can be political”.

          Oh it absolutely can be. The abject poverty that is inevitable in any Communist country, as a direct result of adopting Marxist policies, is very definitely political.

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    • Herzog is right but why do people emphasise Marx when plenty of others before him have argued for the poor? John Wesley, for instance. Or John Ball.

      Reply
  13. Where do we get the idea that the Roman Empire was a ‘white’ oppressor? (The Emperor Septimus Severus hailed from North Africa, and the legions were composed of many different ethnicities.) Perhaps its a reaction to popular representations of Rome in Western art, films … and illustrated Bibles?

    Reply
    • No, simply because to oppress is to be ‘white’, and to be oppressed is to be ‘black’.

      The Roman world viewed ethnicity in quite a different way from us, and any modern classifications of race are bound to be anachronous.

      Reply

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