The Perkins Perspective | Glo(cal) | Autumn 2012
By Owen Sallee, Coordinator for Global and Urban Involvement
Jesus wasn’t, and isn’t, white. That’s not a new concept, but it’s one that warrants consideration. It’s relative common sense to understand that a child born in Bethlehem to parents hailing from Bethlehem and Nazareth probably won’t bear my European-American features and skin tone. However, the idea that Jesus looks like us, or more subtly and importantly, that Jesus thinks like we do, likes what we like, and offers wholesale approval of our choices has had a significant impact on Christian witness and mission.
In Transforming Mission: Paradign Shifts in Theology of Mission, David J. Bosch pointed out the negative implications of exporting Christianity and European-American cultural values as a tool for domination.
Today, this history of colonial missions haunts many of the students with whom I work. “How can I talk to them about my faith without imposing?” students ask. “Can I help in ways that don’t assume that my American values are the best?”
These concerns highlight the need to remember that our understanding of Jesus and our perspectives on what’s best are limited by our own experience. By listening to others, valuing the views of those unlike myself and seeking to understand before being understood, I’m better equipped to remember that Jesus Is the Answer, but he’s asking bigger questions than I alone can comprehend.
I’m not convinced that Jesus’ ethnicity is the most important aspect of his character. As the God of the Universe, Jesus is the author of cultural diversity and is glorified and given witness in many diverse cultural expressions. Knowing that he doesn’t share my physical appearance doesn’t lessen the fact that he’s the one about whom the Psalmist writes:
… you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,
your eyes saw my unformed body. (Psalm 139:13-16)
And certainly the incarnation points to Jesus’ ability to understand the human experience. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are — yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). By forming my being and experiencing life in ways that are relevant to mine Jesus proves his authority to speak into my life, regardless of what hair products he’d use.
John Perkins’ story of faith speaks to a similar discovery. Jesus’ relevance to Perkins’ life came through the transformation of his son’s character, despite racially bound examples that had previously kept Perkins distant from Christianity:
“I was convinced that the Church – really the black church, since that was the only one I knew anything about – was just one more kind of exploitation. I had seen Southern brutality, and the church had kept silent about it.”
Obviously, if I had no use for the black church, I could hardly even imagine something called a ‘white Christian.’ It was totally impossible for me to imagine that the white church, the private club of the oppressors, had anything to do with reality and justice” (Let Justice Roll Down, pg. 65-66).
Despite his racially framed perspective on Jesus and the church, Perkins was later brought to faith through the witness and persistence of his son, Spencer: “… his life had become so radiant I wanted to go and find out what they were teaching him down there. I found they were teaching the Bible” (pg. 68). Jesus, working through the faith of a child, proved in Perkins’ story that he “will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32), even across racial, political, and social boundaries.
For me the more difficult task is to remember that Jesus doesn’t necessarily think like I do, like what I like, or approve of all of my decisions. A few weeks ago I walked past a family of three, all wearing T-shirts emblazoned with American flags and Scripture. “Jesus gives me life, liberty, and freedom!” the youngest’s shirt read. I wonder how they might have responded to the idea that God’s will isn’t always American political policy or that God’s blessing can be experienced in other regions of the world.
When we’re too quick to lump “things I like” and “things Jesus likes” into the same category, we diminish the Gospel’s power to transform our lives. When we step back from our tendency to form Jesus into our own likeness, we’re able to submit all of ourselves to Jesus’ transforming power and pray more authentically,
“Show me your ways, O Lord,
teach me your paths;
guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my Savior,
and my hope is in you all day long” (Psalm 25:4-5).
It’s this view of Jesus and faith that truly allows Jesus to be Lord of our lives. Jesus understands me and my neighbors and has plans for all of us. When I remember that my assumptions about Jesus aren’t always right and that submitting my life to God may cause me to move outside of that which is “just like me” I’m most open to his truly transforming work.
Owen Sallee trained under World Vision's Vision Youth Initiative, and he was a youth director for Choose Life Youth Ministries in White Center for 12 years, during and following his time as an undergraduate at Seattle Pacific University. He graduated from SPU in 1999, and in 2006, he completed his master’s degree in school counseling at SPU.
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