Renouncing white Jesus

No sooner had James Cone (THE Rev. Dr. James Cone) folded himself into my compact car and clicked the seatbelt, I blurted, “I am sorry for my white Jesus, Dr. Cone.” He glanced at the plastic, sun-bleached, plastic Jesus on my dashboard and said in his signature, high-pitched voice, “Oh, it’s all right, it’s all right.” Driving Cone back to his hotel after his arresting, compelling, profound lecture on “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” counts as one of the highest privileges of my ministry.

The lecture took place April 17, 2017. He said of his book, “I put my whole being into it. … I did my best, to do less would be a theological sin.” Those of us in that sanctuary received a gift, as Cone put his whole being into that lecture too. Holding nothing back, saying what he thought, wrestling with the question of how black people kept their sanity in the face of terror and how white people who professed faith in Jesus, the crucified one, could turn around and lynch black people, even on church grounds. He told of his parents’ admonishment, “Don’t you hate like they hate.” He said: “Many of us still come out loving white people. It’s amazing.”

Amazing indeed. A few months later I would witness the brutality of white supremacy in Charlottesville, Virginia. The terror of the lynching tree still present, violent and virulent in 2018.

I am sorry for my white Jesus, James Cone. But being sorry isn’t enough. For far too long I worshipped my white Jesus in my white church, insulated from the daily dehumanizing, murderous terror inflicted on blacks in white Jesus’ name and by members of white Jesus’ church. Even on the eve of that alt-right rally of August, I dismissed reports of planned attacks, organized intimidation and blatant hate. Surely, the buzz exaggerated what was coming. My inert, harmless, impotent, affirming white Jesus justified my polite, privileged, racist past and present.

I am sorry for my white Jesus, James Cone — and no, it is not all right. You gave me a pass. You were one of those who came out loving white people, even as you spoke the truth to power and told white people and all the world what you really thought, believed and knew to the core of your black body. I know now, thanks to you and Katie Cannon and Howard Thurman and Willie James Jennings and Keise Laymon and Toni Morrison and James Baldwin and Alice Walker and patient friends who amazingly, miraculously love me, that as you said that April evening, “Until Americans, especially Christians, can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with re-crucified bodies hanging from lynching trees, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.”

The hate rampant in our land has a pervasive history and we are living its brutal legacy. White supremacy continues to terrorize all those whites deem “other.” White Christians must join in calling out with Cone “the hypocrisy and mendacity of the white church.” White fragility perpetuates white supremacy and white supremacy murders black people while they shop for groceries, Jewish people as they pray, migrants fleeing for safety and Muslim graduate students in their apartments.

I am sorry for my white Jesus, but being sorry isn’t enough. I must renounce my idolatry of white Jesus, confront not only the racism, hypocrisy and mendacity of my white church, but my own. If I say I believe that Jesus was crucified to save me from my sin, then I must stand with the crucified people of history and join the voices who “unambiguously call for the liberation of the oppressed and condemn the oppressors.”

In a climate when rhetoric has been weaponized, words couple with semi-automatic weapons, pipe bombs back political allegiances and military troops face off with asylum seekers, every follower of the crucified Prince of Peace must stand up for and stand with the crucified, the marginalized, the vulnerable, the hated and hunted. We must stand with Jesus.

Forgive me God, for worshipping a white Jesus when I should have been following my crucified Savior.

Grace and peace,