Dear White Church,
Last week, Dylann Roof, the young man who opened fire in a historically black church in Charleston and murdered 9 people, was sentenced to death. Today, we celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and it seems especially sad that 54 years after King gave his famous speech, we are having to deal with the effects of what has been called the deadliest attack on African Americans in 100 years.
Roof kept a journal during his imprisonment and the contents of the journal were made public during his trial. In it is the expected neo-Nazi drivel, what we are now calling “Alt Right” ideas of white supremacy and how the white man is being attacked in modern American culture, Roof’s confession that he has absolutely no remorse over what he did (“it was worth it,” he wrote), and, most tellingly to me, a drawing of Jesus. Or, more accurately, Dylann Roof’s Jesus. A white Jesus.
Dylann Roof was born and raised in my denomination. He is part of my Lutheran family, he was a product of Lutheran teachings. The white Jesus he depicted in his journal probably could have been taken directly off the walls of any of the Lutheran churches I have ever known. It doesn’t matter that Jesus was most certainly not white. It doesn’t matter that he was most certainly a dark-skinned middle eastern man. “We Lutherans” are white. “We theologians” who defined who Jesus was, how he acts within the trinity, what he loving grace looks and feels like were white. “We artists” who depicted the most famous Renaissance paintings of Jesus, who set Jesus to tune in the hymnals from which we now sing were white.
You sense the sarcasm here, right? You do know that Jesus came to die for more than just the white man? You do know that Jesus has been known and studied by theologians and biblical scholars of every culture, race and gender? You do know that Jesus has been depicted in every color of the rainbow by artists of every skin tone? You do know that the song of Jesus is sung in every language? You do know that Jesus was Jesus for more than just his genitalia, his skin color, his language, his ability level? I know you know that, but does your church teach that?
If I didn’t know Jesus at all, had no clue of his amazing story, and I walked into your church, looked at the art on your church’s walls, listened to your church’s choir sing about Jesus, pulled some books about Jesus off your church’s shelves, who do you think I might imagine Jesus to be? What do you think I might suppose he looked like, talked like, acted like? Do you think I’d get a multifaceted image of Jesus? Or do you think I’d get a flat white Jesus who looked and acted just like me?
Now, I think I know the argument that you are biting back right about now. But, Maggie, if I walk into a Latinx church, I see a Latino Jesus and a Latina Mary. If I walk into a historically black church, I see a black Jesus. I’ve even seen a couple of Asian Jesuses in my life. If they can have their Jesus, why can’t I have mine? Why can’t I worship a Jesus I can identify with? If they can, so can I!
Except here is the thing—they aren’t the oppressors. They are the resistors. A black Jesus, a Latino Jesus, an Asian Jesus, a Native Jesus is a means of resistance in a whitewashed church. A Jesus that looks like them in the face of racism is a means of telling the world “I am beautiful and Jesus loves me just the way I am. I belong in Jesus’s church.” White church, do you really need your Jesus to assure you that white people are beautiful? That white people belong in the church? That white people matter to Jesus? Or is your white Jesus a crutch to prevent yourself from seeing Jesus outside of your safe space?
Now, back to Dylann Roof. I will not pretend that Roof wasn’t also mentally unhinged. I won’t tell you that all of Roof’s ideas about white supremacy come from the church, because there were surely many factors. But in addition to his demons, Roof was raised in a church that insisted that Jesus was white. That Jesus looked like him, that Jesus extended love and grace to people who looked like him. That Jesus was for people like him. Now, I’m projecting here, but we do know that Roof attended a service at the church he would later decimate. I wonder if Roof walked through those church doors and saw a black Jesus. That Jesus wouldn’t seem warm and loving to a person like Roof. It would seem like a threat. A threat that would need to be taken out.
What if young Dylann had been raised in a church that preached a multifaceted Jesus? What if Dylann saw images of Jesus in many colors from a young age? What if Dylann had grown up hearing about the Jesus that appears in communities all over the world? What if Dylann had sung songs about Jesus from many cultures and nations, had heard theology from every country, had tasted Jesus’s body and blood in many kinds of bread and wine? Maybe, just maybe, it would have changed Dylann.
White church, you failed Dylann Roof. You failed me. You have failed my generation. You have failed to show me a global Jesus and instead left me with a one-note, lacking white Jesus. In the one and a half years I’ve been in seminary, I’ve gotten small glimpses here and there of different perspectives of Jesus, and it makes this white bread Jesus diet even more unsatisfying.
So, white church, I’m begging you. For the sake of Dylann Roof, for the sake of all your children, please rethink that white Jesus.