For the Literal Love of Christ, Stop Making Jesus White

 

Superstar

Ted Neeley in Jesus Christ Superstar

I was browsing Buzzfeed the other day when I found an article about the Mary Magdalene film starring Rooney Mara (as Mary) and Joaquin Phoenix (as Jesus).

To be honest, at first I thought it was great that a film about Mary Magdalene would be coming to theaters soon, especially because of the issues many in the Church might have with her story being portrayed well on screen (she wasn’t a prostitute?!).

Then I saw the casting, and I got frustrated at the fact that once again, two white actors are portraying religious and historical figures of color.

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Daily Mail

I quickly went to IMBD to check out the rest of the cast, and I discovered that black, Israeli, and Algerian actors will be playing Jesus’ disciples.

Which is…better than having them all be white, too, I suppose. At least this casting is a bit more accurate.

Starting from top left: Australian actor Ryan Corr as Joseph, Israeli actor Tawfeek Barhom as James, Matthew Moshonov as Matthew, British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peter, and French actor Tahar Rahim

This being said, Hollywood is not off the hook. The fact that in most biblical films, Jesus is cast as a white man while the people of color are relegated to the supporting cast is a greater symptom of the American white savior complex.

 

The simplest way to define the white savior as an entertainment trope is a white character rescuing people of color from their plight. While many well-meaning people defend these characters as benign and even admirable (perhaps citing that they learn a lesson about themselves and “those people” and become “better” in the end), they are actually rather harmful.

The danger of the white savior mentality is that it enables the savior to look down on the ones they try to “save.” It allows the savior to say, “You are only worthy of my time, attention, and compassion as long as you are beneath me. Never equal to me, and definitely not above me.”

The white savior complex “racializes morality by making us consistently identify with the good white person saving the non-white people who are given much less of an identity in these plot lines. It also frames people of color as being unable to solve their own problems.”

This racialization of morality frames white people as the good guys, and the people of color as either the bad guys or the ones needing saved.

White savior mentality does not embolden people on the “receiving” end to take agency over their own lives.

One of the primary results of the white savior/one needing saved relationship is enmeshment, which can occur “in any relationship where there is a power imbalance due to structural inequality, and ensures that the power imbalance stays firmly in place, resulting in frustration and resentment for the oppressed group.” This ensures that the person or people being saved become fully dependent on their saviors to survive and thrive, while the saviors get a nice dose of purpose and goodwill from having saved someone. They are dependent on each other for the wrong reasons.

The white savior mentality does not allow people of color, or those being “rescued” or “saved,” to voice their own concerns or opinions about their own lives. Instead, the saved remain subservient to their saviors, who tell them to trust in the savior’s goodness and logic above their own needs.

This is prevalent in reality, as seen in the accusations of TV personalities and news anchors concerning black culture and black individuals. There seem to be zero forms of protest that a person of color can participate in which white leaders will not criticize. This is why Black Lives Matter can be deemed “the new KKK” with little to no mainstream backlash. It’s why any criticism about white supremacy and privilege is clapped back against with cries of “reverse racism” and accusations of “not letting the past be past.”

Feminists are not exempt from this.

Rafia Zakaria writes in Al Jazeera, “Nonwhites are expected to approbate and modify their own lives or positions to participate in this [white feminist] narrative. The parameters of this paradigm ignore differences in privilege that separate the white and nonwhite feminisms. White women dominate the mainstream American feminism because they can still draw on white privilege and occupy the entire category.”

If left ignored, women of color will continue to be ostracized by a movement which claims to seek liberation for all.

This is why, for the literal love of Jesus, we need to drop the white savior complex, from our media and from our lives.

Jesus regarded everyone with whom he interacted as inherently worthy of his love and attention. But white savior mentality does not acknowledge the inherent dignity within every human being as a child of God.

If we continue to call ourselves the Body of Christ on earth, yet continue to ignore our siblings’ cries for justice, then we are attempting to cast off our hands and feet, destroying the Body from the inside out.

We will also damage our testimony as Christ’s body on earth to those who are not in the Church.

A personal case in point: I have a Middle Eastern, Muslim father, but I did not grow up with him. I grew up with my white mother and white family, so I learned about Arabic culture from them and the media.

And they didn’t exactly paint the best picture. Especially post 9-11.

Post 9/11, I thought all Arabs were terrorists, because that’s all I saw in the news, in TV shows, and in movies. I thought they were oppressive to women and democracy and all the other things Americans claim to hold dear (but they really don’t).

I know how this affected me, and I know how it could affect my younger siblings, and the people with whom they interact, especially in an era of proposed “Muslim bans” and chants to “Build the Wall.”

I worry about representation because of what it will tell the world about my family.

So what do we, the white Americans wrestling with our white savior complexes, need to do?

A small way to break this oppressive cycle is to consume more media with better representations of people of color, in which they, not us, are the predominant actors, writers, producers, and directors.

Love comics? Check out Black Panther, Ms. Marvel, and America Chavez.

Looking for a new show to binge-watch on Netflix? Check out Luke Cage, The Get Down, or 3%.

Want a Redbox night? Rent Moonlight or Get Out.

If you don’t consume media with predominantly POC casts and production because you think it’s “too harsh” on white people, or you wonder why you’re not in the lead role like you’re used to, you might be feeling a trace of what black, Latinx, Arab, and other “minority” communities have felt for years.

We often have the audacity to ask, in a culture we dominate, “What about me?”

I asked that question as a four year old when I was dyeing Easter eggs with my cousins because I didn’t want to share the Easter egg dye with them. As a child, I acted like a child, as do we all. Now, it’s time to leave our childish ways behind.

Will watching and reading more stories in which people of color are the heroes and heroines change the world overnight?

Of course not.

It can, however, begin to change our mentality, break stereotypes, and empower people of color.

And for the literal love of Christ, we can do that much.

Fangirl Theology: What Harry Potter Taught Me About Social Justice

I’ve been thinking a lot about social justice.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about Harry Potter.

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NPR

After election season, so many people found solace in these stories, a peace they first experienced in their youth.

I’m also caught up in this phenomenon. I want to go home and dig my books out again and lose myself in them like I once did. I want to go Hogwarts and have adventures with Harry, Ron, and Hermione. I want to learn spells and play Quidditch. I want to devour those pages for hours and not realize any time has gone by.

I want to feel the excitement and wonder I always encounter when I return to those pages. I miss sympathizing with these layered characters in their struggles, from teenage angst and stress to losing loved ones and resisting evil.

But now, more than ever, I feel like I need these stories again. Actually, I think we all do.

I believe the reason so many people are returning to these stories and are quoting, tweeting, and even shouting them, online and at protests, is because they know how necessary Harry’s story is for us now.

Why?

Because this story taught us about seeking justice and loving mercy.

It’s a message we heard loud and clear when we were young. It is a message we remember. It is one we see the need to proclaim now, to our nation and our world.

This story taught us to care for the orphans, like Harry himself and his godson, Teddy Lupin. It taught us to protect and stand up for the marginalized, for Muggleborns like Hermione and Colin Creevey, for house elves and centaurs, and for outsiders like Hagrid and Neville. It taught us that when the Voldemorts and Umbridges of the world begin to rise, we join Dumbledore’s Army and resist supremacy, censorship, and corrupt power. With Harry, we learned how good education teaches us to love and empower others instead of hoard all the good information for ourselves.

We learned that there are forces which, like dementors, threaten to consume our joy and peace, but we also learned we have the strength within ourselves to cast them out. We learned that we all have evil within us. Some, like Voldemort and Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, keep their hearts closed off from love and change, and it is their downfall. But there are some very imperfect people, like Draco Malfoy, Snape, Dudley, and even Dumbledore himself, who realize the errors of their ways and find redemption.

These stories are part of the reason why so many millenials are passionate about social justice. When we find ourselves face to face with white, male, heterosexual, cis-gender supremacy, we do not remain silent, because J.K. Rowling’s characters were anything but that. When we seem to be dominated by those who would harm the marginalized, we counter those systems, because her stories gave us the means to notice and challenge them.

We saw Harry fight Voldemort’s killing curses with disarming spells. We saw Hermione, a “Mudblood,” perform magic and spout wisdom beyond the skills of her “pureblood” peers. We saw Ron confront his demons when destroying a Horcrux and Dumbledore confront his past failures while teaching Harry the importance of love and compassion. We saw Hagrid’s unconditional love for and acceptance of all manner of creatures and Snape’s imperfect loyalty to Dumbledore.

We come by this passion honestly. We don’t run after these stories for the sole purpose of their fantasy and inspiration. We love Harry Potter, because these stories speak to what’s already within us. These are stories which call to the desire for justice which is in our DNA. It is the DNA we carry as image-bearers of the One who loves and judges out of mercy, who cares for the orphan, the widow, and the foreigner among us, and whose heart breaks when we do not do the same. These stories resonate so well with us, because they draws on God’s story, written throughout history and evident in all those tales which teach us to do justice and love mercy.

When we return to the Harry Potter stories, we are not returning to a childhood nostalgia or an escapist fantasy.

We are returning to a story of God’s love and redemption in and through God’s people, a story in which the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.

It is a story we need this Advent, maybe this year more than ever.

“Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” – Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

How will we be the light in this darkness? What will keep us burning? How will we resist the evil before us? What “Dumbledore’s Army” movements call to you?

Now What?

SPOILERS for anyone who somehow hasn’t finished the entire Harry Potter series yet. If you haven’t, please get on that. You’re missing out.

Harry Potter was my gateway drug to geekdom. Before I knew what fandom was and before I could even admit that I liked fantasy, I fell head over heels for JK Rowling’s Wizarding World.

I can’t remember exactly when I started reading the books or from whom I got the first one. I do know that when the first movie was announced, I was 4 books in and madly in love with Daniel Radcliffe.

And I definitely remember attending the midnight release of the very last movie: Deathly Hallows Part 2.

I went with Bryce and my college friend Betty. We stood in line, me with my Dumbledore’s Army T-shirt, Betty in her plain white T with a Hogwarts crest stitched on, and Bryce with his wizard’s hat. A photographer snapped a photo of us in the long line from the theater balcony, and we made it in the local newspaper.

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I remember the excitement and dread at the thought of this being the end. I remember cheering when Ron and Hermione kissed and when Neville killed Nagini the snake. I remember being disappointed in the portrayal of the final battle between Harry and Voldemort and the lack of Dumbledore’s story. I remember smiling through (possibly) teary eyes when grown up Harry, Ron, and Hermione watched their own children roll away from them on the Hogwarts Express. But most of all, I remember the film ending, holding Bryce’s hand in the stillness that comes with the blank screen just before the credits begin to roll, and thinking to myself, “Now what?”

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moviemansguide.com

After spending so much time with Harry and his friends, in their lives and adventures, I felt a jolt as the screen went blank and the lights came up, blinding in their harsh reminder that story time was over, and the world was waiting for me to go back.

And from the blank screen through the car ride home and even while I drifted off to sleep that same evening, I asked myself a number of questions:

What happens next? Do the characters really live happily ever after? Will more troubles befall them? How do I go back to reality? What did this story teach me about life and the world around me?

Isn’t this what stories are supposed to do? Not simply entertain and remove us from the world, but to put us back into reality with a new perspective and lots of questions? Isn’t that what good stories do to us?

The Old and New Testaments have similar endings which, if read well, simultaneously unsettle and excite us. 2 Chronicles, the last book in the Hebrew Bible, ends with King Cyrus’ cliffhanger order for the Jews to return home to Israel. John’s Revelation at the end of the New Testament offers us a vision of the future, in which the powers of darkness are defeated, and we are invited into the new kingdom to dwell with God.

Both endings inspire hope and wonder in their readers. What will happen when the Jews return from exile? Will they renew the covenant with God only to break it again, or will they remain faithful? Are a new heaven and a new earth really possible, and when will they happen?

Then when we look at the world as it is, and we feel another jolt.

After we close our Bibles, we see that heaven and earth are as separate as ever, and we are still in exile. 

After we close Deathly Hallows when Harry says, “All was well,” we return to the world around us, where things may or may not all be well. 

We finish hearing or watching the story, but the story is not finished with us. And we may ask, “Now what?”

What do we do with a proclamation of returning home when we are still in exile? What do we do with the promise of a new heaven and new earth in a broken, bleeding world? What do we do after the evil lord is defeated in one story but others loom large in the lives of others?

Sometimes, these questions push me to love God and others with a renewed fervor, hoping that through these efforts, the exile will end, and the world will get better. Other days, these questions overwhelm me and make me want to retreat or join the “bad guys,” who seems to have more efficient ways of getting things done. Either way, the stories are not finished with me, nor am I finished with them. 

Maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be for now.

Why I Spend More Time on Netflix than in Bible Study

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I give more time to my Netflix queue than to Bible study. My comic book collection has exceeded my devotional one. I still tear through Harry Potter books with an appetite that I’ve never had for the Bible.

Even though I attend a local congregation and am in seminary to become a pastor, I still struggle to practice spiritual disciplines and read my Bible regularly. When I open my Bible, I still think of the past Bible studies I attended in which everyone arrived at the same neat, non-debatable answers. When I sit down to meditate, my brain races with thoughts I think I “should” be thinking and ones I actually am thinking.

But I don’t feel this conflict when reading my books and comics or watching my favorite TV shows. Instead, I feel free to imagine, interpret, and enjoy the story in front of me, free from the boundaries of doctrine, theology, and orthodoxy. These stories don’t demand that I come to a certain conclusion; instead, they invite me along with the characters to see something new.

I don’t feel the same way about the Bible, or at least how I’ve been taught how to read it. For so long, Bible study has contained a number of unspoken rules: Don’t stray from orthodoxy or the theology of our group. Any new insight must conform to what we already believe. Use your imagination, but don’t be too imaginative. This is what the text definitely means, and this is what it will never mean.

This type of reading drives me nuts. I love a good story. A good story allows for plenty of different interpretations. A good story doesn’t settle for a comfortable ending, but challenges the reader to look at the world in a completely different way than they did before. I want to find something in the story I didn’t notice before, like seeing a part in a movie I’ve seen several times but didn’t notice until this particular viewing. If I can read the Bible like that, it will seem bigger and less safe, but it will keep me coming back to it instead of repelling me.

This is why, while I love tradition, I find it problematic when we use this same gift t0 ignore storytelling. And I get very worried about the future of the Church every time I hear someone say or imply, “We’ve always done/thought of things this way, and therefore it is always right.”

The stories I’ve loved, from Harry Potter to Doctor Who, from Ms. Marvel to Sandman, have taken me to a world I never knew existed. They taught me about the pain and beauty of this world in a way more honest than I’d ever heard it described in the Church. When the Church insisted on teaching me about a dreamworld of black-and-white perfection, these stories put me face-to-face with complicated, colorful reality. When the Church only seemed to offer hope in a “world to come,” these stories gave me hope that was tangible and present in the world today. These stories both took me away from my world and kept my feet grounded in reality.

I love The Sandman comic series by Neil Gaiman. I love mythological tales of beings with a lot of power who sometimes look out for humanity yet also make some less than right choices. But more importantly, these comics showed me how to have hope in life when all hope seems lost. When I couldn’t see that hope in the biblical story, Neil Gaiman showed it to me in a whole new context that resonated powerfully with me.

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I love Fahrenheit 451, not only because I love dystopian novels that end with revolution, but because I love hearing about truth that will not be kept in the dark. The prophets proclaimed a word that was fire in their bones and couldn’t be kept shut up. Jesus came proclaiming a truth that couldn’t be killed. Guy Montag risked his life to read more books instead of burn them. This is the Gospel to me.

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I love Harry Potter, because I would love it if I lived in a world where Hogwarts was I real school, but only if I wasn’t a Muggle. More importantly even than that, though, I love the story of a child who is both a very human friend and the savior of his people. It is a tale of sacrifice, love, community, and resurrection.

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I love my favorite books, movies, and shows, not in spite of my love of the Bible, but because of it. The messages from the stories of the Bible are alive and present to me in the stories I love today.

The Church needs to remember that this collection of stories which we call the Bible is extremely powerful and more full of color and paradox than we will ever realize. The Bible cannot be completely bound by tradition, doctrine, or anyone’s theology; it is both too big and too small for that. It is the Word of God but not God. It is inspired yet very, very human. It offers guidance, but the Spirit makes this Word alive.

And for that, I am thankful, because its origins remind me of my own humanity. The Bible, and the stories it has inspired, remind me of the truth that, as a human, I am both very significant and very small. Everything in God’s Creation can testify to that truth, so why should we stand in its way? Why should we say that it is only present in one medium, and how can we say that the truth we find in the Bible can’t be found in other tales?

Someday soon, I hope I find that life, not just in the Bible, and not just outside of the Bible, but in the eyes of the God who looks at me and reminds me, through these and other stories, that I am both so significant and so small.

We are Judas

I prepared and shared this sermon at Eastern Mennonite Seminary chapel on 3/12/2015 for my preaching class. Please let me know what you think!

Judas1Judas. I rarely hear people talk about him, much less preach about him. After all these years, he remains the disciple turned away from the group, no halo around his head, the eternally condemned outcast.

In the film Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas is portrayed as a disciple who fears how far Jesus is going with his mission. He wants change, but he doesn’t want change the way Jesus is doing it. Overturning tables in the temple, telling off the authorities, speaking vaguely in parables, proclaiming God’s kingdom in an occupied land where Caesar was lord. He knows the consequences of Jesus’ words and ministry. He knows there is a cross involved. And he is scared.

In Terrence McNally’s passion play Corpus Christi, Judas is Jesus’ (or Joshua’s) high school sweetheart. In this play, Judas is a suave, self-confident man who follows Joshua as a disciple but wants more romantically than Joshua is able to give. This jealousy leads to Judas’ betrayal, which causes him great remorse in the end.

In both portrayals, Judas wants something that Jesus won’t grant him. Jesus refuses to conform to Judas’ standards, and as a result, Judas takes matters into his own hands.

But what does the biblical text say about Judas?

It says he was a disciple of Jesus, a man who literally walked, ate, and preached with Jesus and the 11 other disciples. As a disciple, he witnessed firsthand Jesus’ miracles and heard his teachings. Judas accepted Jesus’ good news and was willing to follow him and bring God’s kingdom to earth. He was good with money. Maybe a little too good. Whatever his intentions may have been, he wanted to give something to the poor.

The text also says he repented. This part of the story tends to be ignored. And yet, he goes to the priests and begs them to make him right with God, which is what priests are supposed to do. Yet like so many other authorities, they deemed him incurable, and they turned him away. And then, Judas hangs himself because no one will help make him right with God. Even as the curtain of the temple tears in half, Judas dies because he cannot bring himself to see the opening. In his eyes, he is not forgiven or reconciled, not with himself, not with the priests, not with God.

Judas followed Jesus more intimately and closely than any human alive on earth today, and he still, for whatever reason or intention, turned him in. And when he couldn’t find reconciliation, he took his own life.

judasI understand why this is a story we are uncomfortable facing. If one of Jesus’ own disciples can betray him, what hope do we have? I believe as a result of this fear, the Church has taken Judas’ story and applied it to those outside of the Church. Instead of applying his character to faithful disciples in the Church today, the Church has imposed Judas’ nature onto those deemed enemies, those “outside” looking in. There have been many names for them: Jew, Muslim, conservative, liberal, heretic, black, indigenous, LGBT, and so forth. I see how the Church has identified “the Other” we face with Judas to scapegoat them without feeling too guilty for their actions.

But we, the Church, need to talk about Judas as if he were one of us, because he was and is one of us. As the body of Christ shaped by these stories, we cannot deny Judas’ story any more than we can deny the stories of the other disciples. We cannot deny his story or condemn him, because to do so would be to deny a crucial part of our stories as disciples of Jesus today. And we cannot identify outsiders as Judas to condemn them, because then we will fail in our mission as the body of Christ for all of the “outsiders.” If we cannot see ourselves in Judas’ story, then we are lying to ourselves. To deny or condemn Judas’ story is to deny and condemn the Church, and we cannot be willing to do that. And to only identify the “Other” as Judas is to become the hypocrites about which Jesus ardently warned.

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We are Judas because he was a disciple of Jesus. We are Judas because he loved, listened to, and learned from Jesus. We are Judas, because he played a crucial role in bringing about the beginning of the Church.

Because it was Judas’ damnable actions that resulted in the tearing of the veil that separated God from humanity.

We are Judas, because we are capable of tearing veils, even when we are at our worst. We can rip seams with the best or worst of intentions. We can make tears even though we are not perfect. We can make open sanctuaries despite our own failures.

Yet we are also Judas when we turn our backs on the least of these, because Jesus identified most with the marginalized, not the powerful. We are Judas when we turn our backs on each other, because Jesus says we are his body alive on earth. We are Judas when we refuse to forgive ourselves and hang by our own nooses of shame, bitterness, and guilt.

Is there any good news in this?

Yes. There is.

The good news is that Judas was a human. Maybe the most human. More like us than we’re willing to admit. And Jesus came to bring forgiveness to all humans, no matter how far we stray from the message, no matter how many times we sell Jesus out in the name of our good intentions, no matter how many times we put up walls against each other instead of bridges to each other. There is good news in the fact that Judas helped bring about the tearing of the veils that keep us separated from God.

I believe Archbishop Desmond Tutu has it right on two big things related to this story: “We may be surprised at the people we find in heaven. God has a soft spot for sinners. His standards are quite low.” and “Without forgiveness, there’s no future.” Only God could use someone like Judas, a man who cruelly didn’t receive reconciliation in his own life, to bring about the reconciliation of the world. And God can use his story to remind us of how cruel we can be to those we deem “incurable.”

As the Church, we are called to learn from our stories, and Judas’ story has something to say to those who turn away those who seek God. Judas, as have many others, learned the hard way how a lack of forgiveness can cruelly cut a life short. We have seen how we hang ourselves from our own nooses, and we have seen others hanged by the nooses of the religious authorities who deem them incurable. We have seen people within the Church cut their lives short, because they have been taught that something about themselves, whether it’s their sexuality, their questions, their illnesses, or something else that makes them “an outsider,” are not acceptable in the Body. They went to the priests seeking reconciliation and love, and they were met with a cold shoulder and a cord of rope.

I have hope in Judas’ forgiveness and Jesus’ love for him, because I have to have hope in the forgiveness and love God has given to me. I have hope that Jesus yearns for those to feel his embrace when others have said that they are untouchable. I have hope that Jesus would not have scapegoated Judas and instead would have held him like a brother as Judas let the tears fall. I have hope in Judas, because I have received those embraces when I felt untouchable, and I have hope in Judas, because I believe in the reality of the torn veil, even when I can’t always see it.

We must accept that if one of us is unforgiven, we are all unforgiven. If one of us is an outcast, we are all outcasts. We are a united body, and what affects one of us affects all of us. What hurts one of us hurts all of us. What heals one of us heals all of us. Judas was part of the body. If he cannot be forgiven, none of us can be forgiven.

But the curtain has been torn in two. There is forgiveness. For Judas. For me. For you. For the Church. For all of the times we have turned our back on Jesus because he didn’t conform to our standards. For all the times we turned our back on the least of these because they didn’t conform to the Church’s standards. For all the times we have turned our backs on each other because we didn’t conform to each others’ standards. There is forgiveness for all of us in all things and for all people.

The veil is torn. There is forgiveness, and it is radically unfair. Thanks be to God.