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.

MaryMovie

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.

Saved

Media Cache

On Easter Sunday 2008, I joined my youth group drama team to do a dance to This Blood by Carman. With our bodies, we acted out the story of the torture and violence Jesus endured at the hands of his Roman captors, from the the binding of his arms and flogging of his body, to the painful carrying of the cross up the hill and his body’s convulsions when his captors dropped the cross in the grave.

It was a graphic song, filled with gory language that to this day I’m surprised my overly sensitive self could stomach enough to put on this performance.

It held a clear Easter message: This blood, spilled willingly and violently, is for you. All of you.

It was a powerful message, and I invited my mom, who didn’t often come to Sunday services, to see our performance on Easter Sunday. I wanted my mom to hear it, because I wasn’t convinced she was saved.

With the youth group team, I fervently prayed for her soul, that it would find Jesus, not only so she could go to heaven with me at the end of her life, but so she could find some peace and happiness in this life, too.

I knew she was in an unhappy marriage. I knew she was frustrated at work and life hadn’t worked out the way she had planned. She knew turmoil and loss I’d never had to know.

And I knew Jesus’ blood could save her. I knew a relationship with Him could make her better, even if it didn’t make her actual situation better. I knew this, because the people at church told me this was true, and I convinced myself it was true to my life and it could be for hers.

I wanted to save Mom, and that Easter Sunday, as I listened to the brutal lyrics and imitated Jesus’ pain to my congregation, I focused mostly on Mom. I did my best to meet her eyes as we pointed across the audience for the final “This blood is for you,” and I prayed she would feel the stirring in her heart and be moved to accept that blood sacrifice and find a new joy in life.

Nine years later, I don’t know what it means to be saved.

I thought it meant accepting the love and blood of Jesus, but what does it mean to accept a violent sacrifice? What does it mean to be made clean by the blood of the Lamb? Why would blood save us anyways? Why did God need to kill God’s own Son to save our sorry, sinful selves? What did this do?

So much violence and suffering, and for what? What does this sacrifice even mean anymore? What did it ever mean? How could it save me from myself, or my mom from herself, or us from ourselves?

What does it mean to be saved? Does it result in praying a rosary, or praying in tongues? Does it condemn people based on their race, sexuality, gender identity, and income, or does it welcome those at the bottom of the ladder? Does it save us from ourselves, or does it give us abstract words that comfort us enough to get us through each day?

These concepts I once accepted with joy are foreign, confusing, and even hostile to me now. They are disconnected from the world I live in, a reality in which Christians can claim to be washed in the blood of the lamb but do nothing on this earth to relieve their brothers and sisters in physical pain. They tell me to cast off my doubt and rebuke the enemy, but the enemy seems to have infiltrated their ranks and filled them with hatred, hostility, and division.

They tell me “Jesus Saves,” and I ask them, “From what?”

The “Simply Creative” Prophets

banksy-follow-your-dreams-cancelled

Banksy, on Widewalls

I started getting more invested in Twitter this month, and as such, I’ve been following a bunch of my favorite celebrities and fangirling like crazy.

While going through the tweets of one actor I crush real hard on (not to be confused with stalking the guy…), I found a tweet he shared on election night which was very encouraging and resonated with most of his followers. Most of them thanked him for sharing his kind thoughts and also shared their own lamentations and fears. I found the fact that he said something very uplifting to me and was thankful I had come across it.

One person, however, didn’t seem to share our sentiments. Instead, she had this to say:

“Actors and simply creative people should be out of Politics.”

And this comment threw this passionate writer into a huge tizzy.

There is nothing simple or plain about being creative.

No one writes, photographs, acts, directs, or makes anything simply or idly, nor do they create art intended to be dismissed with the wave of a hand or consumed without a second thought.

I learned this first and foremost during my time in college theater. My theater director taught me how art, specifically in the form of theater, can change people when he had 20-year old, very conservative me play the role of a young woman who’d just had an abortion. By taking on this, for me, very controversial character, I found myself embodying a scenario that turned an issue into a human being. By taking on that persona, however briefly, my perspective shifted in significant ways, and how I deal with the topic forever changed.

This is what good art does, and there is nothing simple about it. Making art calls the creator to make something that won’t regurgitate but talk back and then ask the audience to do the same. To be creative is to touch life in intimate ways. It is to free a story from the mind and make it alive and active in the world, and it calls the maker to wear someone else’s skin like it’s their own, even when it’s the most uncomfortable thing in the world.

During Advent, we remember the prophets who called Israel to repent from their evil ways and corrupt systems of worship and politics, and we remember how Israel ignored them and fell. We remember how the prophets looked at their fallen land and proclaimed the coming of a future Messiah who would make all things new, and we remember how hopeless such an idea seemed then and seems today. At Christmas, we will celebrate the fulfillment of those prophecies in the Incarnation, when God our immortal, powerful Creator took on fallible, mortal flesh to live among us, to hear our stories, to tell them back to us, and then challenge us to live in new ways.

Our “simply creative” people are not mere entertainers. They, too, are prophets.

They, too, call us to repent from our evil ways through film, theater, song, written word, poetry, and pictures. They present stories to us to remind us of our common, brutal, and beautiful humanity, and then ask that we reimagine what life could be like. They take on our flesh, however foreign it may be to them, in order to tell our stories. They make connections, patterns, and purpose where there seems to be only chaos, confusion, and disconnect. They wake people up, push them into action, give them comfort, and help them face the day.

They are political, because they care about people. To be political is to be involved in the “affairs of the city,” that is, to be involved with our fellow human beings. In the midst of societal difficulties, we need the artists’ voices now more than ever. We need them to make art which calls us to repentance lest we continue to hurt each other in the same ways. We need to remember we are made for more than destroying and cutting down. We need to remember the importance of storytelling and the beauty all around us.

That’s why we mourn people like Robin Williams, Prince, and David Bowie. We miss their talent, but more than that, we miss what they had to teach us. We miss the new perspectives they gave us through a lyric or a line. We miss the beauty they asked us to notice and the hope and joy they gave us when everything was dark and dismal. We wonder what else they could have showed and taught us when their voices are snatched away. We remember the truths they uncovered and revealed to us.

We both see the world for what it is and what it could be because of them, and this is what makes them prophets.

So if you’re one of those “simply creative people,” don’t let others tell you this means you have less of a voice.

Speak louder, and keep creating.

Keep putting yourself out there in all of your vulnerable, beautiful talent and humanity. Keep making the world uncomfortable, because the only way things will change is when people finally deal with that discomfort. Keep uniting people around your art and reminding them that we are human, we are fallible, and we are better than our worst bullshit.

Keep getting mad when we treat each other like crap. Keep rallying behind your causes. Keep encouraging us to be kind and loving. Keep telling us about your passions, creative, political, and otherwise.

We need your voices.

Because they are what keep us going and changing.

The books, movies, songs, plays, paintings, photographs, all of the art you make reminds us there is beauty, there is hope, there is a way to make sense of all this and move forward, making it all into something new and beautiful.

So don’t be silenced.

Be bold. Be brave.

Be prophets.

So You Wanna Keep Christ in Christmas?

keepchristinchristmas

Blogspot

In the past month, I’ve read countless signs in front of churches demanding, “Remember, Jesus is the reason for the season!”

This week, I even saw a sign on a grocery store declaring “Happy Birthday, Jesus!”

And just to keep kids from getting a little too excited, some signs went so far as to say, “Santa never died for anybody!”

Every Advent season, I see signs like these, and year after year, I grow more exhausted with them. I’m tired of the energy expended over the so-called “War on Christmas” when we are still reeling from the aftermath of a poisonous election season and actual wars are destroying the lives of thousands.

I see these signs, and I can’t help but wonder: Who has forgotten the meaning of Christmas, the “unchurched,” or the Christians?

I wonder if so many congregations put messages like this on their signs, because they don’t want to do the hard work of living out the Gospel. They want the words, doctrines, and signs to do all the talking, and more often than not, the message is loud, clear, and cruel: we don’t want you unless you’re ready to prescribe to our rules. They want to say “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” and “It’s Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays!” because that’s a lot easier than saying “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” It’s a lot easier to make Jesus seem as proud and fear-mongering as we are instead of proclaiming the true words of God incarnate: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.”

This is tough, counter-cultural stuff to swallow. Proclaiming a war to defend and maintain our already high privilege and supremacy is so much easier and, as such, more prevalent. From personal experience, it’s much easier to act with false pride than to live in true humility.

It’s easier to act like shoving the slogan of the culture wards down the throats of “non-believers” is more effective than doing justice for the oppressed, showing mercy towards those who have hurt us, and walking humbly with the God who guides us through times of joy and deep sorrow.

It’s so easy, for everyone, to put words on a church sign, believing in the false hope that this is what will save our dwindling numbers.

It’s not so easy to live in such a way that people already know the deep good news of the Gospel in real ways, ways that can’t be fit onto church signs.

Saying “Jesus is the reason for the season” isn’t a proclamation of the good news of Christmas. It’s an empty, guilt-invoking phrase which does nothing to invite people into living a life devoted to the God who sent him. It does nothing to point to the God of Jesus, who upset the natural order of things in Jesus’ very birth in order to live among us and bring the good news of the beautiful, upside-down kingdom to a dark, hopeless world. It’s a phrase evoked in the name of a baseless culture war that continues to remind those who aren’t already aware that the Church is more concerned with having power than it is with caring for actual people.

It does nothing to explain why Mary accepted such a dangerous, beautiful mission from God. It does nothing to explain why Joseph accepted his role as co-parent to God. It does nothing to explain how significant it is for the Creator of the world to be wrapped in rags and laid in a feeding trough, because no one would give up their rooms to make way for God in flesh.

Only teaching and living the whole story does that, and it involves more than church signs.

It involves being willing to accept God’s dangerous, beautiful call to live a life of love for the poor, oppressed, marginalized, doubting, and abused. It involves making space not just in your heart, but in your own home and life, for weary travelers like Mary and Joseph. It involves clearing out physical space in your life to welcome the infant Jesus in the form of actual people whom the rest of the world wants to cast aside.

So sure, you can keep doing the “easy” task of putting the same ol’ guilt-inducing messages on your boards each year.

Just remember that eventually, it becomes the hard work of explaining to a lot of those same people who didn’t want to come why you were so preoccupied with proclaiming Jesus’ birthday instead of actually throwing a party for the ones Jesus came to love.

Please, keep Christ in Christmas, but not by forcing people to tell you “Merry Christmas” and demanding the right to put a nativity in front of your store.

Do it by living like Jesus. Then you won’t have to say much of anything, even on a church sign.