The past month we have studied soteriology or the doctrine of salvation in theology class, reading a wide variety of ideas and theories followers of Jesus have wrestled with over the years. In our studies, we discovered that the salvation spectrum is a wide one. Not everyone holds the view that salvation is simply believing in our heart and confessing with our mouth that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9). To some, salvation is more than just a prayer, a mental assent to a set of belief systems, and a dunk in the river.
Those who endure unjust suffering and oppression in this life tend to worship a Jesus who offers more than just eternal security—more than just hope for then, but also hope for now.
19th century slave narratives reveal a hope of salvation wrought with blood and tears. African American slaves in bondage refused to worship the Jesus preached by their white slave owners. That Jesus wasn’t the Jesus they knew. White slave owners, the majority of whom considered themselves Christians, preached a white Jesus who wholeheartedly approved of their oppression. In their sermons to the slaves, they preferred Paul’s proof texts of Ephesians 6:5—“slaves obey your earthly masters with respect and fear,” and Colossians 3:22, “Slaves, obey your masters in everything and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity.”
This repeating sermon series carried the self-seeking motive and agenda of keeping the slaves in line when they weren’t looking—often after escape attempts or being caught gathered in worship. Slaves were not permitted to gather together to worship for fear that they would rally around a different Jesus than the slave master version. However, slaves would feel compelled by Jesus to arise at 3 in the morning, against the commands of their masters and proof texts, to risk the beatings, rapes and violent deaths that came as a result. They would quietly sing songs of praise and supplication to and with the Jesus they knew: the suffering Jesus who knew their pain, and tarried with them to provide comfort and hope. To them, Jesus was chained alongside them and bared his back to the whips and chains to receive the same stripes they received. The suffering Jesus in their midst knew what it was like to be oppressed, abused, beaten and mocked. The black slaves knew the suffering Jesus for He was One of them.
This week in my New Testament class, Dr. Warren Carter focused on the term “Son of God” in the gospel of Mark. He pointed out that every time the demons confessed that Jesus was the “Son of God” in Mark’s gospel it was in response to displays of power.
Mark 3 reports that Jesus had been going around curing many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him. Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, “You are the Son of God!” But Jesus sternly ordered them not to make him known.
When the demon who was one of the “legion” possessing the man in the Gerasenes saw Jesus coming, he screamed, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Do not torment me!” (Mark 5).
Up to this point in Mark’s gospel, no human being had confessed that Jesus was the Son of God. In fact, the first confession of Jesus as Son wouldn’t come until Mark 15, as Jesus hung lifeless on the cross after enduring unimaginable suffering.
Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” – Mark 15:37-39
So why were demons confessing Jesus’ Sonship in response to His acts of power, and humans not able to confess until he hung powerless on the cross? It is Dr. Carter’s opinion that humans can’t truly confess Jesus as son of God until they see both the power and suffering of Jesus. In fact, when humans confess that Jesus is Son of God based only in reference to His power, that confession is demonic. It is half-baked. Agenda-driven. Self-seeking.
This was the false “Jesus” many white slave owners worshipped in the 19th century. The false Jesus quoting from Paul’s epistles was inspired by the same devil that quoted scripture to Jesus in the wilderness—disguised as an angel of light and made in the image of oppressive slave owners. As Ann Lamott once wrote, “you know you have made God into your own image when He hates the same people you do.”
White Christians who possess an imbalance of privilege and comfort (of which group I belong) ought to be wary of history so that it doesn’t repeat itself in our lives. We who hold much of the power in our society need to examine our lives, our motives, our version of Jesus. Are there ways in which we have molded our own personal Jesus in the idolatrous image of comfort-seeking agendas, and at the expense of others? Who are the marginalized of society to whom we participate in their oppression with our judgments on their “failed” lifestyles we know nothing about because we haven’t bothered to listen? Who are the lepers of our day, the outcasts we ignore at best, judge and condemn at worse? In what ways have I created a privileged, white Jesus in my own image? In what ways has my confession of the Son of God been solely based on the power I enjoy … half-baked, one-sided … demonic. The soul searching has brought me to my knees.
I decided that I must cultivate a lifestyle that purposely seeks to hear and help those who don’t share the same comfortable lifestyle my privileged status affords. I want to take action for the marginalized in our society, forming relationships where I can in order to listen, learn, and grow in empathy, action and solidarity.
My mom, who has spent her life looking after the downcast and disadvantaged likes to quote from Luke 12:48: “to whom much is given, much is required.”
White Christians, to whom is the suffering Servant calling you to suffer with and serve?