By RICK FRY
As a boy, I vividly remember a painting of Jesus displayed front and center in our church just behind the pulpit. It was a reproduction of the “Head of Christ” portrait by Warner Sallman. One could not help but glance over the pastor’s shoulder as he preached and observe a blue-eyed Jesus gazing up to heaven, light streaming into his dark-blonde hair. This image of Jesus has shaped the faith of generations of Christians in ways both subtle and profound.
The physical features of the Jesus in this painting bear little or no resemblance to the darker skin tone and hair of people from the First Century Galilean region where Jesus was from — features that Jesus himself would share.
The tranquil image of Jesus also bears little resemblance to the Jesus of the gospels. Jesus disrupted and challenged oppressive forces in order to share God’s shocking love, justice and healing revealed in the collective of the “kingdom of God.” He would declare the poor and hungry blessed by promising them redemption (Luke 6: 20-21), share table fellowship with people who were excluded (Matthew 9:10), direct pointed words at religious elites who failed to teach and practice “justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23: 23-24) and overturn tables at the center of power at the Temple in Jerusalem (Mark 11: 15-18).
Jesus showed such love and fidelity to God’s vision, and was such a threat to the power of the religious and political elite, that they put him to death on a cross, but according to the confession of the church he “rose again on the third day.”
This past year has seen challenges to systems of power. A jury has handed down guilty verdicts on all charges brought against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. But George Floyd’s murder has brought a long coming reckoning to the reality of racism in the United States. It has led to renewed protests with calls for police reform and accountability.
While some form of justice has been served, one conviction in a single courtroom doesn’t portend progress. State violence against black communities continues to pose a threat. But the calls for police reform, along with the reform of other institutions, evoke the need for systemic change.
Many Christians have asked what role the church plays in dismantling racism. Churches are in the business of changing hearts and minds. We are less adept at disrupting and challenging systems which threaten or diminish vulnerable communities. This includes examining the ways in which predominately white churches, including pastors, have benefited from ignoring or upholding these very systems.
Making systemic change in the church is difficult and painful work. It’s much easier to make surface level changes — to change the paint colors of the building, or change a church’s name based on marketing research — than to ask hard questions about the priorities of church budgets or the investments they hold, examining who is included and excluded when major decisions are made, or the ways in which churches insulate themselves from changing demographics in their communities.
This is true not just of the church, but virtually any institution — law enforcement, school boards, health care institutions. It’s notoriously difficult to effect change at systemic levels. When the choice is between protecting the power of the institution versus solidarity with communities threatened by white supremacy, we too often side with safeguarding the self-interests of the institution.
At a time when churches across all denominations are declining in membership, it may feel counterintuitive to speak or act against systemic racism. It seems too controversial. Yet, what if our communities are hungry for churches that are as fearless, loving, justice-seeking and inclusive as the one we follow?
Our churches can find new purpose and meaning in rediscovering the radically open heart of their faith. It means moving from charity-based approaches to ministry which fix the imbalance of power between giver and receiver, towards ministries in solidarity with the pain of our communities. It means being more inclusive in decision making, including listening to and sharing power with the surrounding community. It means using endowments and creating new line items in budgets for ministry that supports the work of justice and equality. It means advocating for greater accountability and reform of police, as many local activists and clergy are working hard to bring about.
Houses of worship, at their best, are sites of community transformation. As pastors and faith leaders we paradoxically take both great pride and are humbled by the dedication of the people we serve. Many of them are eager to see the very transformation that brings about real change. Thus, churches are uniquely equipped to form their people to be sent out and reform systems within the businesses, boards and institutions their members serve.
Dr. Cornel West once famously said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Churches have powerful stories of love to share. I hope that our “love made public” would seek to disrupt and transform the complex web of systems and institutions when they would go against the deepest core convictions of our faith — that humanity is created in the beauty and dignity of God’s image. Or, to put it another way, black lives matter.
The docile image of Jesus has made it difficult for churches to feel the power of Jesus’ mission and message with new impact, urgency and clarity. It means letting go of the passive Jesus of popular imagination, and siding with the Jesus at the margins.
— Rick Fry is pastor of Ascension Lutheran Church.