Thursday, October 6, 2022

White Jesus

My wife and I just finished watching the second season of the FX television series Reservation Dogs. It follows four Native American teenagers trying to find their way on a reservation in present-day Oklahoma. It has a (nearly) all indigenous cast and is a fascinating – and at times hilarious - glimpse into today’s Native American culture.

As a pastor I found the references to spiritual beliefs and practices particularly interesting. I especially liked that the show did not take indigenous or Christian spirituality too seriously, poking fun at both along the way.

Most interesting to me were the references to Jesus.  A traditional church portrait of a fair-skinned Jesus hangs on the wall of one of the family homes. The teens repeatedly refer to Jesus and even pray to Jesus, always referring to him as “White Jesus.”

That phrase “White Jesus” called my attention to the distorted way that Jesus has been presented in America. The historical Jesus was not white, yet he has usually been pictured as Caucasian in American Christian art. Most white folks do not think this is a problem. We see nothing wrong with having a portrait of a White Jesus hanging in our churches. We like the image. It feels comfortable to us.

But imagine for a moment if every church you entered had a picture of a black African Jesus on the wall. How comfortable would you feel then?  That is how people of color feel when they are expected to worship a White Jesus.

Can you imagine Southern Baptist churches depicting a black Jesus in their stained glass windows and Sunday School material? They can’t even remove the names of slaveholders from the buildings at my alma mater - The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary! That is how tone deaf white Christians are.

White Jesus is not the real Jesus. In my sermons I have often pointed out that the historical Jesus was not a fair-skinned man with an aquiline nose, thin lips, and light brown hair, even though that is consistently how he is depicted in traditional portraits. Even recent film depictions do not go far enough in correcting this misperception. Jesus was a Sephardic Jew with dark skin. He looked more like today’s Palestinian Bedouins than Ashkenazi Jews.

In the television show Reservation Dogs the spirits of indigenous ancestors regularly show up to give advice and guide the characters. One is a warrior who died at Little Big Horn. Another is a medicine woman who walked the Trail of Tears.  There is one scene where a group of ancestors gather around one of the girls. She felt their presence and it brought her to tears. It reminded me of the “church triumphant” and the biblical “great cloud of witnesses.”

In the concluding episode of the season White Jesus finally makes an appearance, played by Incubus front man Brandon Boyd. The teens have traveled to Los Angeles to honor the wish of a deceased friend by visiting the ocean. Their car is stolen while they are in a restaurant, and they do not know where to turn for help. At that point White Jesus appears and guides them the final five miles to the beach. He gives them verbal directions and walks with them.

Jesus is a homeless man who offers to share his humble shelter in a homeless encampment for the night. The police raid the area at dawn and everyone scatters. The teens lose track of White Jesus, but they follow his directions until they reach the ocean. 

On the beach one of the teens offers a prayer, and they proceed to wade into the ocean, where they have an emotional visionary reunion with their deceased friend. The camera cuts to White Jesus on the Beach. Reminds me of the Easter story.

I loved that Jesus appeared as a homeless man, although his use of Elizabethan language is cringeworthy. I loved that these teenage sinners, whose language is consistently “salty” and whose behavior is often illegal, feel so comfortable following Jesus. At the same time they realize that White Jesus is part of the White man’s religion and culture, which is suspect because of its history with Native Americans. Yet they are open to Jesus.

The name of the show brought to my mind the gospel story of Jesus meeting an indigenous woman. She is identified as a Canaanite, who were the indigenous people of the land of Canaan. She calls out to Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus replies with what appears to be a racial epithet. His remark sounds disturbing to our modern ears, which are so sensitive to verbal insults.

Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” Her reply: “Yes it is, Lord. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus then praises this woman’s “great faith” and heals the girl. I think Jesus recognized and overcame his own ethnic bigotry at that moment. Jesus learned from this encounter.

The idea that Jesus may have learned something from this indigenous woman may be controversial to Christians who think of Jesus in terms of unchanging perfection, but the Bible tells us that Jesus “grew in wisdom” and “learned obedience.” In his willingness to learn and change Jesus is our example in the spiritual life.

I don’t know if the writers of the show had this biblical scene in mind when they named the show. But I see parallels between the “reservation dogs” (which is the name the teens gave their gang) and the Canaanite woman. I see “great faith” in both. I see indigenous faith in both. I see a type of faith that White Christians with our White Jesus need to learn from – in order to overcome our racism and ethnocentrism as Jesus did. May we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

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