Black Jesus

Lately I have been reading through Veli-Matti Karkkainen’s A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World: Christ and Reconciliation for a book review that I am supposed to write. The book really is a one of a kind book, its rooted in the thought that systematic theology, or what Karkkainen calls “coChrist and Reconciliation - Karkkainennstructive theology,” needs to be in dialogue with non-traditional – that is contextual – theological voices. Also, constructive theology needs to be in dialogue with other world religions. The fact that he wants to engage contextual theologies and other world religions might worry some people that he has bought a bit too much into pluralism; but there is nothing to worry about here, Karkkainen’s views are thoroughly evangelical.

Amid his discussion of contextual Christologies, Karkkainen takes up the topic of Black Christology. Within this section he mainly enters into dialogue with James Cone, Albert Cleage, Tom Skinner, and J. Deotis Roberts.

On one end of the spectrum you have “Black Christology” like that of James Cone who believes that “the norm of all God-talk which seeks to be black talk is the manifestation of Jesus as the black Christ who provides the necessary soul for black liberation.”

Like Cone, Albert Cleage takes up Christology as a way to promote social and political activism. Yet unlike Cone, Cleage makes the radical claim that Jesus of Nazareth was literally black. He argues that Jesus was a part of the ultranationalistic Zealot movement committed to bringing about a black nation of Israel.

Black jesus

On the other end of the spectrum, there is Tom Skinner. Skinner believes that Christ is liberator but does not identify with any particular color of people. Jesus’ only allegiance was to his Father and to the Kingdom of God.

What do both of these positions leave us with? Well it leaves us with two rather uncomfortable options – one option that over-identifies Jesus with one particular color (Jesus is Black), the other option under-identifies Jesus with the particularities of race (Jesus does not identify with any particular color of people). Both of these positions are unsatisfying.

Is there a way forward? (If there wasn’t I wouldn’t have asked…) Why yes there is! I think that J. Deotis Robert’s position brings some helpful insights to this conversation. According to Karkkainen Roberts believes that Christ is the Redeemer of all, but also of each specific group. He says that the “Black Messiah” is particular, while the Messiah of the Bible is universal.

Its important to understand that for Roberts there is a dialectical relationship between the particular (Black, White, Asian, Poor, Latino) Christ and the universal Christ. Accordingly, the universal Christ is particularized for the sake of a particular group of people. Quite simply this means that Jesus is the Messiah for humanity in a general way, yet he is Messiah for Blacks, Whites, Asians, Latinos in a particular way. Christ redeems humanity as a whole – dealing with the issues of humanity: sin, death, and Satan. Yet Christ is also the redeemer of theses particular groups – dealing with the particular issues of Whites, Blacks, Asians, Latinos. So in one sense, we can call Jesus the “Black Messiah” because he is the Messiah for blacks. We can call Jesus the “Latino Messiah” because he is the Messiah for Latinos. Yet his Messianic status is not limited to Blacks or Latinos, etc. Christ is first and foremost humanity’s messiah.

This is an important insight, primarily because it follows the Bible’s theology of race, which neither over emphasizes nor ignores the particularities of race, tongue or tribe.

Within Scripture the categories “race, tongue, and tribe” are never erased or blended together, but they aren’t made primary identity marker either.

At the end of the day, those who have submitted to the Messiah and chosen to follow him are identified first with being in Christ – i.e. being a part of the Kingdom – and then their cultural particularities are used to aid in their worship of God. That is because God values diversity in race, tongue, and tribe.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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