By Drena Griffith
A painting of a white Jesus--blonde, blue-eyed--greeted us each afternoon as we walked into religion class my sophomore year of high school. On the same wall hung a black Jesus with dark skin and curly hair. These two images watched us quietly, day after day, for months, until one of my classmates finally asked the question unspoken but clearly often wondered about:
“…why is there a picture of a white Jesus and a black Jesus on the wall?”
In response, our religion teacher explained that the Jewish Jesus Christ, from the Middle East with olive colored skin and dark, wavy hair, really did not look like either representation. But what did we think?
Well, of course Christ had to be more white, several of my classmates exclaimed, because white represented everything important and good in our country and world, right? Of course Christ couldn’t really be black because black people were inferior; hadn’t history proven that time and again? What began as a discussion about wall hangings slowly turned bitter and aggressive as the rising tide of resentments over affirmative action, the Confederate flag and other lingering issues of our parents' (and grandparents') days projected conflicting attitudes upon those images.
I was one of two non-white students sitting in the classroom the day the question was asked. At the time I felt deeply defensive, shamed and wounded by the words of my classmates, some of them my friends.
As for me, I really couldn’t relate to either white or black Jesus. Neither image reflected my reality. It seemed to me that my classmates needed Jesus to be white because they were white. And they needed Jesus to not be black because of what they had been taught to believe about blackness. But hadn’t I grown up on those same depictions, except within me whiteness also seemed remote and beyond my reach, and blackness as something to despise? Wasn’t Jesus Christ, as the Bible stories portrayed him at least, selfless, conscientious and, above all else, inclusive?
Neither of those images told me a thing about the real Christ; though silent as they were, they seemed to reveal much of what we believed about each other.
Over 26 years later, I’m reminded of those silent, watchful paintings and that blistering conversation as I listen to the cultural and racial rhetoric of this season: Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter. The two movements slam against each other, unyielding--the existence of one seemingly negating the stance of the other. Last week was particularly brutal and troubling. But when I hold the fresh wave of pain flowing across the nation from communities in Falcon Heights, Baton Rouge and Dallas, I don’t see white blood and black blood. I don’t see an us versus them. What I do sense is a commingled wave of fear, misunderstanding and hatred that I know firsthand can sweep across and drag all colors and races, cultures and creeds, movements and good intentions down to the depths.
As someone who has actively contemplated and sought to reconcile racial discord since long before that fateful high school class discussion, the one--and perhaps only-- thing I’ve come to understand is the complexity of the issues involved.
It seems to me that if we stop to think about it, of course it’s true that Black Lives Matter. And yes, it’s equally true that All Lives Matter. Standing alone, each is an expression of a very real incarnate need to be recognized and understood. The trouble is--these movements don’t stand alone. The framework of each depends upon a particular discourse with the other; and often it seems what some people react against is what they think the other means by what it says.
Just like with the two images of Jesus on the wall, the issues ultimately had nothing at all to do with those images themselves, but what we as a class projected onto them. (Of course, that didn’t make the resulting tension any less real. In fact, I think it made things worse. It’s nearly impossible to find resolution when the issues themselves are cast shadows.)
But my guiding principle in response to all social and political challenges is this: it doesn’t matter what we profess to believe if our actions, even our anger at injustice, exclude us from those around us. Our neighbors. Our friends. Our enemies. Them, whoever them happens to be. In some ways, it doesn’t matter how we wound up together in this place, because together we are. All of our fates intertwine. So we either all get home together, or no one does. In the end, beliefs should serve people, rather than the other way around.
But more and more I’ve come to see belief, even beliefs about race, as less a static basis of identity and more of a spectrum, a range diverse and multifaceted as our own distinct hues, features and cultural differences.
I’ve also witnessed the existence of something opposite--vectors of unintegrated subtle energy that David Spangler refers to as “Hungry Ghosts.“ I call them colorless holes. These energetic voids feed from our disconnection. They feed on the words that people don’t feel comfortable sharing for fear of censure and trial by public opinion. They feed on the fears that people suppress. And they expand and engulf entire sections of our world when people react and become filled with even justifiable wrath and rage in response to discrimination.
Truly, it’s hatred, rather than love, that knows no color. It's counter-force Love, by its very nature, embraces all, including and especially that which challenges it. That makes love itself a multifaceted, multicolored experience.
Of course none of this is an answer to the racial challenges facing the United States (and our world.) There aren’t easy answers. Quite frankly there may not be answers at all. I know we must stand against injustice. I know we must not yield to rage in our quest for understanding. But this past week especially there seemed to be such a narrow space in between those two points that it’s been all I personally could do to stand still, say a firm clear no the energies of that devouring, colorless void and, as quietly as possible, attune my heart to Love that knows a world where all races existing in harmony is possible.
It has to live in me, and be nourished by the soil of my efforts and responses first and foremost. So taking a quiet hour, after a week of violence and anger, I look to the movement stirring within my own heart, and I ask myself:
How do I find love in this hour, in this place, where I am? How do I love and honor all victims of racial violence so that their sacrifices aren't in vain? How do I love white police officers using excessive force against unarmed and innocent people? How do I love black men shooting white officers in retaliation? How do I love my friends, black white and all shades in between, struggling in sometimes awkward, conflicting ways to make sense of these trials? How do I love myself, love the limitations and resistances I sometimes encounter right here at home in this heart--the part of me that wants to give in and give up?
This is my humble offering to this hour of painful struggle. Today I hold my silent vigil and tomorrow I will seek out ways to act upon it. I will bless every cop I see. I will honor every one of my friends brave enough to speak out openly and honestly. I will partner with them to paint a new portrait of our world. I will risk openness and discomfort and share my own deeper feelings. Day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment--I will not give into fear.
That afternoon in religion class as white Jesus and black Jesus looked on us with solemnity and sadness in their eyes, I could not as easily see something that seems obvious to me now: our teacher never asked us to choose one painting over the other. We took on that task ourselves. Yet over these long years, in the times when I’ve seen the essence of Christ truly reflected in the world around me, it has never seemed more clear how similar we all are beneath the boundary we call skin. In fact, I cannot help being reminded of the immortal words of poet Maya Angelou in her poem "Human Family":
"…we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.
we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike
We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike."
Views from the Lorian Community publishes essays from a team of volunteer writers expressing individual experiences of a long term, committed practice of Incarnational Spirituality (and the general principles shaping such a practice.) If you wish to share how your life has benefited from your relationship with Lorian and IS, please email the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. We prefer submissions between 700-900 words. We rarely accept previously published material (including blog posts.) We also reserve the right to decline or to edit your submission. Any accepted submissions will be published in the order that best fits our topic schedule.