The Christ and African-American Suffering
The truth about the human Christ is best understood in the identity of Blackness. So is His Passion, or suffering. Though no people innately hold a monopoly on human suffering, certain persons and people-groups seem to have experientially received much more suffering than others have. Job is an Old Testament prototype. The biblical Covenant community is another. European Jews of the Holocaust of modern times qualify. Alas, most assuredly, the Black and African peoples of the MAAFA, or “African Holocaust,” is yet another post-biblical type.72
Slavery and the Blackest of Suffering
The experience of African’s enslavement in what became the United States is unsurpassed in the annals of history—so said Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.73 Never were a people taught to hate themselves so much for being naturally who they were by birth, Black—so said William Hiram Bentley, a great Black evangelical scholar.74 Never were a people considered legal chattel- property, and brutally dehumanized to such a great extent by white America, as were African-descended persons.
African-American Blacks know experientially the depths of suffering in its blackest form.75 When it comes to the Crucifixion story, we can understand with a keen appreciation, and passionately empathize with the suffering of Jesus, the Christ. His Suffering was indeed a “black” experience. It was black in color, and black in consciousness.76 The old Negro Spiritual “Were You There?” implicitly focuses the issue:
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh! — Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
Crucifixion and its Blackest Hour
The foregoing discussion suggests that Gibson’s vivid depiction of the Christ’s suffering has merit beyond personal application. It has merit for group application within a color-conscious and racially divided America, in a world that is ruled by the racism of whites. The level of violence in The Passion of the Christ has been scrutinized and criticized. Some have gone as far as to label the film “sadomasochistic.”77 Pardon the play on words as I say that the issue is at best painfully thorny.
The Gospel writers, in contrast to Gibson, treat the suffering and death of the Christ differently, if not modestly. All the Gospels show reverential reserve in their expressions of both the Christ’s scourging (whipping, flogging) and His actual crucifixion (impaling His body, affixing it with nails to the cross). They give no explicit or descriptive details of these tortures.
Luke’s Gospel has Pilate saying, “I will therefore have him flogged and release him” (23:16). Mark and Matthew say, “… after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified” (Mark 15:15; Matthew 27:26). John says, “Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged (19:1). At Golgotha, the writers simply say, “they crucified him,” or “when they had crucified him” (Matthew 27:35; Mark 15:24; John 19:18; Luke 23:33, NRSV).78 Unlike Gibson, the Gospel writers simply do not go into the repulsive and appalling details. The truth is that they provide sufficient enough information to let their readers know that the Crucifixion was real, in fact, it did happen.
Thus, in an “extreme”79 depiction, and departure from the Gospel writers’ spirit and their extensive treatment of the Christ’s last twelve hours, Gibson has magnified the misery of the Lord. Not in its reality, but on the screen. No one could ever fathom the depth of Jesus’ eternal suffering. What little we know specifically about His suffering we learn from the Scripture record, and from the cultural context of cruel Roman Crucifixion. We then imagine the rest…the worst.
Gibson’s The Passion has shown us what he believes was the worst. On this point there is no question but that this violently “R”-rated film has outdone its Christ-story predecessors. In any number of emotionally moving and gut-wrenching scenes, Gibson certainly has painted a gruesome and gory picture of the Crucifixion. In both its human and spiritual dimensions, Gibson shows the Crucifixion as the blackest80 hour of the Christ, and in the history of humankind.
The results of Gibson’s thrust are undeniably accepted: the Christ horrifically suffered. However, here we pause to make our case. We believe Gibson would have punctuated his point by casting the Christ as a Black man.
Why did not Gibson pursue this course? We raise a valid question. Gibson intentionally departed from the relatively reserved accounts, and the absence of explicit and prolonged details of the Christ’s suffering, in the Gospels’ record. Inasmuch as he took this path, why did not Gibson further extend his explosive portrayal of Christ’s suffering into both its biblical and contemporary racial realm? The double-punch would have tightly joined together and complemented his theme. As it stands, Gibson made one move, but stopped short of making the other. The move that Gibson chose to make reveals his literary liberty. The move that Gibson chose not to make reveals his literary lack.
Simultaneous Crucifixions: One on the Screen, the Other in the Black Psyche
Not to have been unexpected, and despite Gibson’s neglect, the episodes of Christ’s suffering compellingly moved this viewer in that aforementioned racial direction anyway. Further, it is difficult to imagine that I alone shared this experience. I am certain that The Passion’s archetype of divine-human suffering, with its implicit connections to cruel social and racial realities, also moved many other conscious African Americans and whites into the historical Black and white racial manifestations of unjust suffering and death.
As I watched the scourging scene in Gibson’s movie— Roman soldiers mercilessly whipping the Christ, until His flesh ripped and tore and His body bled as a fountain of blood—I was besieged with recurring, historically learned flashbacks. Nightmarish mental images of slavery sprang to mind. As the scourging of the Christ relentlessly continued, all this captured and captivated reviewer could picture were scenes of broken Black men being publicly humiliated, beaten down, flogged, and destroyed by their inhumane white slave masters.
Two simultaneous crucifixions took place. While Gibson’s screen-art crucified the Christ, its effectualness crucified Black slaves deep within my African and spiritual psyche. I saw the rawness and relationship of both crucifixions.
Gibson’s Passion—A Missed Opportunity for Racial Healing
It is a shame and a waste that Gibson did not follow the true biblical, modern historical and color-casting rationale in his Passion. He and his consultants missed a great opportunity to bring sensitivity to the paramount historical and contemporary Eurocentric and American color-line issue: the problem and suffering of slavery and its aftermath. If only the filmmaker had undertaken this bold move.
By reopening old, uncleansed, and festering wounds in interracial relations between Africans and whites, Gibson would have amply set the empathic basis that is requisite for effecting healing and true racial reconciliation. The theological, spiritual, social, and political ramifications would have been telling and compelling. Gibson’s glaring oversight has missed one of his most Kairotic or “divine-opportune” moments to influentially reshape the contours of America’s racial equation.
To recognize the reality of the Christ’s passion-suffering, is to see Him in His Divine and Black personhood—in His Black racial, ethnic, and physical identity. It is also to see the blackest of His suffering as the Messiah—His Blackness in culture and consciousness. The metaphor is socially dangerous to some, but it speaks the truth to the modern, Western, whitenized mind, and to the dominant Eurocentric cultural, social, and religious perspective.
In this light, we wonder. What would have been the outcry if Gibson’s drama had recaptured the authentic psychosocial pathos of the original ethno-cultural context, and been entitled: “The Black Passion of the Black Christ”?
Racial-Ethnic Responsibility for Christ’s Crucifixion
The Scriptures teach us plainly that Christ died for all, for all have sinned. So, all humanity is in fact responsible for the death of Christ.81 However, many believers skirt the historical and social realities of Christ’s Crucifixion by hastily employing the theological answer, whether applied to sinful humanity or to a holy God. Isaiah said, “Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer” (Isaiah 53:10a, NIV).
The question being raised here is the historical question. This discussion identifies the peoples, places, and times that are on the table of biblical history. Humanity’s sinful and evil representatives were present 2000 years ago in Palestine at the scenes of Christ’s Passion, at the Crucifixion. These representatives acted as unrighteous alter egos and operated as on-site agents-of-death for humanity’s dirty work. Who were these people? How did they look at the time? What was their human make-up?
Who Is Responsible? Espousers of Anti-Semitism or Anti-Hamitism?!
Who was responsible for the Crucifixion of this Black Christ? Was it the Gentile Romans, via Governor Pontius Pilate and their executioners? Was it the Jews of Judea, via their religious leaders and high priests, Annas, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin Council?82 Was Mel Gibson’s historical spin guilty of anti-Semitism?83 Or, if we could sufficiently establish such a determined judgment against the filmmaker, then should not African people—descendants of Noah’s son Ham—become justified and begin claiming a paradoxical form of “anti-Hamitism”?84
Who were those first-century and Crucifixion-scene Black persons—enclosed in the Palestinian Jewish humanity of the time—who were the instigating cause of the sufferings of their Black Messiah and Son of God? After all, the Christ “came unto his own [things], and his own [people] received him not” (John 1:11, emphasis added).85
The Crucifixion—A “Black on Black Crime” in a White Power Context
The Crucifixion was a “Black on Black Crime” in a white imperialistic power religious-social-cultural context. The appeal here is to step back and take a more perceptive look at the true picture of the racial and ethnocultural dynamics of the Crucifixion. At baseline, Christ’s Crucifixion was fratricide, a heinous “Black on Black crime”—one that was set in motion by Judas Iscariot who betrayed his own Jewish brother, Lord and Liberator: the Son of Man.86
This political-religious crime was immorally legitimatized, and socially forced by a Black Jewish religious system—led by the Nubian inherited priesthood of Annas and Caiphas87—and intentionally carried out by a mean-spirited and politically expedient, Machiavellian white Gentile judge—Pontius Pilate, who himself was the enforcer of their Imperial white power governing system. In the meantime, the Palestinian and other Passover pilgrims—as Black and colorful as they were—cried out: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”88 The Italian (racially white) Roman soldiers beat and crushed the Christ near to death. His African brother Simon of Cyrene, albeit under military duress, gave Him help in His dying struggle. The bloodthirsty crowd of Black Jews, who had gathered themselves around the Cross to observe this spectacle of gruesome death, eventually began to show signs of regret or remorse for this unjust crucifixion (Luke 23:47-48).
The Scripture offers a merciful and explanatory spin on the evil acts of the first-century leaders who were responsible for the unholy travesty and miscarriage of justice they meted upon the Christ. When these leaders crucified the Christ—whether they were Jews or Gentiles, whether Black people or whites, whether religious or irreligious— they acted in gross spiritual ignorance of God’s wisdom. Paul declares their ignorance in the following words:
7But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, 8which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:7-8, NKJV, emphasis added).
White Power, Black Crucifixion—A Darkened Understanding
The Christ—the Anointed One—experienced a full cup of undeserved and untold suffering. His suffering is best understood in our contemporary world against the backdrop of the suffering experiences of Black people and other people of color. These peoples of color seek human survival and freedom from oppression in a world dominated by a militarily powerful, filthy rich, politically invasive, culturally intrusive, and color-caste white supremacist system. This oft-ungodly system crucifies its non-white victims at will. As a righteous Redeemer, Deliverer, and Liberator of the oppressed, Jesus of Nazareth—the Messiah/Christ of God—unjustifiably suffered and criminally died under such a color-conscious, disparity-contrasted, oppressive system. These are crucial facts that enlighten our understanding of the historical context of the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. To extend a metaphor, these realities also darken our understanding of the human and de-humanizing experience of the divine Christ, about the intensity of the social dimension of the suffering of the Incarnate Word. But now, what of the sovereign and sinful forces that also combined to cause the suffering of the Christ? (Isaiah 53:5-6). What of the grace and truth of “the Word”?
72The MAAFA is a Kiswahili term for “disaster” or “terrible occurrence.” This African word best describes the more than 500 years of suffering among people of African descent due to slavery, imperialism, colonialism, invasions, and exploitation.
73“Go where you may, search where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.” “What To The Slaves Is The Fourth Of July?” Frederick Douglass’ Independence Day Address (1852).
74Bentley is honored as “father” of the National Black Evangelical Association and has been a personal teacher and mentor. Cited from personal conversations, and varied writings.
75“Blackest” is used here as a metaphor with a negative value, as an “empirical referent (in a context).” See Drake, Black Folks, vol. 1, 102- 106, “Chart 2. The Names of Colors as Verbal Symbols with Multiple Referents,” and his comments: “Meanings associated with words referring to ‘black,’ and the emotions that accompany them, presumably existed within many cultures prior to the use of the word black to refer to groups of people….the ‘black night of despair’ conjures up emotions of foreboding….” emphasis added.
76William Hiram Bentley, Defining and Identifying the Black Group (Chicago: National Black Christian Students Conference, 1980). Bentley stresses “color,” “culture,” and “consciousness” as the three commonalities of the Black group (emphasis added).
77Reviewers have made the charge vocally and in print. I do not share their label. See Andrew Greeley, “’Passion’ fails to nail key point,” Chicago Sun-Times, March 5, 2004: “’Passion’ is a glorification of sado-masochism” (p. 41).
78Even though Luke says, “they crucified Jesus,” the Greek simply uses the pronoun “him,” not His name. The Gospel writers show simple discretionary reserve.
79Gibson acknowledges that his portrayal of The Passion was “extreme.” “…I also wanted it to be extreme. I wanted it to push the viewer over the edge…” emphasis added. Mel Gibson, Sawyer Interview, “Pain and Passion.”
80See note 75 concerning this use of “blackest.”
81“But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man” (Hebrews 2:9, emphasis added; see Romans 3:23).
82Annas was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, see John 18:13. For details on the Sanhedrin Council, see Mark 14:55; Matthew 26:59; Luke 22:66-71.
83See Jon Meacham. “Who Killed Jesus?,” Newsweek, February 16, 2004, 44-53. Study Matthew 27:2; Luke 23:3-4; 24:20; Acts 2:23; 3:13, 15; 4:10; 5:30.
84Shem, Semitism, “anti-Semitism;” Ham, Hamitism, “anti- Hamitism.” See Genesis 10:1, 6. “Ham” means “hot,” “heat,” “black.” It is phonetically related to “Kemet” and is used in the Bible as a synonym for “Egypt.” See Psalm 105:23, 27; 106:22.
85We provide the literal translation of John 1:11. See NRSV: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” See also YLT: “…to his own things he came, and his own people did not receive him.”
86Matthew 26:21-25; Mark 14:18-21; Luke 22:47-48.
87See notes 21 and 22 for the “Nubian,” Phinehas, priesthood connections.
88Mark 15:13-14; John 19:6.
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