Tag Archives: race

White Jesus, is that you?

It was opening night of the 2013 Yeezus tour, and rapper Kanye West surprised fans with a dramatic intro to his set. Etherial classical music filled the stadium while a man stood on stage wearing a jeweled black mask. Suddenly, a tall, white, barefoot, bearded man in a long white robe made his way across the stage. As this man approached, the lights around brightened and the image of Jesus was revealed. The masked man removed his disguise, and the crowd cheered on none other than Kanye West. In awe of Jesus, Kanye asked, “White Jesus, is that you?” Jesus then engaged in dialogue with Kanye, revealed that he is there to “show people the light- the light of truth in you [Kanye]”, and slowly exited the stage. Then, Kanye fell to his knees as the beat to his hit single “Jesus Walks” stirred the crowd.

Fans were both surprised and confused as to why Kanye would employ a Jesus impersonator to perform on tour with him. In his interview with San Francisco’s Wild 94.9 JV Show, Kanye stated that bringing Jesus on stage was just another example of the artistry similar to Michelangelo painting Jesus in the Sistine chapel, a sculptor crafting a masterpiece, or an actor performing in a play. Kanye emphasized in this interview that what makes Christianity special and important to him is that he (and other followers) are freely allowed to portray and create images of holy figures. Although there has been controversy around the incident, West ensured fans that he believed his heart was in the right place, and that God knew that his intentions were good. 

Kanye’s Roman Catholic upbringing reinforces his idea that an actor playing Jesus isn’t something that should be seen as controversial.  Like the Jesuits in early America, discussed in “The Color of Christ” by Paul Harvey and Edward J. Blum, West puts emphasis on the power of the physical images of Christ. Not only does he hire a man to play Jesus on stage, but he also wears jeweled interpretations of Jesus’s face and incorporates symbols like light, crosses, halos, and fire into his music video for “Jesus Walks”. These “icons” serve as a symbol of faith for Kanye, and they make the idea of Jesus more tangible and relatable. Unlike the Puritans in early America, West has created physical representations of Jesus which support his belief that people can easily talk to Jesus, walk with Jesus, and have a relationship with him. For Kanye, these physical symbols create an emotional connection and a feeling of closeness to Jesus. West also has similar theological ideas as the Native Americans influenced by the French Jesuits. These Native Americans took the image of Jesus (a “man-god”) that the Jesuits had and combined that image with their own concept of a great hunter that they bargained and exchanged with. Similarly, Kanye creates an image of Jesus that resembles a regular man that can be talked to, walked with, and befriended. The goal, for Kanye, is to create an image and idea of Jesus that reflects the closeness felt by friends or family (a “Jesus is my homeboy” idea) because that’s the image he feels most comfortable relating to. This could be seen as a way to reach out to those who normally wouldn’t experience Jesus in everyday life (like some of the groups addressed in “Jesus Walks”) or to provide a new face to a religion that can be seen as intolerant, hateful, and exclusive toward the groups of people that primarily listen to Kanye West’s music.

The interesting aspects of West’s opening performance were not only that the Jesus was white, but that Kanye specifically called him “White Jesus”. Why employ a white male to represent Jesus when in the music video for “Jesus Walks” the people persecuting the African Americans are white? Other groups of people are mentioned in the lyrics and varying races shown in the music video, but they all represent the different types of typical sinners like hustlers, drug dealers, and strippers. These groups of people are encouraged to walk with Jesus and listen to his words. The main race relation in question is that between the Whites and the African Americans. White security guards with large guns beat and pat down the chained, African American men while another white man cuts down wood to create a cross to burn (in the video, he is eventually revealed to be wear KKK-like garb). This image of race relations created by Kanye is similar to the image in “The Color of Christ” from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In the image, two African American slaves are beating another African American slave. Jesus and the slaveowner are present but on the sides of the scene (Jesus on the left and the slaveowner on the right). Both Jesus and the slaveowner are white in color, but the slaveowner has a more open, dominant role in the picture seen by the face that he is facing forward, exposing more of his body. Through this own style of art (music videos and concert tours), Kanye West creates this same picture which forces us to ask questions about race relations and religion despite the amount of progress people believe has been made.

In the case of “Jesus Walks”, the slaveowner is represented by the men with guns in the video, Jesus is represented by the barefoot, bearded actor used on tour, and the beaten slave (other Jesus-like character) would be represented by West. When the Jesus character on West’s tour enters the stage, he promises that the audience will be shown the light and truth which lies within Kanye. Therefore, Kanye is the truth and the light, and is god-like in the way that he can lead others to walk with this White Jesus. What is it that makes him personify Jesus as white? Is it his Catholic upbringing which would have shown him pictures of a white Jesus? West makes the point in “Jesus Walks” that topics like sex, drugs, and alcohol cover the media and music, but he received doubt and criticism for mentioning Jesus. Therefore, this White Jesus could represent an image easily accepted by the media, a white male, combined with the more chaotic rap music components. There are many controversies surrounding Kanye West’s work, but it can’t be denied that he forces us to take a step back and analyze the relationship between the seemingly opposite worlds of religion and rap.

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The Growing Diversity of African-American Faith

As a class, since we began reading The Color of Christ by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, we have spent a good amount of time talking about African-American faith. Typically, when talking about this subject most of the information we read covers African-American Christianity from slavery on, but a recent article from The Huffington Post and a follow up interview from NPR hosted by Mitchel Martin show that more African-Americans than ever are now choosing the create their own paths and explore the many faiths that are practiced in America. Many African-Americans, even those that were raised Christian, are now seeking new religions experiences for numerous different reasons. The article above touches on the diverse group of religions African-Americans now practice, but it does not and could not possibly on every different faith that is now practiced by the entire population of black Americans.

Imageo-YITZ-570

In the Huffington Post article, the author states, “Considerable attention has already been given to the role of Christianity and Islam as religious influences, but the diversity of religious traditions practiced within the African-American community extends beyond those two traditions.” The author then backs up this statement by giving us nine examples of African-Americans that practice different religions. Hearing from African-Americans that are Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Atheist, Hindu, Christian, and Pagan allows us to believe that the the effects from the christianizing of Blacks that occurred in during the times of slavery in America may have begun to wear off. One example provided is the story behind Black, Jewish, and Homosexual rapper Yitz Jordan (above). In his life, Jordan faced discrimination for sexual preference, skin color, and religious background, but despite the negativity, the Jewish community accepted Jordan into their religion in 2004. Jordan, like fellow black, Jewish rapper Drake, embraces everything that he is and is as proud to a part of the Black community as he is to be part of the LGBT community and the Jewish community. Jordan can be seen talking about his religion, his rapping, and his life below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k_ITmHdTgOQ

Black-Religion-Denomination-Pie-Chart

African American Religious Association

The vast diversity of African-American faith is highlighted by the story of Timothy Conley who practices Baha’i religion. Growing up, Conley, just like a large amount of African-American children was a Christian that worshipped at an all black church. The way he grew up ultimately led Conley to seek a more diverse place to worship, “That’s what’s great about the Baha’i tradition, the promotion of this diversity. And being a part of a religion that promotes humanity and not such a focus on race, it is refreshing.” (Huffington Post). As you can see in the chart to the left, African-Americans truly are branching out when it comes to religious preference. Yes, Christianity is still the preference for most, but it is no longer the preference of an overwhelmingly large amount of African-Americans like it once was. As time goes on America is becoming more and more diverse. This growing diversity can be seen through: the acceptance of other races, the acceptance of the LBGT community, and now the acceptance of countless religions.

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The Racial Makeup of American Churches

After visiting a predominately African-American church as a child, I had a question: “Why is our church mostly white, and theirs mostly black?” Reverend Thomas Barclay, the new head of the United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God had a similar experience with Assembly of God churches.  Since being elected four years ago, he has now tried to bring the two denominations together. While they are not yet trying to merge, they still intend to try to bring the two denominations closer.  The UPCAG has around 70 predominately black churches in America and a couple other countries.  The Assembly of God operates over 360,000 worldwide churches with around 300 predominantly black churches in the US.  

Reverend Thomas Barclay, the man behind the coming together of the UPCAG and the Assembly of God.

Reverend Thomas Barclay, the man behind the coming together of the UPCAG and the Assembly of God.

While I am not Pentecostal, I can still relate to the racial differences in churches.  Growing up in South Georgia, I was raised in a very traditional Southern Baptist Church.  We had black members who attended regularly, however they were by far the minority, as 99% of the congregation was white.  However, being in South Georgia I had many friend who attended predominately African-American churches, and I visited with them on many occasions.  The style and feeling is so different between the two, that I was uncomfortable at their church and they were uncomfortable at mine.  It had nothing to do with race, it had to do with the style of worship and praise you grew up in.

A recent poll of Senior Pastors on diversity.

A recent poll of Senior Pastors on diversity.

A recent LifeWay Research poll shows that 85% of Senior Pastors when asked said that every church should strive to be racially diverse, but only 13% said their church had more than one predominant racial or ethnic group in their congregation.   Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research said that this is due, in part to human nature because, “Everybody wants diversity, but many don’t want to be around people who are different.”  While I do not agree with this statement entirely, I do think there is some truth to it.  While most people do prefer to be around people like them, I would like to believe that many other people are more comfortable with anyone that worships the same God being in the pew beside them.

In America: Religions and Religion by Catherine Albanese, we talked about historical churches during slavery, and how while many slave owners brought their slaves to church with them, there was also a large slave religion in the background, sometimes even unknown by the slave owners.  As the last blog post pointed out, most churches in Tuscaloosa were integrated before the Civil War and slave owners and slaves worshiped side by side, however today Tuscaloosa’s churches, like most around America are predominately one racial or ethnic makeup.  However, this time period in American history also divided lots of religions and denominations in America, because of the issue of slavery.  Segregation is the time period where, like the rest of America, the church you attended was decided by color.  Although in present day America, a black man and a white man can sit side by side at a diner, they are still most likely not going to sit side by side in church, even if they adhere to the exact same religion.

Even when a church is multi-racial in America, they do not tend to stay that way.  In this slightly dated, but still relevant CNN Article, some stories from interracial congregations are shared.  Pastors of interracial churches share that, when preaching and even talking in normal conversation to their congregation, they have to pay careful attention to what they say, because one slip of the tongue could start a firestorm.  They share that it is like being in a campaign.  The article says that, just like in normal culture, skirmishes can still arise over who’s in power and racial issues like interracial dating.  Curtiss Paul DeYoung, co-author of United by Faith, which examines interracial churches, was once the pastor of an interracial church in Minnesota but as he puts it, “I left after five years, I was worn out from the battles”.  The church he was a pastor at eventually went all black.

This raises a question in my mind.  While yes, most people believe that all churches should strive to be interracial as the poll pointed out, is it really a bad thing if they are not? Shouldn’t people be allowed to worship wherever they feel comfortable?  As long as no one is forbidding people to worship in interracial setting, is it such a bad thing if people don’t?  I just feel that people should worship where they feel comfortable, and if that is in a small intimate sanctuary full of people exactly like them or a mega church with many races and ethnicities represented, they are free to do so.

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Welcome to American Religion in America

Photo: “America!” by Michael Dougherty

American Religion in America is the class blog for REL 245: Honors History of Religions of America in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Alabama, taught by Dr. Michael J. Altman. As part of our class, students will be writing blog posts that relate our class materials to contemporary issues and current events in American culture.

There are a lot of way to approach religion in American culture and history but this semester I chose to emphasize three major themes in our class: immigration, race, and Protestant cultural power. Here are the books we’ll be using as we make our way through the semester:

America: Religions & Religion by Catherine L. Albanese

The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey

Parade of Faiths: Immigration and American Religion by Jenna Weissman Joselit

You can find the full syllabus for the course here.

So, subscribe to our RSS field below, follow us on WordPress, or just check back every now and then to see what the students are writing about.

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