– image by Sarah Jenkins –
Before heading into this very contentious topic I must first disclose that I do in fact believe that Jesus Christ did actually exist and that he, indeed, performed miracles and spread the word of God. I also believe that the Christian bible is an accurate account of human history. The analysis that will be presented here is not an attempt to disprove or question the bible. Instead, I will attempt here to present my favourite parts of the bible in their proper human context. By this I mean, in this article I want us to look at the times in which these parts were written and to understand the people living in these times as real people – real in the sense that they also had fears and aspirations and they also lived in a society with a government and politics. Looking at it in this way can make the contents of the bible more applicable to our ordinary lives, where there are no sudden miracles to save us from the tyranny of the daily routine – to save us from exploitation, from poverty, from inflation, from unemployment or from macro-economic policy. By all accounts it would seem that we are all alone today, in a strange world where the works of God count for nothing. But a closer look at the bible will show us that these are not new problems and that, in fact, the old solutions are still very applicable.
The bible, of course, is divided in two parts: the old testament and the new testament. But his division also indicates a very important occurrence in both section. That is, of course, the fact that in each case a holy man delivers a new system of laws to the Israelites. First it was Moses and then Jesus. These two events are at least two thousand years apart. But the question still remains: why did this have to happen twice? In fact, why is it that the first time the laws are given – when Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with the ten commandments – the laws are only handed down in the middle of the bible? I believe that the clue to answering this question can be found at the very beginning of the bible, in the parable about the tower of Babylon, which is told in the book of Genesis. Historians mostly agree that the kingdom of Babylonia was one of the earliest civilizations, along with the Kingdom of Ur, and that it was somewhere in this region called Mesopotamia – the place where both kingdoms are located – where great inventions like the wheel were made (this is besides the point however). In the parable it is said that a large number of people once got together to build in the city of Babylon and what they built was a very tall tower that rose up to the sky. It is said that God was not pleased when he saw this. He then made everyone speak different languages, which made it impossible to continue working together on the tower. And so the people dispersed into different nations.
I always dismissed this as being part of the bible’s anti urban bias. By “bias” I mean how things always go horribly wrong in cities (e.g. Sodom and Gomorrah going up in flames; or how heroes such as Samson and even Jesus met their deaths in urban areas); while, on the other hand, rural activities such as being a shepherd are looked upon in a good light; as well as how God is often revealed in a rural setting. But I was wrong; there is more to it. If you know your history then you’ll also be aware that Babylon was the centre of the first empire in human history (or at least the first to be depicted in the bible). Thus what we see continuously in the political narrative of the bible is not so much a struggle against the city as it is a struggle against imperialism and the empires of Babylon, Sumatra, Philistine, Egypt, the Greeks (in the form of the Corinthians) and ultimately the Roman Empire. However, only with two of these empires was it necessary for a Messiah to come into the world and bring a new system of laws to the people. Sure it might have been necessary from time to time for a hero to fight against the empire or to remind people of the laws (e.g. Samson or Elliah) but it was only under Egyptian and Roman imperialism that the laws themselves had to be changed. In other words revolution was necessary.
In Moses’s case, the Israelites had come into Egypt voluntarily, as guests of the Pharaoh after Joseph had saved Egypt from a drought in the book of Genesis. By the time Moses is born however the Egyptians had begun to see the Israelites as second class citizens and they subjected them to oppression and exploitation. Thus Moses was sent to free the Israelites from Egypt through what might be considered a non-violent struggle. However, when Moses had freed his people, when he had led them far into the desert and away from the empire, he found that his people had been deeply corrupted by the empire. He realised that it was not simply a matter of freeing them from the physical bondage but that their minds and souls now also belonged to the empire. Thus the ten commandments were more than simple laws but they were a new way of life or a new rationale for determining right from wrong, and ascertaining merit, justice and fairness. The commandments formed the basis of laws in the new nation of Israel and this remained the case for centuries, until the birth of Jesus, when everything had to be changed all over again.
By the time Jesus is born Israel has already been from from Egypt for thousands of years and it is now an old and prosperous kingdom with a lineage of great kins such as David and Solomon. But Jesus himself is born into the reign of Herod, who is descried as a cruel and unwise king and he is portrayed as an enemy of Jesus from the onset. Jesus, on the other hand, is frequently referred to as the son of David (since king David is his maternal ancestor) and he is also called the “king of kings”. From this we can tell that those those who supported Jesus (they would later come to be known as Christians) believed that Herod was undeserving of the throne and that Jesus was a better candidate. Since Jerusalem was a colony of Rome at this time it is possible to wonder if Herod was a puppet king, working for the empire to control the people of Israel. As puppet king he would have distorted traditional laws to keep order to fulfill the desires of the empire. Paramount among these desires would have been economic wealth. Thus we can ask the following: When Jesus said “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” is it possible that he was not just telling the people to pay their taxes be contempt but, rather, he was challenging the economic hegemony of Rome by telling people to forfeit money because it was tainted by the empire and it kept people eternally bound to the empire? When Jesus threw out the gamblers and the money lenders from the temples, was he not doing so because he saw them as agents of the empire, who had come to bring debt to the people and to keep them tied to the empire? And, finally, let us consider how Jesus dies: Was it not Roman soldiers who captured Jesus, whereupon Peter cut off one of the men’s ear? Was he not then taken to a Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate? Was he not put to death through a Roman method of punishment, crucifixion? All of this is to say that Jesus was opposed to the empire and that, although his message is very applicable in other issues, it is a message of resistance against imperialism. Jesus is sent down, not simply to save Israel from sin but to rescue the people from yet another empire.
The root of the problem – and the reason why messiahs have to be sent in with new laws – is the corruption of the existing laws by the forces of Imperialism. Colonial powers and empire builders, even today, often use existing forms of governance to further their own aims, only manipulating them and making slight changes to ensure that they can be controlled. For instance, the British often maintained the kingdoms within their colonies and they simply swapped the kings with trustworthy natives. Since Christianity came about in order to liberate the Israelites from the Roman empire it is ironic that Christianity itself would later be assimilated by Rome (in about 200 AD) and made into the cornerstone of the Roman Empire – and hence the origin of the Roman Catholic Church. Even after the collapse of Rome, however, Christianity remained as a powerful base on which future empires would be built. Thus during The Crusades, when western imperialism expanded into the Middle-East, it was ostensibly to “take back the holy land” from the non-Christians who now occupied the region. Christianity, in this way, served as an idea around which the forces necessary to build an empire (loyal soldiers and downers to fund the expansion) could be galvanized. We see the same thing later on in history, when colonial powers first sent missionaries and then soldiers into the dark continent in order to first explore and then conquer, all in the name f bringing the native’s retched souls closer to salvation.
There is an interesting difference in the manner in which Jesus and Christianity are revealed to the native, as opposed to how they had been discovered by the Europeans. Although the christian religion was eventually formerly assimilated into the Roman Empire under Emperor Constantine, for almost two hundred years prior to that Christians were persecuted and even set alight or fed to wild animals to appease the Roman masses (especially under the reign of Emperor Nero). Thus the religion was always associated with an oppressed people (the lowest class) and Jesus was probably understood as a very real and necessary hero who must return to save his people from the tyranny of Rome (notice his similarity to Moses?). Because there was a very real threat of persecution and death for Christians living in the empire, Jesus was not simply a saviour in the spiritual sense but, instead, the idea that he would return represented real freedom for the oppressed and punishment for their imperial overlords.
However, the natives in Africa and elsewhere were confronted by a very different Messiah. To begin with, they had been unaware of Jesus’ existence and were thus sinners by default – a guilt that they would constantly be reminded of. To make matter worse, Jesus appears as a vengeful and demanding God, who punishes even the slightest error with Armageddon. But that’s because the reasons behind his supposed rage (i.e. the oppression of his people by the empire) are omitted in the bible (don’t forget that the Roman Empire were the first ones to formally publish the bible). However, the biggest obstacle between Christianity and the African is that Jesus is always presented as belonging to the white man – not least because he looks nothing like the African. Is this the reason then for Dr Martin-Luther King’s claim that Jesus was a black man? Was this simply an attempt by black people to find a place for themselves within the Christian narrative?
I believe that Dr King, who was a theologian, had discovered the deeper truth about the history of Christianity and he recognized the religion’s potential for use as a weapon against the forces that oppressed black Americans in the 1960s. Dr King was well aware that Christianity did not belong to the white man since, as a theologian, he would have studied the religion’s origin in what is now the middle-east. But he must have been just as aware (if not more so) of how the white man – and other imperialists before him – had used it to galvanize people towards a common purpose. The purpose itself had often been sinister but Christianity on its own was good and it was capable of unleashing great social change. Historically (as noted by the sociologist Max Weber) Christianity had allowed a shift in spiritual thinking, away from the group and towards the individual (by allowing each person direct access to God through Jesus) and this provides a moral justification for capitalism – since capitalism is a system based on individual ownership and individual interests. Also, Christianity later formed the spiritual basis for colonization inasmuch as it allowed the colonizer to invent the notion of “whiteness”. By associating Jesus with people of lighter skin colour (those from Europe in particular), even though we know that Jerusalem is in the middle-east, the colonizer gave moral superiority to lighter skin, which then gave a moral justification for marching into the dark continent to bring the light into the hearts and minds of the savages who inhabited it. In this way whiteness was invented and it was made out to be an opposite of blackness, even though race itself cannot be scientifically proven. Whiteness was made to seem better than blackness and so everyone deemed black would have to aspire for whiteness.
Thus the first thing that Dr King aims to do (by claiming that Jesus is black) is to challenge the unequal relationship between blackness and whiteness: To say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with being black and with black things. He does so by challenging the very basis of our moral-inferiority, our distance from Jesus. But you should not assume that this is simply the case of a native imitating the white master (as in, they have a white Jesus so we want a black one); this is something far more profound. In the 1960s and 70s proponents of Black Consciousness (such as Dr King, Malcolm X and Steve Biko) were resisting a different kind of consciousness – what I will call “native consciousness” – which urged black people to return to their traditional roots and to forfeit all things modern. This paradigm sees Black as the opposite of modern and thus modernity is allowed to be the monopoly of the white man. However, this is the same agenda pursued by the colonizer: to define the native and to keep him confined within that definition and to claim all the good things outside that definition (even those created by society or the human race as a whole) as the monopoly of the white man. Thus native consciousness (as epitomized by people such as Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire) played right into the hands of the colonizer. Black Consciousness on the other hand is dynamic. It recognizes that whiteness and nativity are inventions and that Blackness is also an invention. And so it seeks to re-invent itself. Black Consciousness is adaptable and it responds to the daily troubles of the black man. So it does not go digging in native relics (which have been corrupted by the empire, just as Rome corrupted the laws of Moses) but, instead, it quickly searches around its environment for useful materials to build itself (just as we build our African cities today, on the ruins of “white” modernity). When confronted by a Christian-based form of oppression, within a Christian world where black people had been ripped away from any other history they may have had, Dr King captured the Christian narrative for himself and for his people and used it to free them from moral inferiority but also – and this is the most important part – to show us all that we are also creators. Just as Moses recreated the spirituality of Israel; just as Jesus re-wrote the bible; Just as the Romans assimilated Christianity, shaping it in their own pagan image; and just as white man has used it to lay down the foundations for his capitalist empire, we can also use Christianity (and any other thing we want) to recreate Blackness.
Perhaps the most fundamental statement ever made about Blackness was made by Malcolm X, when he dropped his surname and replaced it with an X. The X represents the unknown and it has infinite possibilities. But in order to access these possibilities one must be willing to be unknown and to forfeit any delusions about roots or historical definitions. If we accept that we are a conquered people, with no claim to history, then we accept the potential to begin our great history at any moment – even today.