Over the past few months, we have witnessed worldwide calls for an end to racial oppression in all its forms. Social media platforms and influencers have drawn international attention to the issue of colour, often inciting further racial divisions. Anthony Adauka offers suggestions of how the Church can help communities to overcome prejudice.
Movements like the “Black Lives Matter” have placed a spotlight on the struggles of people of colour in America, following a spate of racial incidents. As a part of efforts to address and eradicate institutional racism, many people have called for the removal of images and statues that depict hatred, slavery and/or racial inequality.
Similarly, Churches are being asked to remove white images of God, Jesus and Mary, and replace them with black images to draw attention to the struggles of black people and as an acknowledgement of racist tropes within the Church.
Love and the gospel without colour
Would tearing down white images be enough to resolve the issue of race-based prejudice? Will a black God help me love my neighbour as myself without being caught up in the web of colour? If I cannot see a person beyond the colour of their skin, to what extent will the image of a black Jesus positively affect the invitation to live according to gospel values?
Looking at the gospel values in the Catholic Church’s social teachings, I have become critical of this tearing down and colour-change ideology. The love that Jesus exemplified through his life runs deeper than the spectrum of colour or any other distinction. He had a public sinner as a friend and a thief as an apostle. He befriended an adulterous woman, a tax collector, a traitor and a doubter, but he loved them all equally.
The diversity that underlines this love is what makes Jesus’s relationship with these individuals unique, authentic and unquestionable. Jesus knew the shortcomings of each of his friends, but he consciously chose to love them beyond their weaknesses.
On 14 July 2020, Pope Francis tweeted:
“On the Day of Judgment we will not be judged for our ideas, but for the compassion we have shown to others.”
We can have beautiful ideas about justice and racial equality, but our character will be based on the extent to which we have overcome the racial basis of our actions and disposition towards others.
Cristina Bicchieri, in her book, Norms in the Wild: How to Diagnose, Measure, and Change Social Norms, observes that social norms are always (socially) conditional and our decision to obey them depends on our expectations of collective compliance. Changes to belief systems are dependent on social change.
The problem with the fight against racism is that it has become a social convention in which people behave in a way that earns them the approval of their reference networks without genuine conviction to change on a personal level.
Authenticity of faith and behaviour
How can the Church become an image of God’s authentic love, so that human diversity can become a sign of strength in a divided world? How can our Church address issues of gender, sexuality, discrimination and race prophetically?
The Church does not yet have answers to all of these contemporary issues, but we are encouraged by Pope Francis’ General Audience on 3 June during which he reacted to the death of George Floyd, saying that:
“We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”
The challenge is for each person to look beyond the spectrum of colour and see the humanity of others rather than their differences. The exteriority of our appearances is only a glimpse of the mystery we share in the triune God.
Cardinal Robert Sarah’s book, “God or Nothing“, challenges us to question the authenticity of our faith. Similarly, our authenticity derives from our ability to treat all human beings with equal dignity and respect.
If a white Jesus couldn’t help humanity live an authentic life of love and acceptance, what makes us think that a black Jesus will have a different effect on our attitudes as blacks or whites? If our disposition towards difference remains unchanged, the removal of these images will have little effect on the change that humanity desperately needs.
The argument that attitudes to colour simply derive from a particular frame of reference is as harmful as saying that gender disparity is nothing but a normative belief. Therefore, the problem of racial injustice is not a problem of colour or representations in images, but rather of deep-seated referential frameworks that judges others on the colour of their skin. The Church’s mission is to help the faithful to move beyond these race-based paradigms and to see the “sacredness” of the other as Pope Francis urges us.
Martin Luther, in his famous 1963 “I have a dream” speech, speaks about a time when “my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” This is still the world that we must strive for, so that we can live beyond the spectrum of colour – black or white.