Column for Bethel Seminary’s Admissions blog
I grew up in a society that was not very racialized. Don’t get me wrong, the Dutch have been deeply engaged in colonialism and slave trade while acknowledgment and apologies have been slow in coming. But at home, as I grew up, tolerance, integration, and harmony were always emphasized and—by and large—practiced.
When Surinam became independent in 1975 many Surinam people—black, Javanese, and Indian—came to the Netherlands to settle here. We have been less effective in dealing with the guest laborers from Morocco and Turkey, but this is mainly because differences in worldview, those between a secular state and a muslim immigrant population, are at stake here.
When I came to the US four years ago it took me a while to understand why and how this society, though a cultural melting pot, is highly racialized. It was quite a shock for me to discover that I, as a European white male, was able to partake of the privileged status of white America (as long as I didn’t open my mouth too much so that my accent would betray me). To my discomfort I also came to see racial prejudice in myself. This is so because any awareness of racial issues has to hit home to be genuine. Only change in oneself will result in tangible changes in one’s relations to others. Apparently I could take some things for granted that people of color who were born here can’t. That was outright embarrassing. But it was also real. And I took it for granted.
Studying theology at Bethel, it was no longer possible to simply ignore this dimension as well as those of gender and economic injustice. As one who finally realized he was at the center, where everything is cozy and where the boundaries of existence go unnoticed, the question of those living at the margin took center stage. What does it mean to live in the center realizing there are many who live in the margin? The margin as the place where people live who cannot fully and automatically share in the privileges that those in the center have. This margin can be related to gender, economic status, immigration status, race, or social exclusion. What does this mean for me? Me in the center?
One way to deal with the problem of the margin is to acknowledge that people in the margin have their own story. They live their own life, create their own myths of origin, and live with their own hope for a better future. They also create their own theology. We in the center often call theologies of the margin contextual theology as if our theology in the center is pure, unadulterated, essential theology. People in the margin also have their own picture of Christ. Their contextual Christ. A Christ who is appropriate for their context. No wonder that people in the margin have a black Christ, a Korean Christ, an Andes Christ. Contextualizing Christ is a great way to show that Christ also belongs to the margin and not only the center of power.
In some ways this contextualized Christ is not unlike the blue-eyed and blond-haired Christ that I encountered in Sunday school books many years ago. But strangely enough, this blue-eyed and blond-haired Christ doesn’t sit well with me. He stares back at me as one who continues to affirm my center as a self-righteous position that need not to be questioned. This Christ says it’s okay to be in the center, to have privilege, to leave a racialized society untouched. In fact, he is far removed from the Christ of the Gospels who turned tables upside-down, sought out prostitutes and outcasts, who, in fact, came from the margin himself: Nazareth in Galilee.
Come to think of it, all contextualized “Christs” only affirm both center and margin in their entrenched locked-up positions and do little to help the center to become accessible to the margin and help the margin to forgive the center. Such a Christ is just a copy of myself and my community and mirrors back what I want to hear and shows me what I want to see.
There is another way of contextualizing Christ that I would like to advocate. In doing this I will suggest ways for the center to address this contextualization. How people in the margin are to do this, will be up to them. I won’t do it, for it is always a great temptation to prescribe from the center what and how the margin should think. That is merely another expression of domination.
Suppose I in the center decide to contextualize Christ no longer as belonging to my community, as one of my own, but as the other. Suppose my contextualized Christ is black. In non-theological language: When I think of my Lord, I think of him as belonging to another community. I picture him with another skin color than my own. I hear him speak another language. He is located in places where people are downtrodden. He tries to tell me something. And the only way for me to understand him is to follow him to his community, to his people, to his house. It is a simply house in a neighborhood I normally don’t frequent. He is not hostile. As my Lord, he loves me but also demands my obedience. As my friend he wants my involvement in the things that are close to his heart. My Christ is black. In his house one can hear salsa music and pick up the scent of exotic food.
When Christ is contextualized as the other, when the center contextualizes Christ as the marginalized, something stirs within us. All of a sudden, the Lord of the universe is not necessarily on our side. He is no longer in the center; our center. All of a sudden this Lord invites us to get to know the margin; his margin. The margin becomes a center of attraction for the center. In loving my marginalized neighbor, I conform to Christ’s image. By moving to the margin, I place myself in the presence of Christ.
Thinking in this way can be of real benefit to the fostering of social and racial justice. It shows one way in which the gap between center and margin can be bridged. Whatever your Christ looks like, he will always be colored. Is he going to be colored by my presuppositions and preferences or is he going to look like my marginalized neighbor? That is a question worth asking. It may be the starting point for a journey to the margin.
I have spoken here from the center. What would happen if all of us, both in the center and the margin, would contextualize Jesus Christ away from our own center, I can only begin to imagine.