You might be able to aquire a public education without hearing about the Christian foundations of orphanages, hospitals and universities, of the faith that underpinned western science and inspired the abolitionists to work for the end of slavery.
You may never have heard about the Christian recognition of the image of God in people of every race and nationality or of the enormous action for the common good undertaken through the centuries by a great diversity of men and women moved by their faith in Christ.
But it is difficult to avoid a schooling in the the misguided mixings of cross-and-crown crusaders, of the atrocities of the European Age of Exploration, of cruel Christian slaveholders, scandalous pastors and hokey opponents of evolutionary theory.
If you’re a serious Christian, you have to deal with truth that hurts.
You have to be open to hearing about the pain Christ’s followers (so-called, at least) have caused their fellow human beings. If you justify the horrors or pretend they didn’t happen, you won’t be the first to avoid the truth in this way.
If you walk away from Christ because it’s hard to be associated with so much sin done in his name, you won’t be the last who will do so.
But if you face the facts of history and yet continue pondering the life, death and resurrection of Jesus himself, engaging the entire record of his influence throughout history, your heart may warm to Something worth living and dying for. Mercy and unconditional love. Even for your enemies. Even for yourself when you fail in representing him well.
Which you will.
During this statue-toppling time of righteous anger and malicious mayhem, the now-famous tweet by activist Shaun King that “the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down” has provoked sorrow in the hearts of many. King, himself a former pastor, calls them a form of white supremacy.
Some of them may be for all I know, and where that is found to be the case, I’d call for their removal too, because they don’t represent Christ with one smidgeon of reality and are perpetrated by people on the side of his enemies. But that’s hardly the case for the majority of religious art.
Still, it is fair to say that Jesus’ skin wasn’t fair and that racists have manipulated his image for their own sick reasons.
“White Jesus” is not only inaccurate, but can hurt the hearts of some of those who see him portrayed this way in our churches. People of color are no more monolithic than white people are and experiences of “white Jesus” differ. Motives for portraying biblical characters with fair skin vary as well. They’re not all about white supremacy.
The issue, as it has arisen in response to the brutal murder of George Floyd, bears reflection, and it takes me back to the little prairie church where I first heard that God is love and that in Christ there is no Jew nor Gentile, male nor female but all are one in him.
I’m pretty sure a copy of Sallman’s Head of Christ was on a wall somewhere in that building, but the image I vividly recall was larger and more prominently displayed in the “annex” where the western Kansas farmers who made up my father’s congregation held their potlucks, wedding receptions and special events.
I’ve never seen an image that matches the painting in my memory, though many kitschy depictions of “Jesus and the Children of the World” pop up when I search for it.
In the painting I recall, Jesus is a dark haired, dark-eyed man (light-skinned) with a gentle smile. He’s sitting, surrounded by children representing native peoples of every continent, affectionately conversing with them.
The image calls to mind Christ’s promise to gather all nations to himself, and it emphasizes the truth of racial equality in the eyes of God.
My dad was fond of telling a sweet story about the time he and my little brother Mark had a conversation in front of that painting when they were alone in the church one weekday afternoon. Dad was not only the pastor of the flock but also the custodian of the building, and Mark often hung around him on weekdays when the rest of us siblings were in school.
My brothers and I all had roles in Dad’s repertoire of sermon illustrations, and that’s why I remember this story about Mark. Dad liked to reminisce from the pulpit about the day he and Mark, a preschooler at the time, stood before that painting together.
Surrounded by children of every nation and race, Jesus is depicted as smiling directly at the boy closest to him, the one in traditional Native American dress. On the day in question, Dad decided to ask Mark what he thought the Lord was saying.
Mark was a very thoughtful little boy, about the same age as the children in the picture. As he considered the Christ in the painting, he mused:
He’s saying, ‘Are you hurt?’
“That’s what Christ is saying to each one of us,” Dad would remind the congregation. “Jesus is asking you today, ‘Are you hurt?’ God demonstrated his concern for each one of us by becoming one with our humanity in Christ and in suffering the pains we suffer. He knows how we hurt and he wants to meet us there.”
Today I understand that the painting in my memory might well cause hurt to individuals wounded by the failures of Christian missionaries to love in the measure of Christ’s astonishing gift.
My heart will never know the measure of their hurt, but as I ponder Shaun King’s tweet and listen to the vengeful cries recorded when the statue of St. Junípero Serra was toppled and splattered with red paint in Los Angeles last week, I hurt too. It’s a teardrop in comparison with the ocean of agony felt by those who ancestors were decimated during the conquest of California. I know that much at least.
I hurt nonetheless for all their injury, especially the injuries inflicted by people who ought to have loved them with God’s perfect love. I hurt for the tone deaf racial ignorance I have heard from church members and for the truth that I’ve sometimes made excuses for violence or have acted in thoughtless ignorance when I could have listened and learned.
To paraphrase Maya Angelou, we can’t do better until we know better, and many white Christians are hurting and willing to listen and learn in this moment.
I’m thankful for my faith foundation in that little country church, and after I grew up and moved away from home I studied Christianity in earnest, attending various churches in every place I moved with my husband and two sons.
Engaging the history and practices of the early church eventually led me to convert to Roman Catholicism in identification with the Church’s universal mission as it unfolded in from the beginning.
I realized, as I studied, that if you’re a serious Catholic, you really have to deal with truth that hurts.
And I do. That painful reality hit me once again as I considered the toppling of Serra’s statue.
The Spanish-Catholic conquest of the southwest is layered with expansionist greed, ambition and atrocity against indigenous peoples. Yet there is also found in many of the priests who established the missions, the sincere motive of the evangelist in love with Christ and on fire to travel to the end of the known world to share that love with people who hadn’t yet heard his name.
Pick at these threads and you realize how intertwined they remain. The history of the missions is mixed. For many of those whose ancestors suffered deeply in those days, it isn’t, and it’s easy to understand, with sorrow, why they act in vengeance today.
But it’s not the whole of the story.
“The mission builders of the American Southwest were full of God,” writes N. Scott Momaday, the first Native American to win a Pulitzer, in the introduction to A Sense of Mission: Historic Churches of the Southwest:
…The missions concede something to the Indian world, a simplicity, a touch of patience and calm, a world view founded upon symmetry and balance, a profound understanding of the earth, water and sky.
Momaday never shies away from the wounds of his people, yet he paints a larger picture, noting the multicultural appreciation of the missioners for “Moorish and Spanish, Mestizo and Pueblo, the old world and a world older still.”
The missioners believed that everything good, no matter what its cultural or religious roots, was a gift from God and was to be taken up into the whole, to amplify appreciation for his gifts.
Acknowledgement of good done by Catholics is hard to come by these days, even startling when you stumble on it in secular sources.
I was reading Paul Horgan’s The Centuries of Santa Fe on a trip to New Mexico years ago when I happened on lines from Pope Paul III’s Sublimus Deus, the 1537 papal encyclical written to address the treatment of native peoples in the Age of Exploration.
I hadn’t heard this fact in school, but it turns out that the 16th century pope not only disapproved of mistreating native peoples, but could not have been more clear about what was expected of faithful Catholics as they entered what from their perspective was the New World:
[All people who may be discovered by Christians] are by no means to be deprived of their liberty, or the possession of their property, even though they may be outside the faith of Jesus Christ;…nor [should they], in any way be enslaved.
“It was under these terms,” writes Horgan, “that the missioner lived with his people.” The legendary failures of the time are tragic. But that does not change the directive of Rome, stemming from the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it doesn’t change the gratitude of many native peoples who were cared for in response to the missioner’s version of Christ’s question, “Are you hurt?”
Serra’s incredible successes in feeding, sheltering and teaching the people he lived with, learned from and worked beside after leaving his comfortable, scholarly life in Spain were thoroughly explored during the process that led to his 2015 canonization as a saint.
Many descendants of those people rose to Serra’s defense. Others rose to condemn him, and his flaws were thoroughly explored as well.
Every saint is flawed. Only of Christ can it be said, “I find no fault in this man.”
Richard Rodriguez, that master of melting pot memoir, explores Serra’s contribution to his people in a reflection written after the 2017 decapitation of the Serra statue at Santa Barbara Mission.
“The blazing white walls of the California missions enchanted the people who came down from the hills to see them,” Rodriguez, the son of immigrants, writes. “My father would have come. I would have come down to see what the missions were about. To hear about Jesus-God.” He concludes:
As a mestizo, like most Mexicans alive today, like my ancestors, I was made by the missions…You may find yourself unwilling to praise the old priest. But I will.
It was the “Jesus-God” who informed the pope’s insistence, in 1537, that the native peoples were equal in dignity to any European. It was the “Jesus-God” who informed Serra’s intrepid correction of Spanish military abuses. Serra saw himself not as a saint but as a sinner who needed grace as much as anybody else did, including those he served in the missions.
Artistic images of Jesus, whether sculpted, laid on canvas, or arranged in glowing bits of stained glass, are just as flawed as the people who create them. They are just as flawed as the people who follow him, including Saint Junípero, are.
But Christ is not flawed. Take HIM down? Well, he was taken down once before. He has a way of rising, showing his wounds, and offering peace to people of good will.
Even if you could repeat the first bloody attempt to take him down, he’d still find a way to ask the question sensed years ago in my little brother’s heart.
“Are you hurt?”
He already knows the answer.
And no matter what people have done or will do in his name, his love remains the same.
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The mission church in Ventura California, founded by Junípero Serra, is attempting to preserve a bronze statue of the saint by having it peacefully removed and placed in a different location through dialog with the local Chumash tribe elders, the Catholic News Agency reports. “We are going to become a model for the nation so it’s not this riot mob act and desecration, and even having a statue broken into pieces. That is our goal, and that we hope will come to fruition,” Father Tom Elwaut, pastor of the San Buenaventura mission church, stated in his homily on June 21. The decision remove and relocate the statue by working with tribal leaders toward a peaceful solution is controversial.
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