Today's post is by guest blogger William P. Payne, the Harlan and Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions at Ashland Theological Seminary.
In reference to the misguided “Jesus was White” comment, I affirm that God is always culture-specific when God interacts with humans. The incarnation illustrates this truth. Historically, Jesus came as a Jew, a tangible human with a real body that contained DNA. By American standards, Semites are classified as White because the term refers to "a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa." Granted, such categories diminish ethnic diversity and build upon a false premise. For instance, how much does a Romani (Gypsy) have in common with an Afrikaner or an Albanian with an
Arab? Still, the social construction of race persists and must be acknowledge as an unfortunate fact.
Fortuitously, the church proclaims that Christ is not limited by social constraints or bound by race categories. That is why he takes on the likeness of a variety of peoples when the gospel is properly incarnated in their midst. In the same way that Paul adopted a missionary strategy to become all things to all people (I Cor 9:19-23), Jesus enters into the cultural reality of all peoples when the church adopts culture-specific methods of witnessing to him. He is not foreign to any people! Furthermore, no one should have to cross cultural boundaries to encounter him. He is Asian & African, Latino & mulatto.
Since Jesus is a personal Savior, it is OK for people to think of him in culture-specific ways as long as they do not attempt to restrict Christ to their culture or require others to convert to their enculturated Christ in order to have a relationship with him. At the same time, because the UMC attempts to make disciples of all people groups (Matt 28:19), we want people of every ethnic, national, and racial category to have an authentic, culture specific encounter with the risen Lord.
In sum, since God is culture specific in his dealings with humanity, the UMC needs to take the concept of culture seriously without falling into the sin of ethnocentrism. Regardless, UM clergy can never be satisfied with a monocultural Christ because we are in the business of giving Christ away as we actively seek to translate him into other cultural categories in word and deed.
Merry Christmas to all who wonder after the incarnation.