One of the images of Jesus that permeated my childhood understanding of the gospel story – conveyed powerfully in sermon and in song – was of the man of sufferings, acquainted with our sorrow and our grief. Not only that, but the often explicitly stated idea was (as an old song says), “He didn’t have to do it, but he did.”
Jesus was the locus of our affections, the object of our adoration, the one to whom all our loyalty was due. To deny him was understood primarily in terms of incredulous ingratitude. After all, who else has loved us as he did? And even more, he didn’t do it because he was our parent or anything like that. He did it just because he wanted to. This was (and is) a compelling image. Certainly it is not the only one, but it is powerful. Even now I often think of sin as being disloyal to one who has been so loyal – so faithful – to me.
Why is this theme emphasized so often in the Black tradition? Why is the idea of a suffering savior so powerful? I don’t have a full answer, but I suspect it has to do with the unjust nature of his suffering. For a people whose very identity has been forged in suffering and who have experienced over and again state sanctioned injustice – such a savior is in many ways the only one who can make sense of that suffering. That is why so many times in my youth the preacher reminded us that Jesus was marched, “from judgment hall to judgment hall,” and that they, “whipped him all night long.” Not only that, but Jesus “hadn’t done nobody wrong,” and he “never said a mumbling word,” against those who treated him thusly.
At so many levels then, this Jesus by his life and example speaks to Black people who were unjustly stolen from our homeland, made to suffer under horrendous conditions, had our dignity and humanity systematically denied, and even after we were “freed” continued to suffer innumerable assaults on our dignity until this present day. Jesus knows what that is like.
In the last few weeks as I’ve moved back and forth between the “Black church” and “Korean church” worlds that I occupy, this issue of gospel contextualization has come up again in powerful ways. By the way, if you want to induce a small measure of Christian schizophrenia try leaving a Korean Presbyterian church service and going directly to a Black Pentecostal church service. Warning: be prepared for more than a little dissonance (to put it mildly – but more on this in another post).
I see plainly and from my own experience how Jesus is made real (incarnated) in the Black church experience, but who is the Jesus of the Korean church? I am reasonably sure that 1st generation Korean Christians have made Jesus real in their lives and experience, but I wonder how deeply that has happened for the 2nd generation. Clearly the language and images of Jesus are not exclusive to any people group, but what images and understandings of Jesus and of the gospel have the greatest resonance for this group?
If the way Jesus is presented is always as the oldest son who got things right and against whom you are always being compared by your parents (Jesus healed the sick, so you should be a doctor. Jesus was such a good student he impressed his teachers in Jerusalem; why can’t you be like him?). If this is how Jesus is known, then he is merely a stand in guilt inducing figure reinforcing the most challenging aspects of the Asian parent-child relationship. On the other hand if the gospel is presently mostly in terms of forsaking everything to follow Jesus, even family relationships, then it ends up calling 2nd gens entirely away from some of those things that make them Korean.
What is needed is not a new Jesus, but a new way of making the gospel real to the challenges and opportunities of the 2nd generation that makes sense of their reality and calls them into radical relationship with the Lord. It is up to them to write the lyrics of the Lords song in the strange in between reality in which they find themselves. The gospel can never be borrowed, but it must always be made ones own – and not in an individual sense only – but in community.