In America, the term “white privilege” is weighted in dense circumstances that I do not wish to unpack in this reflection. One aspect, however, that I will mention is the privilege that I have as a white person to see myself reflected in every form of media and advertisements, political and economic leaders, and in generic crowds. By in large, white people are everywhere. Now, situated in East Africa, the opposite is true. From the candidates to the voters, campaign ads on TV and billboards are predominantly black Africans. In commercials, evening news broadcasts, and in newspapers, the only images of white people are the horrific images coming from Texas. Along streets and through crowds, eyes turn as I stand out as one of the minority white persons. The white privilege that I rarely noticed I had is now gone, and it’s noticeable absent.
Before I continue, I want to make a quick aside: This is not my first time having this experience, nor am I undermining the experience of countless persons of color living in America who’ve wrestled with trying to feel comfortable in a predominantly white space. I wish to mention this to emphasize my main point in this reflection.
The comfort of unsuspectingly blending in with a crowd and seeing actors, news people, and politicians who looked like me have faded. What has emerged is a jarring reality of frequent head turns, noticeable changes in behavior, and a confusing sense of isolation in rarely seeing people like myself.
This, however, changed when I went on a trip with two Xaverian Brothers to Resurrection Gardens. This beautiful land weaves the life of Christ through hills of tropical plants and fragrant flowers. Beginning with the Incarnation, colorful mosaics depict the life, miracles, and parables of Jesus through the Last Supper. The story continues with large metal sculptures of the Stations of the Cross, including a chapel dedicated to the Empty Tomb (with posters depicting The Shroud of Turin) and concluding with a Baptistry devoted to the Resurrection. Filling the grounds are various African school groups, nuns, priests, and pilgrims traveling to see these sacred grounds where St. Pope John Paul II celebrated mass in 1995 and holds the burial site of Servant of God Maurice Michael Cardinal Otunga. Silent prayer pulsates this idyllic African landscape, only interrupted by spontaneous chants and prayerful songs. From children to adults, men and women bow, kneel, and prostrate before various images and stations as they pray the rosary and celebrate the Stations of the Cross. Witnessing their professions of faith and listening to their dedications and prayers rivals the beauty of creation that contains this moment.
Artist beauty is best accentuated by the shadows that provide depth and detail. Nestled in the shadows of Resurrection Gardens are exclusively white and European depictions of Jesus, Angels, Mary, and the Saints. Even after Kenya gained its independence from colonial rule, Christ remains colonized. Regardless of the saintly works of countless African nuns, priests, brothers, and laypeople and the historical origins that many Biblical figures share with the continent, sacredness remains symbolically and artistically linked to white European renaissance.
As an outsider, barely 48 hours arrived, I cannot even begin to understand the full context, depth, and breadth of the religious experience here in Kenya. However, I can speak to a moment of prayer I had while walking this sacred path.
While gazing up at a mosaic of the story of the Prodigal Son and another mosaic of the story of Jesus healing the Paralytic Man, I found myself raptured by the image. The men in the depictions looked so much like people I knew. I recognized familiar faces in the tiny tiles. In the bearded face of the forgiving father, I recognized my grandpa and felt a sense of comfort in his noticeable compassion. In the men surrounding the paralytic man, begging Jesus to help their friend, I saw close friends of mine who helped me in times of need. In the white European images of Christ, I saw the faces of my white European friends reflected. It was a stunning moment of recognizing the sheer beauty that resides in the people who have blessed my life. Yet, as I walked away and looked around and could not see another white European in the crowds bowing, kneeling, and prostrating before these images, I wondered, “Do they see the familiar face of their grandfather or recognize the supportive smile of a life long friend?”
Social sciences and psychology inform us that images play an essential role in our social formation and cultural development. Who and what we see on screens and in print form our conscious and subconscious minds. (For more on the implications of Theological Aesthetics, see: The Image of God: Black Theology and Racial Empowerment in the African American Community, by Allison Calhoun-Brown; God in Our Image: Race Reflected in the Black Christ of Daule, by Jessica Leu; or the work of Standford Psychologist Steven Roberts in this article, Who people believe rules in heaven influences their beliefs about who rules on Earth.)
As a child, I was conditioned to see images of Santa Claus and God that looked frankly familiar to my grandpa. Pulling on his beard, I recognized the compassionate ho-ho-ho’s in my grandpa’s laughter. Holding his strong, callused hands, I noticed the familiar markings of a famous carpenter. Had I not grown up with white Jesus, would I have related to my grandfather the same?
For a nation scarred by colonialism, Kenya is still healing even after it declared independence from Britain on December 12, 1963. While political independence has existed for nearly 60 years, religious colonialism still looms, and Black Jesus remains shackled behind the shadows.
Scripture reminds us that all creation is made in the image and likeness of God. Yet, humanity makes an image and likeness of God that only resembles a powerful select. If we are ever to recognize God in all things, might we need to depict God in all things?
As a theologian, I beg the question, “Can a nation ever be free if God is not free?”
This is not a question exclusive to Kenya. I ask it to all Christians.
- What is your image of God?
- Is it limited to a white-bearded old man looming above the clouds?
- Is it the washboard-abed Jesus with flowing dirty-blond hair?
Our image of God must develop and transform as often as we replace our shoes. If we continue to limit our knowledge of God to that which we first encountered in elementary school, then our minds remain as constricted as our feet would be if we still wore that first pair of Nikes we got in kindergarten.
I am not saying you need to trash your original image of God because that image has formed you just as much as the memory you hold of how cool (or uncool) you felt walking into school on the first day with the “right” (or “wrong”) pair of shoes has formed your identity. I merely suggest that it is time to try on another pair of shoes. Perhaps you might like how those sandals make your feet feel or how the dress shoes match your outfit, or how the tennis shoes make you jump higher.
There’s a privilege in identifying God with all things, and it is time to liberate Christ from the colonial past and identify all creation and everyone as made in God’s image.