A common theme in the Old Testament is that God cares for those taken advantage of. We repeatedly find God declaring that poor lives matter, that strangers’ lives matter, that widows’ lives matter, that slaves’ lives matter. Men in Jesus’ day would thank God for not making them Gentiles, slaves, or women. I don’t think they were denigrating these classes of people but rather realized all too well that it was a man’s world—because Gentiles, slaves, and women were restricted by religious and cultural barriers. Then Jesus came along, valuing these groups and clearly declaring that their lives mattered. When people in His day felt threatened by foreigners or religious minorities, such as the Samaritans, Jesus declared that those groups’ lives mattered. Then, when it seemed He could not become more controversial, Jesus declared that even one’s opponents’ and enemies’ lives mattered. Building on Jesus’ teachings, the apostles brought about a religious and social revolution by breaking the Jew/Gentile divide. They not only accepted Gentiles but dismantled the walls between the enslaved and the free, setting the stage for Christianity to formally renounce slavery centuries later.
In the sad conflicts currently emerging across our land, the promise to recognize all men’s unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is being defaulted upon. One way to frame the current situation is as a connection between prosperity and piety, a belief that has become pervasive in American culture. The logic of this mindset suggests that disparities will disappear if the backward and underprivileged exert a little more effort to better themselves. It’s true that many Christians teach that being better Christians and doing right lead to prosperity. Such a gospel teaches that God blesses and rewards hardworking people who play by the rules. The wealthy are thus the good people in society, and governments should not punish good, hardworking people with higher taxes. In this view, God gives people what they deserve—if you are poor, it’s because you are a bad person. Scholar John Sanders describes the notion this way: “‘Americans with the lowest incomes have the angriest and most judgmental God’s.’ They believe that God is angry at the poor and loves the wealthy.” He also notes that “Jesus however, rejected these ideas” (Sanders, Embracing Prodigals, 2020, p.112).
In one story recounted in the Gospel of Mark, a wealthy young man seeking discipleship approaches Jesus to ask what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus “looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ He said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’” (Mark 10:21-22, ESV). Though Jesus rarely has a place to lay His head, He loves this wealthy man, who is considered in his culture to be highly blessed and esteemed by God because of his extreme riches. Jesus does not open doors of economic opportunity by advocating that government take wealth from the rich to redistribute it, but radically, He does ask this wealthy man to become regarded as poor in spirit and to stop disparaging the poor. The focus of the passage is not selling everything, but the “come and follow Me.” Sadly, however, the rich man rejects Jesus’ invitation. “‘Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’” Mark 10:23, ESV). The disciples were amazed because they thought that being wealthy was proof that God had blessed you. Similarly, many of us in America proclaim our greatness while forgetting that God is with those we consider inferior. God does not send Jesus to make us the happiest, healthiest, or wealthiest. Instead, He tells us, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20), “[t]he hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty” (Luke 1:53), “[t]he first will be last and the last will be first” (Matthew 20:16), and “[t]he greatest among you will be your servant, for those who exempt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:11-12, NIV).
It seems that the people God considers most important are not those we recognize as exceptional but those we consider poor and disadvantaged. In twenty-first century America, we are beginning to see the tragedy of not following Jesus’ teachings. For example, we have characterized and treated America’s indigenous people as inferior, and we have found ways to justify this belief. Indeed, the Bible itself has even been used to justify supremacy over others. Yet, where would we find Jesus in the early days of America? Would Jesus be more likely found walking the Cherokee Trail of Tears or attending the surge of territorial expansion? Would we see Him with the slaves picking cotton in the fields? Exceptionalism and supremacy have become embedded in the fabric of American Christianity. In fact, if we go back further to examine classical Christianity, we find claims of supremacy there, too—when, for example, the Church rejected it’s Jewish parts and instituted it’s own distinct identity with the belief in Apostolic Succession. While most of us have made efforts to renounce and distance ourselves from racial prejudice, resurgences of negative attitudes, racial supremacy, and unequal treatment of others raise their ugly heads in times of religious and political syncretism. We sense the anxiety about the changing face of our country and the longing for the good old days when White Christianity was the undisputed cultural power.
Civil rights movements in America stress the need for liberation and a desire for people to recognize the equal worth and dignity of all human beings. I strongly affirm the fundamental value of human rights, and I believe that restoring the dignity and worth of all people—regardless of gender, race, or economic status—is noble. Yet, in this cultural moment, I can’t help but feel that we are missing the point. Today’s movements try to focus our attention on various inequities, but they fail to consider what truly makes a person see another as worthy of honor and dignity. Sometimes, caught up in the fray of injustice, bigotry, and violence, we miss the point. When we speak out against injustice, we often let the pain of the past shape our views of justice, thinking that reversing subjugation requires placing the oppressed in positions of dominance over others. Others may see such political considerations as radical left-wing liberalism that demands freedom from all forms of authority, forgetting the redemptive themes attached to these issues. Those with privilege should thank God, not as an expression of superiority but with an attitude of empathy and ongoing duty to help those less fortunate.
Jesus addresses sexist and racial issues as if anticipating that such conflicts will come. In Matthew 23:8–10, for example, He says, “Do not be called ‘Rabbi’; for One is your Teacher, the Christ, and you are all brethren. Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven. And do not be called teachers; for One is your Teacher, the Christ” (NKJV). Jesus wants us to be careful when applying terms ascribed to God to humans; we must not label people with titles of authority that can potentially lead to oppression. Jesus’ concern extends beyond mere words and titles to any stance that fosters authoritarianism or characterizes people in ways that could maintain their dominance over others. He knows the human propensity for self-exaltation. Power corrupts, and Jesus is the only one who can hold authority without abusing it. As our Master and Teacher, He assumes the place of a servant, demonstrating the position by washing our feet (John 13:13–15).
It is in this sense that Jesus is our Teacher and example. Any authoritarian movement or leadership that tends toward affirming superiority is not of Him. Jesus is reluctant to use symbols to indicate status or otherwise enforce a rigid nexus of power. He understands that statements of authority can be used to oppress or exert supremacy over others, fostering injustices like male oppression or claims of racial or national superiority and supremacy. Jesus cautions us not to use terms that reinforce the oppression of others because there is only one Father, and here is where our picture of God plays an important role in our society.
Popular illustrations and other art in our culture have long depicted God as a stern and elderly White man, but why aren’t we just as likely to expect a dark-haired man with equally dark eyes? One study that asked Americans to visualize God found that while respondents generally perceived God as a masculine, old, White, powerful, and strict father figure, liberals visualized Him as younger, less masculine, less White, and more loving (Jackson et al., “The faces of God in America: Revealing religious diversity across people and politics,” PLOS ONE, June 11, 2018). The research also suggests that conservatives tend to visualize God as well suited to meet their goal of social order, while progressives see God as better suited to meet their goal of social tolerance. In a sense, therefore, we all shape God in our own image and apply our perception of His authority to ourselves, which sets us up to experience God in specific ways.
I think Jesus cautions us to call no man “father” because only He can reveal what the Father is like. This picture of God is not grounded in male superiority but in the divine character subsumed under the leadership of the Lord Jesus Christ. According to Jesus, the Father is far more gracious than we can imagine. When traditional structures highlight the worst aspects of authority, we risk thinking that God prefers dominance and cultural superiority. We come to believe that the best way to describe God is through the patriarchal metaphors based in centuries of male chauvinism and male self-importance. If we also hold an authoritative perspective, we may think that only males should rule religion, government, and the home. While aspects of imperialism and chauvinism are sometimes articulated to be tough on crime, they open the door to sexism and White supremacy. Truth be told, the Father is not a White male. We do not have a God with infinite testosterone, holding superiority over the world order. We should maintain the Old Testament image of God as both male and female as well as the ethos of family that Jesus so clearly presents in the New Testament. What we find in God is a blend of mercy and strength, as He is both the defender and comforter of those in need. He is the compassionate one who not only holds us in strong arms but cradles us in the bosom of His tender love (Isaiah 49:15; 66:12–13).
Perhaps we should take Jesus more seriously today. In the Gospel of John, He tells Philip, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9, ESV). In one way, today’s protesters may be right about the problematic nature of a primary White Jesus. We have forgotten what God looks like. He has a face, and He looks just like Jesus. Never calling a man “father” is a practice meant to prevent the cultural, racial, and gender issues we face today. I believe that had the Christian Church truly embraced Jesus’ revelation of God, we would not be having these conflicts. Our tainted views of God underlie today’s hostile battles over supremacy and superiority. Though this is an uncommon perspective in our times, I think we need a better view of God. It’s time for Christians to reject the oppressive views attributed to God, which are used to justify superiority over others, and instead embrace a more benevolent picture of God that reflects the leadership of Jesus. Genuine Christianity stands against authority grounded in superiority. Worshiping the beneficent Father of us all challenges those who would lord over others, radicalizing us towards fear and hatred of others. Our fragile society desperately needs the kind of God that Jesus reveals. I can only hope that if we love such a God, we will end up loving what He does.
Craig Ashton Jr.