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US election blog

If the next President may be black, what colour was Jesus?

by Barbara Giudice

Article published on the 2008-10-31 Latest update 2008-11-01 15:34 TU

 Barack Obama and Rev Jeremiah Wright(Photo: Reuters/University of Kentucky)

Barack Obama and Rev Jeremiah Wright
(Photo: Reuters/University of Kentucky)

The presidential election in the United States this year may be about many things but one of them, most definitely, is race. This is the first time in US history that a major presidential candidate is an African-American, and people seem to be dealing with this fact with very different approaches ... all the way from feigning to ignore it to the couching of racial slurs in coded expressions of disbelief and fear.

Last Sunday I found myself in a windowless ground floor conference room at the Marble Collegiate Church on 29th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, at the invitation of a member of the gospel choir, with several dozen African-Americans, whites, Hispanics, Japanese-Americans, Jews and those with no identifiable affiliation.

We talked about what Jesus looked like, and whether God-the-Father could be put into an anthropomorphic category such as race. 

It was one hour before the 11 o’clock service. As the adage goes, it is the most segregated hour of the week in America.   

The two reverends leading the discussion or the “Sacred Conversation on Race,” as they called it, said it was their response to a call by the National Council of Churches to talk about race after the controversial reaction to comments made by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. 

This Marble Collegiate Church has a long, prestigious, and controversial history of its own.

It is a Dutch Reformed Church, now affiliated with several other denominations. It was founded in 1628 and prides itself in having the longest-standing continuous Protestant congregation in America.

Marble Collegiate really became famous when it moved into the modern age. In the 1930s its pastor, Dr Norman Vincent Peale, began a national radio show, “The Art of Living,” which lasted for 54 years.

An African-American woman at the church told me that on Sunday mornings in the 1950s the lines to hear Norman Vincent Peale’s sermons wrapped around the block.

Peale wrote a best-seller, too, The Power of Positive Thinking. It outlined his psycho-religious approach to life’s problems, and spearheaded all the self-help programmes so popular since.

But the church – this church that last Sunday was considering ways of breaching the race divide in a year when one of the major presidential candidates was black – and its pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, ran into more controversy in the 1960s than it or he could handle.

In the 1960 presidential election, Peale came out most definitely against the candidacy of another presidential hopeful at the time whose background made him an outsider in U.S. politics – John F. Kennedy. 

He was of many Protestant pastors against Kennedy because he was a Catholic, making them fear Vatican interference in the White House.  Peale had to retreat from that position after he was shouted down by a campaign of other Protestant ministers. 

Today the Collegiate Marble Church is grappling with race. Its very mixed gospel choir has gone on a whirlwind tour of South Africa, singing in black churches there, and even setting up for a few days in Soweto. 

So, when the reverends got down to conversing on race Sunday, the congregation took it all very seriously. 

But what does what Jesus looked like have to do with a 2008 presidential election half-way round the world from Jerusalem?

The two pastors, one a white man from Ohio, the other a black woman from North Carolina, introduced the conversation with their “racial biographies”. 

Then they launched into a description of what their perception of Jesus was when they were children. 

The African-American pastor said her black church in North Carolina had an elaborate painting of a very white Jesus, in very white flowing robes and very straight, flowing brown hair, who looked down at the congregation from above the altar.

Her white Ohioan counterpart said he was haunted by the Jesus on the shroud of Turin and he wanted his Jesus as a child to be anything but that.

But they both agreed that with time, the Jesuses presented to them were too small, too narrow, for what God had come to mean in their lives.

Then the discussion group broke up into small units, three and four people each, to talk about what God or Jesus had seemed to them as children and what he seems to be to them today. 

If anything came out of these short conversations on race, it was that God, Jesus, had almost always been white in practically all the churches of the land, and in the mind’s eye of each of the members of those congregations, whether they had white or black Christian childhoods. 

The “Sacred Conversation on Race” last Sunday drew no conclusions, although one participant pointed out that neither Judaism or Islam have this problem because they don't have an antropomorphic image of God.

Everyone had spoken his or her mind. Then we all shook hands, gathered up our winter coats and headed for the main chapel for the 11 am service and the gospel choir. 

But maybe something had indeed begun to change, not only at the Marble Collegiate Church, but in America. 

Election brings out conversations about race and diversity

Reverend Kimberly Jordan, John Fulton and Reverend Eugene Powermore of the Marble Collegiate Church.