What would the real Jesus do?

The Rev. Robert Cunningham
The Rev. Robert Cunningham

I’ve spent most of my life ignorant of racism. On a cultural level, my ignorance was more than naivité, it was blindness. I saw the “race card” as an overplayed narrative with little substance and I rolled my eyes at the notion of white privilege.

But then I became a Christian, the surest doom to all forms of hatred.

Soon I was convinced of personal racism and began the journey of repentance, which continues to this day. But I was slower to admit racial injustice as a social phenomenon. Our descent into the madness of animosity and violence has led me to ask God and others: What am I missing?

The answer began as I was putting a Band-Aid on my son. He asked why Band-Aids are always the same color.

“So that it will blend in with your skin and people won’t notice”

“But, daddy, what if my skin wasn’t white?”

Thirty-five years of life and I had never noticed that Band-Aids are the color of my skin, had never considered that black children’s “boo-boos” are accentuated by Band-Aids while white children’s are hidden.

This seemingly insignificant privilege got me to consider that perhaps I was blind to more privilege. Once I confessed blindness, I began to see.

I saw my high school partying carried the “boys will be boys” label rather than “thug.” I saw that my failures were not an indictment on my entire race. I saw that when I write and speak people aren’t amazed someone who looks like me could be articulate; they just listen.

I saw tragedies that impact my culture, such as Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are remembered with “never forget” solemnization, while slavery and Jim Crow are suppressed with “it’s time to move on” patronization. I saw that it’s fun for white westerners get to know the history and traditions of other cultures but other cultures get to know ours as a way to survive.

I saw that my children’s cartoons, toys, super heroes, and even their Jesus, looked like them. (As if her virgin conception wasn’t bewildering enough, imagine Mary’s surprise when she gave birth to a white baby.)

I have seen that this world is easier for me. Perhaps the tables of culture will turn in the future and my heritage will know the sting of marginalization. But that has not been my experience. My experience has been privileged.

This has left me asking: What am I to do with my privilege?

I see people like me blissfully unaware of their privilege, wallowing in guilt over it, or raging against the impending loss of it. But rarely do I see them asking what to do with it.

What if privilege were viewed, not as a status to enjoy, but as a responsibility to steward? I call it subversive privilege, and I learned it from the Middle Eastern man I call Lord.

Every week I proclaim the story of ultimate privilege laid aside that others may flourish. He, who had all power, laid it aside for the powerless. He, who had all glory, laid it aside for outcasts. He, who had all riches, laid them aside for the poor. And I, the benefactor of his subversive privilege, am called to do the same.

Practically speaking, what would that look like? I’m not sure. I plan to spend this year asking people of color that very question. I cannot escape the reality of privilege, but I am committed to doing privilege differently. I am committed to the subversive privilege expressed in the life of Jesus — not the white one, the real one.

Rev. Robert Cunningham is the senior pastor of Tates Creek Presbyterian Church. Reach him at rcunningham@tcpca.org.