Has the Church Lost Its Voice?
By THE REV. DR. JANICE SIX
“In a world filled with images of Jesus, this one made headlines. He [Jesus] stood in a stained-glass window wearing a simple white robe and a dark tunic. He held a staff in his left hand and with the knuckles of his right rapped gently on a large brown door. Wavy auburn hair fell to his shoulders, while his feet were bare. When sunlight struck the glass just so, kindness radiated from his white face and warmth from his brown eyes. This was a comforting Jesus who forgave sinners, blessed bread for the hungry, and promised peace to the anxious. For decades he had been with this black congregation in Birmingham, Alabama. But on one Sunday morning in September 1963, terror struck. Dynamite set by white supremacists outside of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church just after 10:20 a.m. exploded, and the face of Jesus shattered into a thousand shards of glass [just his face—nothing else]. In the blink of an eye, the Prince of Peace was made a casualty of race war.”
These are the opening words of the prologue to a book entitled The Color of Christ the Son of God and the Saga of Race in America by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey—not the same Paul Harvey known for “the rest of the story.”
The church was the 16th Street Baptist Church–the same church bombing that resulted in the death of four little girls. It was this atrocity that some say galvanized the sympathy of the nation and the world for the cause of the civil rights movement.
People may still be pondering the significance of only Jesus’s face having been destroyed and not the rest of his body. Certainly people at the time of the bombing were speculating about the possible meaning of only Jesus’s face being destroyed. Among those who pondered what it might mean were respected theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and novelist and essayist, James Baldwin. For Niebuhr the “faceless white Christ” represented the failure of the church. For Baldwin the missing face could be seen as an achievement, explaining, “We have been victimized so long by an alabaster Christ.” He added, “If Christ has no face, then we must give him a new face. Give him a new consciousness.” Ideally, this opportunity to reimagine the face of Christ gave way for the whole idea of hope and Christian love to become a reality in the church—a reality that Baldwin and others considered long overdue. Below are a few questions to ponder:
What might the faceless Christ say to us today?
How is the church responding to the outcry for racial justice?
Is the message of Christ the same in the predominately black congregations as it is in the predominately white congregations?
What about the members of the body of Christ who identify as Hispanic, Asian, or another ethnicity that consider themselves to be people of color?
What is the church saying or has the church lost its voice?
What does the “faceless Christ” say to you?
The Rev. Dr. Janice Six is associate pastor of First Central Presbyterian Church (USA)