Susan Sparks, left, at the Clinton Presidential Center. (SusanSparks.com)
Susan Sparks, left, at the Clinton Presidential Center. (SusanSparks.com)

In sermon and blog, preacher laments 'lily white' Jesus

In writing and in the pulpit, Baptist Pastor Susan Sparks argues that the church and Hollywood have done the world a disservice by depicting Jesus Christ as a white man, when in fact he was a Jew from Palestine.

By Jeff Brumley

As both a writer, comedian and a pastor, Susan Sparks knows how to work an audience and a congregation. And whether on stage or behind the pulpit, she also knows how to raise eyebrows and a temper here and there.

She proved that this month with a Feb. 16 sermon she titled “Mini Me Jesus,” a play off the villain and his tiny protégé in the Austin Powers films.

Sparks, the pastor at Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York, said she was inspired by Black History Month to challenge her congregation and her Facebook following to consider the deeper, insidious meaning behind depictions of Jesus Christ as a white man.

The topic generated even more interest when Sparks published the sermon as a Feb. 19 Huffington Post blog. It topped that organization’s religion page all day Thursday.

“I grew up with the whitest Jesus you have ever seen,” Sparks writes on the blog. “A Vitamin D deficient, sickly looking Jesus; a sort of Don Knotts meets Gary Busey kind of Jesus.”

susansparksmugShe adds that her entire congregation, “of course,” looked largely the same.

Sparks said Hollywood was just as much to blame as the white church for depicting an Aryan Christ emanating from Palestine. Those include Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings, Max Von Sydow in The Greatest Story Ever Told and William Defoe “even though Defoe is from Appleton, Wisc.”

Sparks spared some time this week to answer questions via e-mail from ABPnews/Herald about her sermon and specifically about her belief that Jesus was not a “comfy” savior but came to challenge, not comfort, and that he should be depicted as he was: a Palestinian Jew.

So, is it also wrong for Asians or African-Americans to think of Jesus in their color, and to depict him that way?

This sermon/blog was primarily targeted at white readers and the white members of my congregation. The point is that a savior who came to free the oppressed shouldn't be made to reflect the color of those who are historically the oppressor.  

You say Jesus didn’t come to make us feel comfortable. But can seeing him in our own color make him more accessible to us, and easier to identify with?

If that’s the argument, then I need to image Jesus as a red-headed, cowboy-boot wearing Southern woman.

Ultimately, does it really matter what Jesus’ race and skin color were?

Yes. It is important from a historical-accuracy perspective as well as a larger justice perspective. Even [with] the literal interpretation Christians will agree that the historical Jesus was a Palestinian Jew born in Bethlehem. Yet for hundreds of years, he has been bleached lily white. It is one of the most obvious signs of racism in our society, yet it is something we as Christians rarely unpack or discuss — a sad irony, given that we worship a savior who was “anointed to free the oppressed” (Luke 4:18).

How was your ‘Mini Me Jesus’ sermon received?

Very well. White and black members commented that it was a brave sermon to give and words that needed to be heard. I had some visitors on Sunday from outside Versailles, France, who are sharing it on French social media.  

How is it being received in blog form?

So far, great. Getting a lot of shares on social media and today it is being featured on the front page of the Huffington Post Religion Section. That said — I posted the idea for the sermon last week on Facebook and got some push back — things like “if Jesus is your Lord and Savior, color doesn’t matter.” Of course those making the comments were white.