what if jesus were black
Inspiring your readers to share Christ
Exciting stories can encourage your readers to communicate faith effectively to nonbelievers.  This MTI blog series features examples that you can use as models, or even republish yourself.  Drawn from Enrichment Journal, a pastors magazine that ran Rusty Wright’s series on Reaching Secular Universities.

Have you ever felt nauseous about an impending ministry opportunity?  Maybe you can identify with what I was feeling.

I found a university course on African-American history both academically and personally challenging.  Our professor was a Black man who seemed to feel that just about every problem Blacks had suffered throughout history was caused by white Christians.

I agreed that so-called Christians too often had terrible track records in race relations.  The Ku Klux Klan was infamous in the United States for using biblical symbols and burning crosses.  Some slavery-era pastors even wrote books justifying slavery.  All this offended my sense of racial equality and justice.  Racism made my blood boil.

Two years earlier, a friend had brought an African-American student to a church I attended near our campus in North Carolina.  The next Sunday, the pastor announced that because of “last week’s racial incident” (the attendance of a Black), church leaders had voted to maintain their longstanding policy of racial segregation.  Thereafter, any Blacks attending would be handed a note explaining the policy and asking that they not return.  I was outraged and left the church.

In our Black history class, from my front row seat beside my roommate, I tried to communicate that racist “Christians” were not really following Christ.  They might be church members who never had come to personal faith, hypocritical believers who chose not to follow Jesus, or dedicated believers who were blind to racial insensitivities in their words or actions.  Class discussions were lively.

One morning late in the term, my roommate had cut the class.  The several rows behind me were empty with the rest of the students in the back.  The professor was being particularly pointed in his remarks about white Christians.    As he enumerated various problems in African-American history that were “due to the influence of white Christians,” he would gesture toward me.

His intentions were obvious.  I prayed silently then raised my hand.  “Professor,” I addressed him as politely as I could, “I fear that once again you are not criticizing true Christianity but rather a caricature of it.  Would you be willing to let me take a class period to present a biblical perspective on racism?”

“Oh, so you want equal time, do you?” he replied somewhat snidely.

Open-minded approach

I opened my notes to the first day of class and read him a statement he had made.  A campus minister had told me that if a professor ever made such a statement, I should write it down and date it.  “Professor, on this date, you said: ‘We want to be open minded in this class and consider all viewpoints.’  It seems that one viewpoint that has been lacking is an historical Christian perspective on this issue.”  I was trying to be tactful.  What could he do?  He gave me the last class meeting.

The last class session I attended as an undergraduate was one I got to teach.  Now, I was not the perfect picture of peace and serenity going into that presentation. My knees weren’t knocking; they were missing!  I lost my breakfast three times before the class began … not in front of the class, fortunately!  In retrospect, I was forgetting the role of the Holy Spirit.  I had done my homework but was anxious that I might forget an answer when I needed it.

During my presentation, I explained that Jesus and His early followers were not racists, that some have distorted the Bible to support racism and that racists followed neither Jesus’ example nor His teaching.  I illustrated racial reconciliation through Christ.  And I handled student questions as best I could.

As the class session neared its end, the professor rose from the back of the room and walked slowly to the front.  “This has been very interesting,” he commented.  “I feel like King Agrippa in the book of Acts when he said to Paul, ‘You’ve almost persuaded me to become a Christian!'”  Surprised, I wondered what was coming next.  “Now, as Agrippa did with Paul,” he continued, “Let us proceed with your execution!”

My mind had been relaxing a bit because I thought my part was over.  Now he was about to ask me a question as we both stood before the class.  I needed to get my mind back in gear!

“What would you do,” he asked, “if you got to heaven and discovered that Jesus’ skin was black?  I don’t remember preparing for that particular question. In my three years as a believer, I may have heard someone answer it before, but I was not aware of it at that moment.

Black, White, or…?

God’s Holy Spirit came through by bringing these words to mind:  “Professor, Jesus was of Semitic descent and his skin pigmentation was probably closer to yours than to mine.  But the important thing is not whether his skin was black or white, but that His blood was red and He shed it so I could be forgiven of my sins.”

As we both stood there, he ignored my response, turned to the class and began to discuss the final exam.  I quietly took my seat.

I cannot point to any who came to Christ from that class.  But I know that students heard the Gospel and some indicated they respected me for presenting a biblical perspective.  One friend, not a believer, told me, “This is probably the toughest class in the university for such a presentation.”  And the encounter taught me some valuable lessons for ministry.

Lessons for communicating in secular settings

How might this story relate to your outreach for Christ?  Consider some lessons I learned.

  • Racial reconciliation can be a powerful theme for presenting God’s truth.  Racial and ethnic strife abound.  Jesus modeled and taught love and harmony amid cultural and social diversity.  Our efforts to bridge racial barriers, develop sincere cross-racial friendships and clearly explain Jesus’ teaching on this theme can help open hearts.  I had sought to connect with my classmates by example and precept, both inside and outside of class.  I was not always successful, but opportunities like this class helped sow seeds.
  • Love your adversaries.  Of course, not everyone will appreciate your bridge-building efforts.  Some of my classmates were open or sympathetic; some scoffed.  Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who are abusive you.”  (Luke 6:27-28 NASB).  It was not always easy for me to have a loving attitude toward folks who opposed my convictions and could be quite disrespectful.  I learned I needed to love them anyway, with the Holy Spirit’s power.
  • Engage the academic community.  Your students spend significant parts of their academic careers in class.  Ask if you can join them in class sometime.   Learn about what they are studying and suggest biblical perspectives on questions that puzzle them.  Meet their professors.  Take a professor to lunch.

It would have been good for me to have dropped by my African-American history professor’s office more frequently – perhaps merely to interact on topics of mutual academic interest – to create friendly interaction that was less charged than some of our classroom encounters.

  • Take risks and trust God for courage.  Ripe fruit is often out on the end of the limb.  Once I saw that God could take care of me in front of a somewhat hostile audience, I felt emboldened to do more of the same.  It helped empower me to speak in hundreds of university classes across the US and worldwide.  I don’t always have perfect peace, but the knowledge that God has sustained me in the past helps my confidence in Him in the future.
  • Trust the Holy Spirit to give you the words you need.  My natural tendency is to prepare thoroughly.  Sometimes I need reminders to trust the Spirit to bring to mind what I need when I need it.  Jesus gave His disciples wise advice about speaking in tight spots: “When you are arrested, don’t worry about what to say in your defense, because you will be given the right words at the right time.  For it won’t be you doing the talking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:19-20 NLT).
  • Encourage classroom outreach.  Your students’ faith can soar if they communicate Christ in their classrooms.  Encourage them to be good students but equip them to tactfully and lovingly answer objections to faith.  Skeptics in their classrooms need Jesus.  I know.  I was one.

Students can present biblical perspectives in class discussions, speeches, or term papers.  With permission, they can announce a public campus lecture or bring in a Christian film or speaker (you!) to present in class.  They can share Christ individually with classmates after class.  Imagine if all your disciples were properly trained and motivated to present Christ in some way in each of their classes each term.  How many students on your campus would be hearing of Christ?

by Rusty Wright, an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents.  He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively. www.RustyWright.com

Originally printed in Enrichment Journal in a column by Rusty Wright on “Reaching Secular Universities.” Reprinted with permission.

Photo by Mads Schmidt Rasmussen on Unsplash

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