Bishop Benjamin Turner’s Great Christmas Doppelganger
Around the turn of the 20th century, the African Methodist Episcopal Church convened a council to decide if Jesus Christ was Black. For the American society in which the AME Church existed, this question was a non-starter: The Romans, founders of the institutional Christianity that defined Jesus to the West, were more or less white; the Renaissance painters had almost always imagined the good Lord as white; so, to most of the American society, Jesus Christ was a white man. (In reality, he was a swarthy Middle Eastern rabbi from the Eastern Mediterranean, but time and history have rendered this very nearly beside the point.)
But the AME Church, a predominantly Black sect of the old Methodists necessitated by racial segregation during the 19th century, is a serious denomination, one that heavily weighs whether to preach holy writ as undisputed fact and how tightly to embrace religious legend and lore. So, Black Jesus — Christ as painted and conceived on frescoes, pop art, and everyday drawings in Black society and the Black church — needed to pass a background check before he was welcomed into the fold of AME iconography.
At the climax of the meeting, a Methodist Bishop by the name of Benjamin T. Turner rose from his seat to declare, “Lord have mercy on any race of people that do not believe they look like God!” Christ the King, the Jewish Middle Eastern man who matched wits with the Roman colonial power and the local religious authorities — was Black. In fact, Christ needed to be Black, needed to be Asian, or Hispanic, or Hawaiian, needed even to be white, because everyone, everywhere, needed to understand that they, too, were made in the image of God.
Christmas is many things to many people around the world: An excuse, for some, to buy nice gifts and do nice things for one another, or the world’s largest suppertime triangle, that brings family members from across nation and planet to a single place for a single feast. But it’s also the most, if not the only, relevant holiday on the Christian calendar: Peace on Earth, goodwill to men, thanks to the God-man’s birth in a feeding trough from the womb of his newlywed teen mom.
Even the holiday’s greatest origin stories carry a lowly air, a sense that you and I couldn’t possibly be off-limits to faith, as the prophesied Messiah finds himself surrounded by shepherds, chased by bloodthirsty local authorities, and serenaded by seers from the country two doors down before he’s old enough to be trusted with his own undergarments. For a document so brazenly written to such different people in such a patently different time, God’s stressors seem suspiciously in sync with the issues of modern humankind.
If this holiest of holly rollers could set spice-toting fortune-tellers from Persia’s palaces on the same pilgrimage as showerless shepherds from the sticks of Bethlehem, one asks, should it really be that hard to imagine the financially solvent faithful in prayer beside the homeless? If this same baby could turn the heads of both depressed local revolutionaries and the greatest empire the world has ever known, aren’t we missing something if we can’t place a Critical Race Theorist alongside a Fox News superfan for around two hours a week? If Emmanuel, born under dubious circumstances amid oppressed people in bleak times, could nonetheless offer meaning to those of us naïve enough to try and slip the mortal bounds of Earth, what’s stopping the fearful, frustrated souls trapped in 2021 — striking cereal workers in Lancaster, tendentious tennis stars in Shanghai, imprisoned immigrants in Matamoros — from joining the most airborne motley crew ever assembled?
Perhaps the answer came courtesy of Bishop Turner, all those years ago, in a prayer for much-needed mercy on those who didn’t see themselves in Christ’s struggle. Having been thrown out of His fair share of synagogues for a long list of violations, perhaps Christ has more in common with the gay kids, their one foot sliding out of the church door, than with their tormentors, boasting two feet planted firmly at the altar. Having been stomped in the streets by a powerful empire that had somehow gotten too big for its britches, maybe Jesus knows a tad more about George Floyd than we’ve been giving Him credit for. And having been hungry, harried, exhausted, tempted, and stretched to his limits by the hands of contemporaries great and small, maybe the good Lord — with His eccentric aversion to any real political power, His recurring retreats to prayer in the mountains, His insistence on holding the authorities’ feet to the fire long after they’d wrapped their tentacles around his neck — has more to say to our tired, frustrated, modern selves than we’d previously thought.
If Christmas had been about us with God, some journey we take to fit into the mold of someone on high, it wouldn’t be anything special. Everyone promises to make us fit into the mold of the divine, as long as we vote for their candidates, buy their stuff, join their wars, sniff their candles, twist ourselves into pretzels to make God like us more. But Christmas is about our divine doppelganger, the God who makes the trek down from heaven and crash-lands, scandalously, into a feeding trough. When the gossipy gang from next door leered at mother and child to see which local lecher Jesus most closely resembled, they may well have seen themselves. They may well have been transformed by the realization that they, too, looked suspiciously like God.
Maybe that’s a message for Instagram denizens, searching for affirmation in the image of the body. Maybe that’s a message for gold miners in Mogadishu, wondering if anyone truly sees them in their suffering. Or maybe, just maybe, that’s a message for all of us: Adeste fideles — there’s plenty of room in the barn.
Author’s Note: I first heard the story of Turner’s declaration on a PBS documentary called “The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song.” It was made by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and it is incredible. You should watch it.