Dehonkifying Christ: A Fool's Errand

Forget the Anti-Christ—the Honky-Christ is the biggest obstacle to the potential for human liberation through the Gospel.

A light-colored stone sculpture of Jesus Christ with arms outstretched, blue sky and white clouds in the background.
Photo by Zachary Olson / Unsplash

This article first appeared in Geez Magazine Issue 64, The Holy Fool. To read more and subscribe to this most excellent publication, please visit the Geez Magazine website.

Sometimes, the title shows up first. This is one of those times. It arrives via a passage in James Cone's classic text, A Black Theology of Liberation, that has remained seared into my mind since the first time I read it:

"For too long Christ has been pictured as a blue-eyed honky. Black theologians are right: we need to dehonkify him and thus make him relevant to the black condition."

It brought me back to my early encounters with this Honky-Christ, memories of an altogether bland bearded figure, a very nice young man in whom everyone around me claimed to invest extraordinary significance—at least on Sundays. In the More Light Presbyterian church I attended as a grade schooler, he seemed like another one of the Sensitive New Age Guys all of the young fathers were pretending to be. Part of me knew they were pretending, so around age 10 I refused to attend Sunday services and never looked back, blending into my generation's massive cohort of "spiritual but not religious" lapsed Protestants that make up more and more of the settler population of Turtle Island.

Vajrayana Buddhism called me back into relationship with spiritual traditions and religiosity over a decade later, in my mid-20s. I see now, with the benefit of hindsight, how much of gap had been created by my self-protective move to leave the House of the Honky-Christ. I think there was something of that same Spirit that still called me towards beloved community, and following the lead of a Tibetan refugee seemed like a safer bet than milquetoast liberal Protestants. (Only later, when the #metoo movement opened my eyes to the harm being created in this new community and forced me to leave, did I learn how naïve that sentiment had been.)

Which brings us back to Jesus. Forget the Anti-Christ—the Honky-Christ is the biggest obstacle to the potential for human liberation through the Gospel. What breaks my heart the most these days is that the image of Jesus I knew as a young child actively concealed the spirit and truth of his revolutionary life. Like my European ancestors, this version of Jesus had been forced into choosing white advantage over living in his full humanity. I refuse to believe that this is a choice he would allow.

If race is a product of racecraft, as Barbara and Karen Fields argue in their excellent book, then the Honky-Christ is one of its primary avatars. It will take trickster-magicians of a new order to combat the devious deeds that have co-opted Jesus and convinced billions that their salvation is bound to a blue-eyed messiah who somehow never got a sunburn walking through Jerusalem.

Which brings us to the fools. Any attempts at this will, at this stage at least, seem ridiculous. Only sharp paradoxes and playful evocation will cut through the morass of guilt and shame that has accumulated like a thick, moldy crust around his teachings. They will animate us, not demobilize us, while followers of the Honky-Christ double down on their theological delusions. They will help us find one another in the darkness.

They will show that the same dehonkification for which Dr. Cone calls is the same project that will provide the love, strength and solidarity to practice spirituality in resonance with Noel Ignatiev's mantra, "Treason to Whiteness is Loyalty to Humanity". They may seem silly, but they will feel fresh. I have no idea what form they will take, but as John Perry Barlow put it, "A good way to invent the future is to predict it." Agents of dehonkification: may you swiftly assemble!