As the soldiers stretched me over the splintered cross, I looked left and saw my arm, with white skin. They placed a large nail that looked like a railroad spike onto my wrist, then raised a hammer. I felt searing electric pain shoot through my wrist as the POUND…POUND…POUND of the hammer drove the spike in. I screamed, laying there on the prayer room floor feeling pain that was put there into my Christ’s brown skin 2,000 years before. Even now, 9 years later, I occasionally feel the electric tingle in my wrists when I talk about it. During my last day in a 6 month Christian internship, I was taken into the body of Christ in a sort of vision as he was being crucified.
I kept fading in and out of here and “there.” I would feel the weight of my body on the nails as the cross was being raised and dropped in, then I would be in the prayer room, vaguely registering that people were trying to worship while I lay writhing on the ground in the front of the room. It was being live streamed. I now wonder if there’s a video of me out there somewhere. I must have looked insane. Then I’d be taken back in…back into Him.
There was a moment in the vision that changed me entirely. The longer it went, the more I had trouble differentiating between myself and Christ, feeling as if we were one. His skin, my skin. His eyes, my eyes. His love, my love. I looked down from the cross at Mary, John, Mary Magdalene, and a few others. Some of them were in rags…beggars that had followed the procession and now stood in silent solidarity with my friends…my family. I saw them, but I also saw with His eyes. I felt how HE saw them. These eyes of love were unlike anything I had ever seen. As I looked down at them from the cross, I found myself also looking out at a 30 something year old couple sitting at the front row of the prayer room. Like I was seeing in two places at once, I saw him, John, my best friend holding my mother whom I loved more than I could ever express, and I saw him, the stranger I had never met holding his wife whom I had never seen. I felt love burn within me, I felt it consume me. I had never loved anyone like I loved them. I had never known love could exist like this.
I began screaming “He loves you! You don’t understand! HE LOVES YOU! HE LOVES YOU!” I was weeping uncontrollably as this revelation ripped my soul, tearing it in two so it could contain more space, so it could love like Him, my Christ, my friend, my everything. No one could love like Him, and I had no idea all these years…
Two years later, I lost my faith. My questions had grown too big, and the system I belonged to didn’t have room for me to love the way I did in that moment, as I looked across the room and across time, at two people with the love that Jesus has for them. I didn’t know what to do with that experience, because it was so life changing, but nothing else in my everyday environment seemed to fit it. How did I reconcile that love with my theology that said homosexuals were going to burn in hell? How did I even reconcile that love with hell? If Christianity was true, where was that love of Christ? Why was it so absent in my churches, and in how we treated those that didn’t look, talk, and act like us? My experience broke me.
My encounter with Christ made me lose my faith.
During the next 3 years, I learned to set aside my existing prejudices and perspectives. My belief to pursue the truth no matter the cost began to truly sink in, and to change me. I let my doubt lead me to the love of the cross, yet again.
I found hippies and Burners dancing in the woods. I found kinky friends with leather fetishes. I found motorcycle gangs and raves and nightclubs and people that didn’t believe in gender. I never quite fit in, in any of those groups…
But I listened.
After 3 years of seeking Truth, I discovered my path back was really just the journey forward. I discovered Christ had been traveling with me, and only I thought I was an atheist. He knew better. Jesus is clever like that. He knew I was pursuing Love. The Love I had encountered in Him that day on that cross, and that absolutely no existing system could fit all of that love in. I had to break with what I knew to discover the Love of my Christ.
To this day, this is why I remain committed to Doubt over Dogma. Our ideology can lead us astray, and we will never know just how huge our blind spots truly were at this moment, right now, today. We are pattern forming creatures, and we want to make rules out of everything. Those rules create an “us” and a “them.” Our brains tell us which tribes we belong to, and which tribes are safe. They also help us recognize danger, and they alert us to danger eons before or rational thinking can catch up. Then our rational minds fill in the blanks, telling us why it was perfectly natural to react that way, and how we were right to view that thing/person/group as dangerous. Which brings us to racism.
As a war rages in the Christian church over the color of Jesus’ skin, what to do with Black Lives Matter, and whether or not to listen to the cries of millions of black men and women stating that they are oppressed even to this very day, I remember the color of Christ’s skin…
I remember that in my vision, his skin looked like mine. It was mine, in that moment. I to this day don’t know what that skin on my arm was meant to represent, him or me. But I know the Christ behind that skin. I know the brown man who even to this day still registers in my mind as closer to Italian than Iranian. My subconscious wrestles to re-imagine a messiah who was presented as white to me my entire life. New images of Him as he truly is help, but it will probably be a lifelong process of re-imagining and rewriting my subconscious biases until he stops looking like me and instead I start seeing like Him.
I believe systemic racism exists. Not because an organization called Black Lives Matter is pushing a narrative. Not even because of the protests, or the books I’ve read (although all this has helped in some way, shape or form).
I believe because 9 years ago, my soul was seared with the flames of Love radiating straight from the cross of Christ into the fire of my spirit. That Love has compelled me to doubt every perspective I hold, because the Truth is that NOTHING is big enough to contain this Love. The Truth is Christ is Holy, which means he is “other” and “beyond anything I could know or recognize.” Because he promises I will find him with the widow, with the orphan, the poor, and the prisoner.
Black Americans on average have 7x less wealth than white Americans. They are the poor. There, I find Christ. So with them I must find myself.
Black Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, but 40% of the U.S. prisons. They are the prisoner. There, I find Christ. So with them I must find myself.
Black American Males account for 40% of violent crime in America. Males are 10x more likely to join gangs, and black males are three times more likely to be in gangs than whites, which is easy to understand for anyone who has ever worked in an inner city community. Black American Males are being taken from their families by gangs, police violence, and incarceration, leaving Black women home alone with their children, their husbands dead or gone for life. Black women are the widow. There, I find Christ. So with them I must find myself.
Black Children are the orphans, fatherless because of violence and poverty and motherless because of the same causes. There, I find Christ, so there I must find myself.
If they are poor, I am poor. If they are widowed, I am widowed. If they are orphaned, I am orphaned. I am in Christ, Christ is in me, and their oppression is my oppression. If one part of the Body of Christ hurts, we all hurt. We all suffer.
The black individuals in the U.S. that do not fall into these categories are often the ones in our churches, the ones living similar to how us white folk generally are, who often had to work twice as hard to get there. They too, are Christ, and they are often the very ones at the frontlines of this racial work, revealing truth to folks like me. That is, when folks like me are humble enough to listen.
I have an obligation to follow Christ. I have an obligation to follow the self sacrificing, unconditional, arms wide open heart exposed Love that I found on the cross that day.
You may not have had an out of body visionary experience, but you have the same access to Christ. You have the same obligation to Love.
It is not easy, it is not cheap. It will refuse to hold a record of how many wrongs blacks have committed, it will require patience with listening to an angry and hurting community. It will require us to be kind. It will require laying down our boasts about how we are right and how racism isn’t a problem today. It will not envy black support in college scholarships or other financial support offered to minorities. We will NOT insist on our own way. It will bear the burden of the hard work of change, it will believe systemic transformation is possible even in the face of extreme pain and challenge, it will endure everything that it has to face, and it will ALWAYS persevere in Hope.
The battle is already over, because in Christ we have already been crucified. You’re not right anymore. You’re dead. Christ lives in you. So let him. Let’s lay down our precious Rights and Wrongs, and learn how to Love.
I spent 9 years crucifying my old self that said my evangelical identity had it all right, all figured out, and that I had the great Way which all should follow. The right politics, the right theology, the right answers, the right friends. Nine years humbling myself, learning to follow instead of lead, to listen instead of “save.” This is not Dances with Wolves or Avatar. I am no white messiah.
I have decades left to go, and so do you. We will devote our entire lifetimes to pursuing this Love and letting it change us. But I can promise you this…
Love never fails.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8