I want to tell you today why I love James Brown. That’s right: James Brown. The Godfather of Soul. The I-Feel-Good James Brown.
Consider this: in the crazy-like-a-kicked-over-ant-bed Indian frontier town of Jaigaon, we were staying in a bedbug hotel with two dark-skinned Indian pastors. To get to our hotel rooms four or five times daily, all of walked through a strange little alcove where four bellboys lounged and played games on their cell phones.
This was what happened. Dark-skinned Pastor Asokan led the way; the bellboys never looked up. Dark-skinned Pastor Ajay followed, and the bellboys barely noticed. Then I, the white man, rounded the corner, and the bellboys snapped to attention. “Sir! Good morning, sir! Good morning, sir!” Their fawning subservience lasted until I walked past them, and then they slid back into their comfortable indolence. Over and over and over again.
This is an irritating, dangerous truth: in almost 50 years of hopscotching all around the globe, I’ve found very few places where dark-skinned people don’t reflexively assume a servants’ position when a white person walks into their midst. Asia, Africa, Central America, even among real-life and kind of creepy Gypsies in Eastern Europe, there’s the same cultural assumption that somehow light-skinned people are more attractive, more important, have more intrinsic value and walk in greater favor than the darker tenants of this same embattled planet.
Simple economics, and the hopes of getting a bigger tip from the American? No. It goes much deeper. I walk into a church, and the people all want to greet me by touching my feet; not so for the Indian pastors. Dark-skinned pastors open doors for me and almost fight to carry my backpack. Eye contact can be emotionally painful. Even posture is often painfully apologetic, and every sentence is introduced (and sometimes closed as well) with “Sir.”
Even among people of the same race, James Brown lamented in an interview 60 years ago, the same belief holds that people’s value is apportioned by the color of their skin: “If you’re black, get back. If you’re brown, stick around. If you’re white, you’re right.”
The one exception, in my experience, exists today in the United States. And I'm so grateful. While historic figures of the American Civil Rights movement like Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers sacrificed their lives on the altar of political equality, it was James Brown as much as anyone who convinced black America that black was beautiful, that dark skin could be a source of pride and self-respect. Despite his numerous excesses and incoherent binges, James Brown made black Americans look at themselves differently. That was and is important.
This issue is a crippling problem in other parts of the world. Especially for the church.
One of three central tenets of my faith is anchored in Hebrews 5:13, that says no Christian will ever mature beyond needing a spiritual wet-nurse without a revelation of his or her absolute righteousness. In order to grow into any form of spiritual confidence, we have to know that we live every day in right standing with God. By His grace and sacrifice, we — all of us — always stand totally worthy of every blessing and favor.
God is not counting our sins against us. (2 Cor. 5:19) He has intentionally forgotten them. (Heb. 8:7-12, 10:17). With that established, we are no longer slaves in bleak and hopeless bondage; we are supernatural sons and daughters (Rom. 8:15-17), partners with Him (1 Cor. 6:17), worthy of His favor and empowered to make a difference for His Kingdom. (Matt. 28:19-20, John 20:21-22).
It is by that confidence, by our knowing that we can walk upright and “boldly approach the throne of grace” that we are empowered to teach, to battle, to overcome the darkness which is judged and defeated but which has also not left the battlefield. I love and believe in the truth of Romans 8:19,21— “The whole creation waits, breathless with anticipation, for the revelation (the unveiling) of the sons and daughters of God,...that all creation will be set free from slavery to decay and be brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children”! (CEB)
Broken people, people beaten down and ashamed even of their own skin, can’t do that. They can’t participate. They can’t see it. They can’t envision themselves as being powerful or valuable enough to stand and make a meaningful difference. They can’t embrace the concept or their calling. Their perception of themselves as spiritual paupers, laden down with condemnation, despicable and unworthy of God’s favor spiritually retards them and, in doing so, cripples the larger Kingdom of God.
So God allows me to love them. I teach righteousness. I proclaim that God Himself, in unquenchable joy, makes Himself one with each of them. I teach that this glorious union is so complete, so real, so comprehensive that He actually possesses and then manifests through us — ALL of us! He becomes us and we become Him to bring meaning and truth and grace and significance and life to everyone we touch or know or even pray for. Whereas demonic powers erupt in manifestations of pain and terror and anguish, Christ in us manifests in compassion, healing, confidence and rest.
I teach them that, in this present day, Christ — the risen, living, all-powerful Savior — looks like them. He presents Himself to the world around them as them. I teach that they, each one of them, with dark skin and bare feet and long-broken spirits, looks like Him.
And then the evidence unfolds. By the words of our students, at their touch and their command, the lame walk, the blind see, pain flees, and demons evacuate. (Acts 4:29-30, John 10:37-38)
An amazing transformation happens. It’s so beautiful. In holy celebration after ministry has ceased, I literally yell at the people gathered in the church, “THIS DAY IN THIS CITY, WHAT DOES JESUS LOOK LIKE?” And with smiles that, all by themselves, would provoke angels to sing, their hands go to their chests, and they yell back, “JESUS LOOKS LIKE ME!”
Thank you for making this possible for me. Thank you for supporting our tiny ministry. We are making a difference in this, the second most populated nation in the world. Thank you. Thank you.