Have you ever heard of Bass Reeves?
He was stationed out of Fort Smith under Judge Isaac Parker (the “hanging judge”), as a Deputy U.S. Marshal, in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma in the late 1800s. Some have argued that Reeves was the best deputy to ever wear a badge. In his 32 year career, he arrested over 3,000 criminals (more than Wyatt Earp), killing only 14 (7 more than Wild Bill Hickock), without ever being wounded.
You may not have heard of Bass Reeves, but you have seen his exploits on the big screen. Clint Eastwood’s character in Hang ‘Em High, was loosely based on his life. Though tough, Reeves was known as a man of incredible courage and integrity. Even the most hardened outlaws admired him. Bass Reeves died in 1910.
Here is something else you may not know. Reeves wasn’t just any Deputy U.S. Marshal, he was the first black Deputy U.S. Marshal west of the Mississippi. But in the 1960s (the year Hang ‘Em High was produced) very rarely would a lead actor be black, or the story be about a black hero.
February is Black History month, a month to emphasize the important role African Americans have played in our country’s history. I would like to take Black History one step further and mention the role people of color have had on Christian history.
Most likely the Garden of Eden was located somewhere in the Middle East. This means the first humans were not white Europeans. Abraham (the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) was from the land of Ur. While the exact location of this ancient city is unknown, it is believed to have been in Asia Minor, more than likely in Mesopotamia, quite possibly in the center of Babylon, placing it in present day Baghdad. Thus, Abraham was a person of color. Jesus, a Jew, born in Bethlehem, who lived in Egypt and Palestine, would have a difficult time going through security in today’s airports because He fit the profile of a terrorist – Middle Eastern, male, between the ages of 18 and 34.
In Acts chapter 8, Philip encountered a man from Ethiopia. After a brief conversation, the man was baptized. He then took the story of Jesus back to his home country of Africa. Four-hundred years later, Saint Augustine (d. 430), the most influential theologian in all Christian history, becomes the bishop of Hippo, located in North Africa. If Augustine were alive today, and had U.S. citizenship, he would most definitely be an African American.
And on and on I could go…
Why bring all this up? Because it is important for me, a member of the dominant culture, to remind myself that my race is neither superior nor inferior to any other race. It is important for me to understand that the heroes of my faith were not all W.A.S.P. (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant). It is important for me to admit that an accurate painting of Jesus would have him with a darker complexion than most pictures show.
Don’t get me wrong. My race has most definitely influenced Christian, American, and even world culture, but only as part of a much bigger, colorful, portrait. If we are ever going to get beyond the question of race we must recognize that we all have a common history.
The truth is, every single one of us are people of color – “red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight…” That is why the Bible says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus…Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11).