I began to get seriously involved in the Christian faith and the church in the mid-sixties. One of the burning issues troubling church leaders and new believers was hair length. Some males, mostly younger one, had taken to letting their hair grow quite long–and then some began to do things like wear pony tails or get “Afros”. A lot of the males who followed this trend were part of the counter-culture that was becoming so popular among young people and so the church could safely write them off.
But as the trend to longer hair styles for men became more and more popular, it began to creep into the church–and that is where the problem began to get really serious. Culturally, the Sixties were dominated by the war generations–political, religious, financial and every other structure were controlled by men who had either fought in one of the various wars that occurred during the 20th century or they were closely related to people who fought. Since the military championed short hair, the culture championed short hair, which is part of the reason why the counter-culture went the other way.
In the church, men and boys were expected to have short hair–because, after all, Jesus, whom we followed, had short hair. This was a known fact–Jesus had to have had short hair because the church believed in short hair. Any male of any age who had long hair obviously was going against Jesus and could not therefore be a believer. Not a few Christian families found themselves struggling with this debate, with the parents trying to bring a rebellious son back to sanity and the path of true faith.
The 60s had lots of other issues that the church struggled with and this one was never as big as this account might make it seem–but it was an issue and therefore gives us a powerful insight into one of the problems that has plagued the church since its beginning. The problem is that we in the church struggle with our culturally accepted norms and the way we understand Jesus.
The essential temptation that we as a church and as individuals succumb to all too often is to make the assumption that Jesus fits our cultural assumptions. In Canada, I tend to be involved with churches that have predominantly white, English speaking people in attendance. Our unspoken assumption is that Jesus is also white and English speaking. Some congregations have a picture of Jesus somewhere in their building–and almost all of them have literature somewhere that has a picture of Jesus. Jesus is portrayed as a white male. Often, these days, he has long hair so some of our cultural assumptions have been challenged.
When I work in Africa, I see representations of Jesus that aren’t white. African churches have carvings and pictures of Jesus that are black, at least in the churches that have moved beyond control by western missionaries. Since my experience in Asia is limited, I can’t say anything about the way Asian churches represent Jesus.
Now, the real issue here isn’t whether Jesus was white, black or whatever. It isn’t how long his hair was. It isn’t what language he spoke. The real issue is how we as believers and churches recreate Jesus in our own image rather than seeking to deal with who and what he really is and was. Jesus, as portrayed in the Gospels, is a powerful, dynamic figure who doesn’t comfortable fit into any cultural pocket. While he was born Jewish, the political and religious leadership grew to hate him. He lived under Roman occupiers but they saw him as being enough trouble to make arranging his execution worthwhile.
I think we need to challenge our pictures of Jesus. Rather than allow ourselves to assume he identifies with us and our culture or sub-culture, we need to begin with the assumption that he is different from us and everything we understand about life. Jesus stands outside our culture and our life and wants to show us a better way. Rather than try to force Jesus to fit into patterns and approaches that we like and find comfortable, we need to be willing to let him push and pull us towards better ways, a process that we will all find uncomfortable but which will prove much better in the end for us.
May the peace of God be with you.