The Gospel in “Hamilton”?

My wife and I joined thousands (perhaps millions) of others across the country this summer in watching the musical, “Hamilton,” for the first time when it was released on the streaming platform, Disney+. Having grown up in the rural Midwest and the Bible-belt, I was pretty familiar with much of the story, including Hamilton’s ill-fated duel with Aaron Burr (spoiler alert). Like many that grew up in my environment, I was fed with accounts of their lives and exploits that sometimes bordered on the hagiographic, which was supplemented by a good dose of the PBS original “Liberty’s Kids” on Saturday afternoons. The Founding Fathers were presented as larger-than-life figures that approached near mythic or biblical proportions.

But despite my familiarity with what had become something of a folk legend in my mind’s eye, “Hamilton” offered a refreshing account of the stories that I grew up with by deciding to have the majority of the characters cast as people of color. This “suspension of belief” is meant to communicate something important: America is our home, too. I say “our” because I’m a Filipino American, the son of immigrants, born in Manila. In addition to the diverse casting, Hamilton’s status as an immigrant is a theme that undergirds much of the musical. For people of color that have often existed in the margins of American society (including pop culture), it’s hard not to see ourselves in the cast and anthems of “Hamilton.” (Why do you think that Chadwick Boseman’s untimely passing hit the black community so hard? Why do you think that millions of black Americans were in tears when they saw Obama sworn into the Oval Office?) It’s because we want to see ourselves in the Founding Fathers, too. To believe that America is just as much ours and belongs just as much to us. To see the dictum that “all men are created equal” fulfilled in our society without pretense.

On this note, “Hamilton” has struck a chord with audiences during our time of increased racial tension. Growing up in a majority white part of the country, I remember seeing sneers from people whenever an all-black production of “The Wizard of Oz” came on the television. (These are people, by the way, that would sit just a few seats away from me in church, and were otherwise good people.) But they didn’t understand the importance, the significance, of seeing someone like them on the TV screen, because for them it was normative.

When you examine the iconography of church history (especially of Jesus) throughout time, space, and culture, you’ll notice something interesting. The icon always resembles the people group of the culture to which it belongs. For Asians, Jesus looks Asian. For Africans, Jesus looks African. For Europeans, Jesus looks European. These portrayals are not meant to be “accurate” or “realistic” in our modern sense of the word. It was not lost on people that Jesus was a brown-skinned, Middle-Eastern Jew. Rather, like “Hamilton,” these pictures are meant to communicate an important, beautiful truth: Jesus is for all cultures. Jesus is for all races. Jesus is for all of us. And Jesus died for all of us, regardless of skin color. He did not come for just one people group, but for humanity as a whole.

“Jesus” represented all of us when he hung on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, and in this limited sense we can “see” ourselves in Jesus because he first chose to see himself in us.

This beautiful truth is especially poignant to people groups that have been marginalized in history. Between the years of 1939 and 1940, two psychologists (Kenneth and Mamie Clark) conducted and published a series of studies asking black elementary school girls to choose between a black doll and a white doll. The girls consistently chose the white doll over the black doll, even going so far as to attribute negative characteristics to the black doll. The experiment was a glimpse into the black girls’ psyche: they saw themselves in the black doll, and did not see themselves as beautiful or carrying any inherent dignity, value, or worth. They imbibed the images of them from the dominant society. Yet when black Christians saw Jesus hanging on the cross in their mind’s eye, and recognized that it was for them just as much as it was for the white man, it reaffirmed their sense of worth and dignity. It was this conviction that gave them the strength to keep their head up while singing spirituals under the hot sun in the cotton fields. It was this hope that gave them the fortitude to endure decades more of Jim Crow. If the God of the universe regards you in the way he does, who is man to say otherwise? Nothing that American society did could take that away from them.

The people of Wales gifted this stained-glass window (below) to the black congregation of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, following a tragic bombing by white supremacists that killed four black girls on the fateful Sunday morning of September 15, 1963. Like the reactions to the “Wizard of Oz” production, I have seen my white friends and neighbors frown at the depiction of Jesus as a black man, despite never raising any objection to the sandy blonde-haired, blue eyed, Anglo depictions of him on screen. For them, the latter was normative while the former was not. Some of them would be hard-pressed to understand the depth of meaningfulness of this work of art and the message it communicates: Jesus is for them, too. As John Perkins put it, recounting his conversion when he finally understood the gospel: “God for a black man? Yes, God for a black man! This black man! Me! That morning, I said yes to Jesus Christ.” (Let Justice Roll Down, 72)

The Wales Window - byhyweljohn

Before his conversion, Perkins had led a life of conscious rebellion. But after the revelation that Christ had purchased him with his blood–had died for him, of all people–that truth turned his life around. I once heard Tim Keller similarly share an anecdote of a black woman that struggled to reconcile Christianity with the atrocities done in its name, including slavery, until she realized something: Jesus was effectively lynched. He was the victim of state-sponsored injustice, complete with a kangaroo court without due process. She saw in Jesus a God that took on the suffering of her people, and it melted her heart. “God for a black man.” “God for a black woman.” This is the spirit behind the phrase “black lives matter.” It is not meant to communicate “black lives matter only.” Rather, it is meant to communicate “black lives matter, too,” because often in our society, they have been regarded as if they are less-than.

So as you watch “Hamilton,” remember that you have been represented on a stage far better: on the cross, and now, before the throne of God above. The apostle Paul writes in Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” Yes, the gospel is powerful, for Jews, Gentiles, and people of all ethnicities, cultures, and races.

It’s because of this that we can turn to that “lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross” and exclaim along with John Stott, “That is the God for me!” (The Cross of Christ, 311)

For me. For you. For all of us.

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