Renounce your white Jesus

You might have seen this recent photo of an anti-racism protester holding a sign that reads, “There are no white people in the Bible. Take all the time you need with this.”

At first, you’d think no one would need any time to digest that news. Of course, there are no white people in the Bible, unless you count the Romans who crucified Christ. And maybe the Gentiles in Galatia. But even those with just a passing knowledge of the Bible would know the main characters – Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Deborah, Ruth, David, Isaiah, Jesus, and his disciples – were all brown, Middle Eastern people, not white.

Except we don’t.

It seems that the Western church’s beloved images of a white-faced, blue-eyed Jesus with his cascading treacle-toned hair have shaped our imaginations more than the very Bible itself.

We keep telling ourselves that Jesus wasn’t white, but then, in 2001, a forensic anthropologist Richard Neave created a model of a Galilean man for a BBC documentary, Son of God, using an actual skull found in the region, and people were shocked to imagine Jesus looking like that!

To clarify, Neave didn’t claim this was Jesus’ face. He just wanted us to know what a typical first-century Galilean man looked like. Note, the heavy brow, the broad nose, the swarthy skin, the curly hair. Jesus probably would have kept his hair short-ish because long-haired men were immediately identifiable as those who had taken a Nazirite vow not drink wine or cut their hair. Neave’s Galilean man is thick-necked and bullish. Surely, Christ couldn’t have had such an appearance?

Joan Kelly of King’s College, London, has researched clothing styles of the day and compared them with the scant references to Jesus’ apparel in the Gospels and concluded, “Jesus is presented as an ordinary [looking] man, wearing ordinary clothes, made from undyed wool.”

Nothing like the depictions we find in European art of a handsome, smooth-faced Messiah, dressed resplendently in white robes and new Birkenstocks.

I remember showing my students a number of paintings of Jesus back in the early 2000s, asking for their responses to each. When I showed them Neaves’ “BBC Jesus” most of them recoiled. One student exclaimed, “I definitely don’t pray to that Jesus.”

Here we have an example of simple cognitive dissonance. We know Jesus wasn’t white, but we flinch at depictions of him being brown.

 

I propose we need to work on our appreciation of non-European portrayals of Christ. We need to put all those Warner Sallman illustrations of “Swedish Jesus” in the storeroom and hang some new images that help us align our perception of Christ with our reading of Scripture. Not that this will be easy for some.

Recently, British artist Lorna May Wadsworth moved her painting of the Last Supper, featuring a black Jesus, from a country church, where it had hung for ten years, to Sheffield for an exhibition at the Graves Gallery. As she was unpacking it, Wadsworth realised there was a bullet hole in the side of Jesus. Someone had been so offended by the portrayal of Jesus as a black man they had shot him with an air rifle!

But this isn’t simply about our taste in religious art. It’s about what sociologists call whiteness theory, a set of ideas and practices that makes whiteness the default standard about race. They refer to discursive theories of whiteness, which analyze the ways our language and symbols, through the media and other forms of public discourse, frame whiteness as both the preferred and the normal state of being. When white is the norm, then blackness or brownness is seen as its alternative or foil.

When white people decide to confront our own whiteness it often results in us creating strategies for “inclusion.” But talk of inclusion presumes white is central and therefore automatically included. You don’t need to include whiteness. That’s assumed. When we talk about creating opportunities for black and brown people to be included it says something very powerful about what we considered to be normal and preferred.

And this is why our depictions of biblical characters, and Jesus in particular, is so important. In Scripture, brownness is normal and it is white people who are offered an opportunity to be included.

In one of Jesus’ most scandalous sections of teaching (John 10), he condemns Israel’s religious elite for creating a toxic system in which people, like sheep, feel penned in and gripped by fear and threats of exclusion. The pharisees, he charges, are like thieves or wolves, terrorizing God’s people. Then he famously declares that he is the good shepherd who has come to lead the people to freedom and fullness of life.

That was radical enough. But Christ went further. He added this intriguing line, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (Jn 10:16).

God’s chosen people were brown people. But Christ does an outrageous thing. He calls people of other cultures and other skin tones to join his radical, rainbow-colored new covenant community.

 

Willie James Jennings says Jesus came to “form a new family in Israel,” a revolutionary act that “challenged the very foundations of [the Jews’] social life by challenging the power of the kinship network which organized the central social, economic, and geographic realities of life in Israel.”

This new redeemed society would spread throughout the Near East, into Northern Africa, Asia Minor and eventually Europe, gathering people of all colors, including the probably predominantly white-skinned Galatians whom Paul was forced to rebuke as “You foolish Galatians!”  Struggling as they were with the limits of this new family of God, Paul explains to them,

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:26-29).

That’s why our preferred depictions of Christ should be brown-skinned ones. Not only are they more historically accurate, but they break the nexus of whiteness and remind those of us who are white that we are children of God — through faith, not our race!

Whoever snuck into that English country church and shot Lorna May Wadsworth’s painting of black Jesus was distressed by the very sight of a Christ that didn’t normalize his or her color. If you’re white and pictures of black or brown Jesus make you feel uncomfortable, good. They remind you that you are saved by grace, not skin tone.

Depictions of brown Jesus move those of us who are white to the edge of the frame, be they John Giuliani’s image of Lakota Jesus, or Robert Lentz’s Mexican Christ, or Jesus with Middle Eastern appearance.

Or it could be Congolese artist, Francis Mampuya-Kitah’s depiction of the cross (La Sûprematié), or Indigenous Australian Greg Weatherby’s painting of the same scene, or one from Latin America’s Maximino Cerezo Barredo.

As Todd Atkins-Whitley once wrote, “White Jesus must die, must be renounced as a false God, an American idol, an impotent Savior, an empty relic created by an ungodly system… White Jesus is a charlatan, a puppet of white supremacy. He bears no witness of our suffering or the suffering of anyone else. He sets no one free and makes no one an heir of God’s promise.”

 

 

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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5 thoughts on “Renounce your white Jesus

  1. An important and challenging post, Mike. Your comments about”inclusion” especially insightful. Thanks.

  2. I’ll send this to some of my friends and am thoroughly excited at the reaction it’s going to get. Your rabble rousing will provide some enjoyable (hopefully enlightening if my friends and I handle the conversation with respect) debate.

    I have a couple of questions.

    Was there a more naturally positive uptake in Roman/Greek (white) cultures, or maybe a wider more wholesale acceptance to Jesus by Europeans?

    East of the “middle east” seems to have never had the same kind of uptake and successfully stamped out any meaningful presence of the church from the turn of millenia for about 500 years? Not withstanding the resurgence of faith in eastern countries in more recent decades.

    The Muslims were very successful in pushing the church back well into Europe, out of North Africa and into the minority wherever it survived within its boarders.

    Was the increasing whiteness of Jesus a result or cause of this?

    Was it an effective tool to give a white gloss to Jesus to make him more relateable to Europe when they were the intended audience and were predominantly white? But now it’s out of date in the multicultural West context?

    Is what is proposed here just the same thing? Re-casting Jesus into Australian first people’s context, Mexican or African because they are now the intended audience?

    Thanks for the reminder that we are released by God’s gracious act in Jesus into freedom (but I’m not a liberatiin theology fan), and that this freedom is for his glory, and not exclusively for any race or any other “privileged” section of humanity, but for all of us.

    I’m all for surrendering our whitified Jesus and stopping to listen to how other people see Jesus through different eyes and seeing what can be learnt (including what we have to learn from our church fathers, monks, nuns, theologians and missionaries).

    1. It’s a bit more complicated than the simple east-west, Muslim-Christian divide, Chris. The church has had a continual presence in Africa and the Middle East to this day. You can find beautiful, ancient images of brown-skinned Jesus from Ethiopia, Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula, and Syria. But as Christendom in both its forms took root in Western Europe and Russia, royal patrons funded the production of religious art, reaching its high point in the West with the Renaissance. We can’t blame Caravaggio, Michelangelo or Bellini for painting Jesus as a white European. They used Italian models. They didn’t have access to encyclopedias to know what Middle Eastern people looked like or dressed like. Over time these beloved images came to dominate our imaginations so much so that even by the 19th and 20th centuries when we DID know what Middle Eastern men looked like, artists like Warner Sallman and Holman Hunt were still producing devotional images based on the long-haired, white-skinned version of European art. Then Hollywood got in on the act and cast actors like Max Von Sydow, Robert Powell and Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus and the dye was cast.

  3. Thank you Mike for this ‘reality-check’ for those who place so much importance on Jesus’ inclusion in their own Western white-culture that they deny Jesus’ own ethnic & cultural origins!
    Even as a child I would look at the illustrations in the RSV bible I was given as a christening-present, & puzzle over the Scandie-Christ depicted knowing that Middle-Eastern people don’t at all look like that. If Jesus really was blonde & blue-eyed, there would’ve been absolutely no need for Judas to be bribed for his betrayal! Along with the incidences when Jesus avoids capture by the authorities by slipping away in the crowd, the account of him not being recognised by his disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13, also supports the Gospels’ message that it wasn’t physical-appearance that set Jesus apart from everybody else!
    Also, particularly after studying Art History at high-school, then university, I found it very incongruous knowing that Jesus, like his father Joseph, spent many years in the physically demanding job of a carpenters, often shown so thin & scrawny in crucifixion scenes!
    In those images it seems that starvation was more likely to kill Jesus before the cross did!

  4. If Jesus was a Jew then wouldn’t he have been white skinned with black hair and dark eyes the same as all those in the Nazi concentration camps?

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