So-called “White Jesus” has gotten a great deal of press this past week due to a radical call-to-arms tweet from a man named Shaun King who said all images of Jesus as a white European should come down because each are, as he explained it, “racist propaganda” and “a gross form of white supremacy…created as tools of oppression.” Very strong accusations to be sure.
Mr. King, like any of us at most times, is both right and wrong. Yes, there are many images of Jesus as a white European. So many, that some might naturally conceive of Him that way. But to say all images of the Savior are created as tools of racial oppression is, like most things on Twitter, better left unsaid as it pretends to know what was in the hearts and intentions of each and every artist whoever created them. That is simply beyond reason and basic goodwill. Some might have created such images to send a racist message of white supremacy. Of course, anyone who believes such a thing knows nothing of this Jesus and has no place invoking his name.
But the question remains, what do we make of white Jesus?
First, any person who innocently believes Jesus is a white European need simply consult the scriptures. They will read how God saw fit to have his only Son born in a very specific locale, in a very specific cultural situation among a specific group of people: right in the middle of the Middle East to local parents of Jewish descent. Jesus received his only earthly DNA from his mother’s lineage as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit. So, His race and ethnicity are hers, a Galilean Jew.
Beyond this, we do not know the precise pigment of His skin or features. Some people share the traditional visual features of their heritage more dramatically than others. Others are born with a more common, less distinct look. What was Jesus’ visage? We simply do not know for sure. But we do know the setting in which he was born, and to whom.
Even more important, Jesus did not just enter our world through the stage door of a Middle Eastern, Jewish setting and then move to Denmark or London. He was born into, was raised, matured, worked, made friends, taught, died, was resurrected, and ascended in that very specific and distinct ethnic and geographical setting. It was just as much a part of who He was as anything else was. Jesus was not white. He was not European nor American. Any assumption that He was is incorrect.
But here is the other fact. No one has seriously claimed to tell us what Jesus actually, specifically looked like. (Except the folks over at Popular Mechanics.) Every image we see of Jesus is simply a particular artist’s interpretation and rendering of him. And yes, interpretations can by definition, be problematic. But not necessarily so. So let’s speak briefly of the way the Savior has been popularly portrayed in images throughout history and across cultures.
Martin Scorsese’s Jesus in the blasphemous film The Last Temptation of Christ was the well-tanned, So-Cal Willem Dafoe. Scorsese’s portrayal was clearly unbiblical, but was it white supremacist propaganda? Scorsese is known as many things. Being a racist is not one of them.
Perhaps the most famous painting of Jesus hanging in homes and churches, black, white, and otherwise, in the modern western world is Warner Sallman’s The Head of Christ (1940). Second to this is Sallman’s Christ at Heart’s Door.
There is no evidence or indication that Sallman, or any major effort to distribute this image, had any racial motivations. He merely painted his own take on Jesus for his intended audience.
One of the most widely used (and oldest) images of Christ outside of the Western world is the famous Christ Pantocrator dating back to the 6th century from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, Egypt.
These two very different cultural and historical Christs are not wholly different in their skin tone, facial structure, or eye construction.
But here is perhaps the most important point to consider in studying images of Jesus in cultural contexts as it really does speak to the larger point of who the Savior is. It has long been common devotional practice for different races and ethnicities to create portrayals of Jesus as reflective of their own. There is nothing wrong with this as it is merely their effort to communicate the truth that the Savior came for them as they are. For God so loved the world…
Here are a number of interesting and innocent examples.
Here is a Potawatomi (Native American tribe from the Great Lakes Region) Madonna and Child painted by an Italian Christian.
There is nothing theologically unorthodox and much culturally right with contemporary American painter Vincent Barzoni’s His Voyage: Life of Jesus portraying our Savior as an enslaved black man, bound, abused, and lynched for our freedom from the brutal slavery of sin. Barzoni’s is a savior who indeed relates to the historic suffering of the African-American and is the source of hope and ultimate freedom to their children.
The historic 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama, the first black church in that city – originally named the First Colored Baptist Church by its founders – and site of the horrific racially-motivated bombing that killed four young girls attending Sunday School on the morning of September 15, 1963, features stained glass window depictions of both black and European Jesus. Their black Jesus was created and given to the members of the church as a gift by the people of Wales following the bombing.
Stained Glass in Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
The altar of the even more historic Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the place of the senseless murder of 9 parishioners attending an evening bible study by a white supremacist, features this image of black Jesus.
Nearly every culture that has had Christ presented to them has portrayed Him as one of their own. Even the missionaries bringing His Good News typically portray Jesus in their hearers’ context. Why? Because Jesus is their own! That is the nature of who Jesus is.
If we know of anything of Jesus, it is this: He belongs to everyone, to all peoples, regardless of race, class, nationality, politics, age, education, or any kind of human divide. No one group can claim Him as their own, save for the universal, global Church that He founded. And as a fact, that body of people is the most diverse, colorful group in human history who gather under one symbol, that of Christ and His cross. Christians, unlike Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists, acculturate their faith locally which sociologists of religion say is one of the reasons Christianity spread so quickly across the world and continues to do so. It adapts to a people’s distinct culture, changing people rather than their cultural traditions. And while Jesus belongs to the universal Christian church, it exists for the sole purpose of giving Jesus away to all lands and all peoples.
This is the Christ who will be worshipped, as Revelation tells us, by “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages…”
The first thing every child learns in Sunday School is that lovely truth, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight.”
Header photo from Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com