A friend recently tried to encourage me to watch a heavily-advertised “epic miniseries” on the Bible being aired on the History Channel. My first question was about the physical appearance of the characters. Predictably they were all of European descent.
It is common sense that people living in the lands where most of the biblical narrative took place were not white. If you would be astounded to meet someone from those regions today with blond hair and blue eyes. However, the very well-regarded seminary I attended likewise promoted European images of them. When I raised the question (y’all know I did, just like Buggin’ Out), they typical response was “it doesn’t matter what color they were.” The unspoken remainder of that sentiment was “as long as they are white.”
Some might ask, why it matters. Well, first for the sake of academic integrity. If you lie to me about one thing, I can’t trust much else you say. Secondly, it matters because of institutionalized racism and its prevalence in the church.
I happen to attend one of the longest-standing historically black churches in Washington, DC. It was founded during the ante-bellum period to accommodate blacks who did not want to be treated in a discriminatory manner in a nearby Methodist Episcopal Church. Their white benefactors even provided assistance in building a new sanctuary. Needless to say, there are white images of a man they would like you to think was Jesus in several places around the building. As a matter of fact, there is a stained glass window facing the pulpit with such a depiction that is approximately 40 feet tall. I find it disconcerting, but consistent with the imperialistic mission of the organization.
This brings me to the point of spiritual integrity. The Second Commandment states:
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:4-6).
The last I checked, Jesus was enthroned at the right hand of the Father. There should be no physical depictions of him anywhere, especially not in a Christian house of worship or inserted into the pages of bibles. Now, they must choose, is Jesus in heaven and off-limits for photo-ops or will they blatantly disregard God’s law?
I’ve heard the lame excuse that some people are visual learners and need images to help them grasp biblical truths. Well, it is a lie that Jesus is white. If you want them to grasp the truth, at least depict him correctly. One of my best friends is a United Methodist minister from Angola in SW Africa. I asked him what color Jesus would be in the picture on the wall of his church back home. He looked at me sheepishly and said “you know.” It seems missionaries push “Jesus is white” harder than they proclaim “Jesus is Lord.”
This also came up during a study of Song of Songs” using a study guide from said denomination’s publishing house. One of the narrators describes herself by saying I am black, but comely (1:5). The commentator could not grasp in the notes how being black was not a complaint. The narrator was stating matter-of-factly that she her complexion was darkened from prolonged exposure to the sun, but affirm her attractiveness. Leave it to me to expose the racist context in which the interpretation is taking place and the imperialistic regime it supports. It was a shock to some, but still a wake-up call to engage their all materials critically.
Sadly, these conversations are not welcome in the church. The strongest commentary I have seen on the subject were on episodes of The Boondocks and from stand-up comedians. Ironically, some black folks will strike you dead if you try to take away their white Jesus. However, an ignoramus of a black preacher once told me Jesus was African-American. I won’t dignify that with a response.
The bottom line is that Jesus was a real, historical figure that did not look like Michelangelo’s effeminate brother-in-law. Most of the images we have had imposed on our consciousness were produced during a historical era when the African slave trade was being rationalized by Europeans commissioning them. His ethnicity and appearance are not open to our social constructs.
There were many controversies concerning Jesus in the early church, but none of them focused on his race. We should likewise focus on his transcendent spirit and the power it gives us to overcome the world. If he wanted to leave a physical depiction of how he looked, he could have done that.