A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, December 13, 2013

What Color Is Your Jesus? Or, We Don't Own Jesus

Many years ago, I traveled to Haiti on a short-term mission trip. Near the end of our time there, the missionary hosting us (Dave) wanted to show us some of the sites of the country's capital, Port-au-Prince. At one point, we stopped at an old Presbyterian Church downtown. Dave wanted us to see the beautiful sanctuary, so we entered taking in the ornate architecture and the beautiful artwork.

The sanctuary had a stations of the cross that went around the walls inside. At each station, a mural had been painted depicting each station. What I was not prepared for was that at each station, Jesus, his disciples, and the other character painted were all black. I had never seen a black Jesus before. After all, I had lived in a context where every depiction of Jesus was basically white. It never even occurred to me that Jesus may have had a complexion other than the average white European.

Fox news anchor, Megyn Kelly has caused a flap over unfortunate comments strongly expressing her view that the historical Jesus and Santa Claus were both white. She was responding to an article written by Alisha Harris on the matter of the overwhelming depictions of Santa Claus as white. Now, without dismissing Harris' concerns, which certainly should be heard and considered, I frankly care not one whit about Santa Claus. I have as much interest in him as the Easter Bunny. But I do have an interest in Jesus.

Now, I'm going to give Kelly the benefit of the doubt and simply attribute her comment to ignorance, just as I had been ignorant walking into that church in downtown Port-au-Prince that day, never considering that Jesus might have been something other than white. After all, how many nativities do we see each holiday season on front lawns and public places and in retail stores, where the holy family is not depicted as lightly complected? So, it is not surprising that the average person in the United States would never consider Jesus as anything else ethnically.

But, there can be little doubt that Jesus was not fair complected. He was not European. He was a Semite of Mediterranean descent. While it is impossible to know how dark Jesus' skin happened to be, it is certain he did not look like he was from Finland. If for no other reason than for the sake of history (and there are other important reasons as well) we need to be aware of this. I am guessing that Ms. Kelly is being instructed in this reality since her comments. It's up to her whether or not she learns the lesson.

But, I also want to make a theological point here because history and theology are always intersecting and intertwining with each other. As I looked at those murals that day considering a very different looking Jesus than the one I knew, it made sense to me that in Haiti, Jesus would and should be depicted as Haitian. Jesus came to earth for the Haitian people. I seen nativity sets from Japan where the holy family is depicted as Japanese. That may not be historically accurate, but it is most definitely theologically correct. Jesus came to earth for the Japanese people as well.

Please hear me. I do not want to be misunderstood. Let me say again. History is important. It is important that we make it clear that white European depictions of Jesus are not historically accurate. And for those of us who are not part of an ethnic minority, and who have not had to live in a context where we are a minority, we need to think twice before instructing ethnic minorities on how they should react and respond to the characteristic depictions of Jesus who looks like the white majority.

But having said that, I also want to say that in the midst of this all important discussion that we make sure it does not degenerate into a power struggle as to who gets to own Jesus. Regardless of the color of Jesus' skin, no one can own Jesus ethnically. Regardless of what Jesus says, no one can own Jesus politically. How true it is that we are constantly trying to manipulate Jesus to serve our own agendas, but Jesus will not conform to our expectations, our ideologies, and our wants and desire. Jesus comes to us for us, all of us, as the children's song goes, "red, brown, yellow, black, and white"... and I would add rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, capitalist and socialist. We do not own Jesus.

Jesus owns us.


Robert Cornwall said...

Allan thanks for the reflection. I hope Kelly's comments are rooted in ignorance, for surely Jesus wasn't a white European (and St. Nicholas wasn't either).

The color of Christ, as Ed Blum and Paul Harvey note in their excellent book from last year, is a matter of power. If Jesus is white (and Santa too), then perhaps that means that God is white, and if God is a white male, then -- if I'm not a white male (I happen to be one) then am I a reflection of God?

Thus, it is important that we think of God in many guises, for if Jesus is the human face of God, then spiritually at least we must allow ourselves to experience these varieties of expressions!!
Otherwise, the one who controls the color has the power.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Hi Bob,

I'm with you on the power issue. I would add that in our context, if Jesus is white and Santa is white, are whites then, the great benefactors to minorities? A benefactor is in a position of power as well.

Patrick said...

Why is it nefarious for white artists to paint a white Jesus, but, it's not for black folks to paint a black Jesus?

I don't get the power trip comments.

Guarantee if you see some Chinese Christians, you'll see a Chinese Jesus picture.

It's how humans think.

Since humans tend to identify with earthly measures of men, this won't change until the restoration though we believers ought to know better.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Hi Patrick,

It is not necessarily nefarious to paint a white Jesus. As I indicated, theologically since Jesus has come for everyone it makes perfect sense for Jesus to be portrayed as one rorm the very culture that portrays him.

Nevertheless, it cannot be forgotten that for African Americans in the U.S., their history has been one of enslavement and discrimination; and the very Jesus that many African Americans have accepted has been portrayed in the color of the oppressor's skin. And since it was white Europeans who first connected power and slavery to the color of one's skin, the white Jesus can clearly give a very different impression to African Americans.

I am not suggesting that we should destroy all of the white Jesuses out there, but rather be sensitive to the fact that someone who is not white might very well perceive it in ways you and I never considered.