White Jesus

There is a ferment in America today over monuments, especially statues – what they mean, who they should depict, where they should be placed, and so on. It’s a highly contentious time.

A couple of weeks ago, Shaun King, a Black Rights Matter activist, made this post on Twitter in response to a post by a right-wing blogger.

King said: “Yes, I think the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down. They are a form of white supremacy. Always have been. … Tear them down.” In later posts, he added that statues of a white Virgin Mary and white disciples also need to go.

What I want to tell you today is that King is both absolutely right and absolutely wrong.

Mind you, I’m not arguing for a compromise, a position in between, some of this and some of that. Nor am I saying that this is a paradox, an apparent contradiction that somehow really isn’t a contradiction.

No, I am telling you that he is 100 percent correct. The images we have of white Jesus are a form of white supremacy and should come down. At the same time, he is 100 percent wrong. Properly understood, these images could be valuable to our understanding of who Jesus was and who Jesus is for us today.

Those are two dimensions of the truth that make King both right and wrong at the same time. Those two dimensions are historical accuracy and inculturation of the gospel.

First, historical accuracy. I hope I am not shattering any illusions by telling you that Jesus was not white.

The Bible tells us nothing of what Jesus looked like.

The prophet Isaiah says this of the Suffering Servant, the one who personifies Israel and suffers for the world: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2 NRSV).

The New Testament hints that there is nothing distinctive about the way Jesus looks. When soldiers come to arrest him in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas has to identify him, so the soldiers know who to arrest. He doesn’t stand out among the 11 others who are with him. No halo, no obvious signs of holiness or anything else different about him. (Matthew 26:48, Mark 14:44, John 18:4, 5)

So he must have looked like most any other Middle Eastern male Jew of the time: dark brown or black hair, brown eyes, olive skin. He wouldn’t have been tall, maybe five foot five. He probably was bearded. If we correctly interpret a remark by the Apostle Paul, his hair would have been relatively short (1 Corinthians 11.14) – except maybe for those long forelocks required by Leviticus 19:27.

Here’s a photo of a modern Hasidic Jew, showing one way to wear your forelocks long – curled or braided, perhaps. Let me compare him with a modern depiction of Jesus. This is from a movie version of the gospels called the Lumo Project. Jesus is portrayed by British actor Selva Rasalingham. He is half white and half Tamil. I mention that because the Tamil people in India trace their ancestry through many races. Park that thought to one side – a Jesus of many races. We’ll return to it.

I like Rasalingham as the face of Jesus. But I see three problems. One, hair too long, not to mention artfully umcombed. Two, no forelocks. Three, he was about 50 in this photo, making him 20 years too old.

Still, I hope, you get the idea. Jesus was not white. So where do we get the idea that he was? Remember Tevya’s refrain from the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”? Tradition!

Put it this way. Every image of Jesus is colored by the culture that portrays him.

One image that’s especially important comes from Byzantine art. Starting about A.D. 500, it’s the dominant image of Jesus for a thousand years. It shows Jesus as the Pantocrator, the ruler of all creation. He’s very stern looking, somebody you don’t want to mess with. And, oh yes, he’s white.

As Christianity spreads throughout Europe, the image of white Jesus goes everywhere, and he gets whiter the farther north goes. In America, a new tradition takes root. It begins in 1924 on the cover of a youth magazine published by the Swedish Covenant Church. In 1940, artist Warner Sallman turns his simple charcoal drawing into a painting that has been reproduced around the world literally a billion times.

It doesn’t hurt that Sallman portrays a Nordic Jesus about the time that Nazis and the KKK are working the lie that Jesus was Nordic, not Jewish.

Warner Sallman’s white Jesus and hundreds of others like it foster the illusion of white supremacy. After all, if Jesus is white, and Jesus is God, then God is white, and all authority is white, and – as they say on “Star Trek,” resistance is futile.

Shaun King is right. White Jesus has gotta go.

But wait. Remember that every image of Jesus is colored by the culture that portrays him. If you visit the right museum or gift shop or go to the right website, you can find many other portrayals of Jesus – Jesus in many colors. In Japan, Jesus is Japanese. In China, he’s Chinese. To Native Americans from Alaska to the Southwest, Jesus looks just like them.

In the nations of Africa, Jesus is always black, but not generically so. In Nigeria, he’s Nigerian. In Liberia, he’s Liberian. In Kenya, he’s Kenyan – and so on. And in Ethiopia, he’s Ethiopian (right), as he has been for more than 1,500 years, since about the same time that he was declared white under the Byzantine empire.

It’s called inculturation, or contextualization of the gospel. It’s about how the gospel is represented to other cultures, respecting both the integrity of the gospel and the integrity of the culture. In other words, you don’t do as so many missionaries did for so many years. You don’t go into a black culture and show pictures of a white Jesus. You show pictures of a black Jesus. Because the people you’re trying to reach are rightly suspicious of a white Jesus, representative of a race that considers itself superior. But they would welcome, and might respond to, a black Jesus, who looks just like them.

Some immediately object: But Jesus wasn’t black! No. But he wasn’t white either. And the injustice of his death certainly mirrors the experience of many black people over the ages.

Jesus is not black. Jesus is not white. And yet, he is black and white. Jesus is many colors, all at the same time. Remember how the song goes? “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

When my wife Linda and her sister Jan were children, they were both very blond. One Christmas, their parents got an outdoor Nativity set with plastic figures about three feet high, lighted from within. Guess what color hair Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus had?

That Nativity set was eventually passed on to us, for our two blond girls. We had to retire it when the paint started to flake off and it looked like baby Jesus had leprosy. We replaced it with a slightly updated set. The holy family still looks white, but at least they all have dark brown hair.

That’s what contextualization is all about. Whatever the historical Jesus looked like, your personal Jesus looks just like you. Of course, he does. He has to. Here’s a short course in it.

Jesus is the spitting image of God – Colossians 1:15. Jesus brought the light of God into the world when he pitched tent among us. – John 1:14. To be our savior, he had to become just like us – Hebrews 2:17.

We were created in the image of God – Genesis 1:26. We have so debased that image by our sin that it is barely recognizable in us – Romans 3:23. Following Jesus means being transformed into his image through the power of the Holy Spirit – 2 Corinthians 3:18. In short, Jesus had to become just like us so that he could make us just like him.

Ever see a pile of rocks at the beach and wonder who made it and why?

The Israelites had a habit of piling up stones at memorable sites. When Jacob dreamed of a ladder reaching down from heaven, he built a rock shrine and named the place Bethel, meaning “house of God” (Genesis 28). When the Israelites crossed the Jordan River for the first time under Joshua, they erected a cairn of 12 big stones from the river (Joshua 4).

When we sing the song “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” we may puzzle at the second verse: “Here I raise mine Ebenezer.” An Ebenezer is a “stone of help.” 1 Samuel 7:12 says it’s a battle monument erected to declare, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

Not all monuments are good. In the wilderness, Moses set up a bronze serpent to remind people of God’s providence. Hundreds of years later, people had turned it into an object of worship. It had to be destroyed. (Numbers 21, 2 Kings 18)

Sometimes monuments have to fall. Maybe this is why one of the 10 Commandments is, “Do not make an idol for yourself in any form” (Exodus 20:4, Deuteronomy 5:8). As someone has said, the point of taking down a monument is not to erase history. The point is to quit celebrating it.

Just because something happened doesn’t mean it deserves a monument. Remember that bit with the Israelites and the golden calf? When Moses started to destroy the idol, someone is bound to have objected, “Moses, wait, you’re destroying history!”

And Moses he kept hammering at it until he ground it to dust. Then he mixed the dust with water and made everyone drink it. The story is recorded in Exodus 32. The history is not erased. But there’s no longer a monument to it, lest someone get the wrong idea about it.

White Jesus needs to go. He doesn’t need to be obliterated, just put into context, and never, ever, lifted up as the only true image of Jesus. Your personal Jesus always looks just like you. If you’re white, Jesus is white. If you’re black, Jesus is black. But whatever color you are, Jesus wants to make you just like him – and he’ll do it if you let him.

This message was delivered July 12, 2020, at Edgerton United Methodist Church.

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