Get rid of white Jesus. You know the one. It’s not particularly Da Vinci that’s the problem. Nor, is it Rembrandt. It’s the one with the brown, flowing locks and the tender hands caressing sheep that’s problematic. Render him with deep blue eyes and things get stranger. How did it come to this? An ethereal, European Jesus distanced from his Palestinian roots and divorced from the coarseness of his life, the scars implanted into his hands. Can Precious Moments be crucified? It would be like strapping a Care Bear into an electric chair.
If you grew up in the evangelical South like me, then you’ll have to undergo a good deal of reconditioning. We all know that Charlton Heston is Moses, Jonah is an asparagus, and the real Jesus is painted by Warner Sallman (see above).
One summer I worked at a Methodist Museum in Saint Simon’s Island and they had a room with displays of nativities from countries all over the world. There was a Japanese Holy Family kneeling as if attending a tea ceremony, an African Jesus cradled in a hut, an Italian Holy Family that was doing whatever Italians do. “Christ for the world,” we proudly proclaimed. They’re finally making a Jesus who represents the diversity of humanity (Barbie would catch up a few years later).
Symbols matter, of course. And Jesus always confronts us in our historical and cultural locations with the particular tools and symbols we have to make sense of him. It’s a gift to see the incarnate one become fully human in every tribe, race, and culture.
Here’s the problem: the chameleon-like Holy Family has always found a way to shape-shift into Swedish models. There wasn’t a single nativity that looked Palestinian. It reminds me of what George Bernard Shaw said: “God created us in his image and we decided to return the favor.” Pick the Jesus you like best.
We don’t know what Jesus looked like, but we know that he wasn’t the ancient Brad Pitt. God transcends culture, and so encounters all cultures, yet we also know that Jesus was a part of a particular culture—one that recited the Shema and ate tilapia out of the Sea of Galilee.He was ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ from a small town in the Middle East. Rarely, do we render him as such. God forbid that “Christ for the world” be a homeless, Palestinian Jew who came not to the Gentiles, but to his own people, Israel.
We’re beginning to realize the power of images, which is not a novel concern for the people of God. Moses and the Israelites escaped from Egypt after four-hundred years of stacking bricks into propaganda for Pharaoh. ‘Be careful with images,’ God told them as they wandered in the wilderness, ‘they’ll shape your desires. Your heart is bound to worship them.’ The iconoclasts in the 8th and 9th century feared the idols we’d create if we start fashioning images of Jesus. We are a people that demands to have God on our terms. It’s too much power for a people who are too skilled at making idols. Any image of Jesus is a mediation, or policing, of the incarnation or the ways God’s presence is among us.
The Eastern Orthodox Church has said that their icons, or images of Jesus, are windows into the Divine. What happens when those images are corrupt? There are ways that these images get imprinted in our imaginations and become the subtext of the ways we understand God and our own humanity. Jesus, if Jesus is a universal Christ, must be white because whiteness signifies a kind of existence that is divorced from ethnicity, a kind of race-less existence. Therefore, any other kind of Jesus inevitably feels like an idol, a Jesus created in our own image.
There is always a theology embedded in the images we revere. When we translate Jesus into our likeness, then we begin to translate our theology with him.
Here’s one example: how do we imagine salvation, restoration into the image of Jesus, through a particular and ubiquitous white Jesus? In this case, we uphold a theology of white supremacy. The only true reconciliation with God can come through the body of a white male. The white church is first. We are the teachers, not the learners. The physicians, not the sick. The hosts, not the guests. We are the saviors, not the redeemed. You know it’s a pattern when all of the North African saints are suddenly painted white. It’s a short step to receiving divine approval of racial aggressions.
The very image of white Jesus is a hindrance to our encounter with the self-revealed God. White Jesus is a type of Christian monument that tells a false history about the character and person of Jesus. We are blocked from seeing the truth about Jesus, which is God oppressed for the oppressed. Sometimes monuments need to fall.
Christian faith is joining to the God who is the other, the one who confronts us as the other. Contextualization is important. We must be asking the question, ‘Who is Jesus for us today?’ as Bonhoeffer asked so frequently. In this historical moment, there are other images that we need. Jesus tells us where to find him, after all, and it’s not in the rich, powerful, and beautiful. We know that Jesus was a refugee at birth, lived a simple life, until he was executed by the state. What are the images that help us understand what we know of Jesus?
Maybe the best way to understand this crucified Jew is to spend some time with images of the Black lynched Jesus, unjustly sentenced to death, after being betrayed, mocked, and tortured. It’s an uncomfortable image to ponder, but it’s one that might usher us into the true heart of God.