“Jesus Wasn’t White” – Reflections on Race, Power, and Christian Symbolism

When I taught a Freshmen Social Studies class called “World Studies,” I always made sure that we spent 6 weeks on a unit on major world religions.  After all, one path to peace is through education and understanding.  During that unit, I described the most basic teachings of many of the world’s major religions.  Considering that I taught in a primarily-Black school, when I put together a slideshow about Christianity, I included this picture of Jesus:

Upon coming to this slide in the class, I was astounded to hear my mostly-Black students saying things like, “That’s not Jesus!” or “Jesus wasn’t Black!  He was White!”

“How do you know,” I asked the students.  “Have you ever seen Jesus?”

One kid responded, “I’ve been Christian my whole life, and I’ve never seen a Black Jesus.”

I thought of this story when I visited the Focus on the Family Visitor’s Center in Colorado Springs yesterday.  I was curious to see what such a place would be like considering that I often find myself on the opposite side of many issues from Focus on the Family when advocating for political change.  Among other things, I learned that “Homosexuality has a cure! It’s Jesus!”  I also learned that there is some unexplained connection between a teenager who looks at porn and abortion-rights advocacy.

After a while of looking around, I wandered into the book store.  I noticed that there were lots of paintings and figurines of Jesus around for purchase, but something seemed amiss.  In every single depiction of the man, Jesus was white!

Depictions of Jesus from the Focus on the Family bookstore.

A little worried about the trend I was seeing, I went to the counter and asked, “Do you by chance have any portraits of Jesus as a black man?”

The woman who was working replied, “Well . . . no . . . but . . . why would you . . .”

“Well, I know a lot of Black Christians, and I figure they may want to see a depiction of Christ that they can better relate to!”

“Hmmm . . . You can check our website!”

So I did . . . no luck.

Now, I’ve long pondered the dilemma of a God in human form (specifically the form of a man).  After all, how are you supposed to depict Him if you don’t know what He actually looked like?  No matter how you make Him look, you’re bound to alienate someone!  This is why I think that the Jews and Muslims have it figured out.  It is actually forbidden in their religions to depict God in any form.  Buddhists arguably don’t have a God to depict (Siddartha Guatama – The Buddha – was simply a man who was a great example), and the Hindus choose to depict their Gods blue with many arms and pretty gender androgynous – definitely no issue with someone feeling like they are not represented because they don’t look like their God in Hinduism.

Many Christian communities have gotten around this dilemma by simply depicting Jesus as the race of their community, which makes a lot of sense.  However, because Christianity was most widely spread through the colonization of communities of color throughout the world by White Christians from Europe, the most common depiction of Jesus in the world today is of Jesus as a white man.  This was no accident.  It was part of the colonization process that was meant to establish White people as powerful, as in control.  How much more in control can you be than to say to a community that you have just forced into submission, “This is God.  Worship him.  Oh . . . and he looks just like me.”

Now, when I have brought this up in Christian company, I have often had White Christians say to me, “It doesn’t matter what race Jesus is depicted as because He’s the Son of God.  He can be depicted as any race.”  Unfortunately, though, it does matter.  Jesus is not often depicted as just any old race (despite the most accurate depiction of Jesus being of him as an Arab Jew); he is depicted as White, and the history of depicting him as White is not innocent.  It’s not simply, “Well, I’m white, and I like Jesus, so I’m going to make Jesus White.”

The history of a White Jesus is one of colonization and oppression, of a systematic process of subjugation of people of color all over the world.  It was meant to tell those who were colonized that they were inferior to their colonizer.  After all, the colonizer looks like God!

To this day, this is an issue.  There is already a dearth of positive role models of color for young black, brown, red, or yellow kids to look up to in popular culture.  On top of that, young kids of color who identify as Christian must most-often see their God as White.  Talk about internalized inferiority and oppression!

This is not just an issue in how Jesus is depicted.  It’s an issue in wider Christianity as well.  In her book, An Angel Just Like Me, Mary Hoffman describes the way that a young Black boy wonders whether there could be any Black angels in heaven since all he sees for sale in stores are White angels around Christmas time.

Perhaps the solution is to simply depict Jesus in the most historically-accurate way possible.  After all, the field of forensic anthropology has been able to come to some conclusions about what Jesus most likely looked like.  He had dark, coarse hair.  He had olive-brown skin.  He had dark eyes.  He was an Arab Jew.

A portrait of what Jesus probably actually looked like according to forensic anthropologists

So long as a religion that has been a principal tool in colonization around the world has a God in the form of a man, it is important to remember that the race of said God is not innocent.  To offer only one depiction of Jesus, as I found in the bookstore of Focus on the Family, is not only irresponsible, but it is part of a downright racist tradition.

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19 thoughts on ““Jesus Wasn’t White” – Reflections on Race, Power, and Christian Symbolism

  1. First of all, thank you for all your thoughts you share on this blog! It is truly inspiring to see that there are others who perceive ideas with such open minds 🙂 And yes, this was most certainly the result of colonialism all over the world (as well as the crusades and leaders like Constantine, which I suppose are also forms of colonialism). I spoke to you at KYHOBY about a research paper I had written last semester on masculine studies. I also happen to write a research paper the previous semester on colonialism/imperialism. And this idea of religious influence was a large part of the paper. I’m a cultural anthropology major and to see such imperialistic powers infringing on other cultures and all the negative affects that follow, even still today, is rather upsetting. But again, knowing that others see these the origins of these influences as well is encouraging.

    KYHOBY Volunteer,
    Ricki Brooke

    • Ricki,

      The fact that you would mention the crusades would lead me to believe that you have not really studied history all that well. The crusades were not an offensive operation aimed at converting the middle east, the middle east was already becoming a Christian culture, it was a defensive operation to reclaim lands that were conquered by Muslims (and which were largely unsuccessful endeavors as depicted by the influence of Islam on most of the middle east today). If you’re serious about studying culture and anthropology, I would recommend reading some learned sources on the subject and not getting your information form the History Channel. (that was a joke).

      Peace,

      George

      • George,

        As far as I can tell, you also have a pretty skewed understanding of the Crusades. To say that the Crusades were in any way defensive (considering that it was a white force of Christian violence traveling across the world to conquer violently in the name of Christ, a pacifist) is a pretty gross misreading of history. I have read extensively on the subject, and few historians give credence to the idea that the white Christians of Europe who were leading the Crusades could, in any way, be seen as defending or reclaiming their land from Muslims.

        – Jamie

      • Jamie,

        For someone who sees the world in different shades of grey, you seem to be more than willing to paint these events in history in black and white terms. There are many moving parts when considering these things. The important thing to remember is that events in history are not contained in a bubble. To deny the idea that the crusades had a defensive element to them is simply another indication of your bias against Christianity as a whole. Did a lot of innocent people die and was there unnecessary bloodshed? I would say a resounding YES. But relatively speaking to the way things were done in that time, it is largely overblown as evidenced by your comments. To give you an idea of what I mean, you would be hard pressed to find any Islamic writings at that time that would signify the Crusades as anything more than a blip on the radar of the eastern world.

        Killing innocent people in the name of anything is wrong. We both agree on that. We also both agree that life and politics are complicated and should not be painted with broad strokes.

        George

    • Clement Yap 枼旭昇

      Jesus is neither black nor white. Instead we look at the colour of Jews we have now.

  2. Hey Jamie!

    I just read your blog and felt compelled to respond. While you bring up a good point that Jesus was NOT white as FOTF resources depict him, I have to disagree on how having images, none of which are actual real portraits, of Jesus as a white man are bad. In the bible, Gen. 1:27, it says “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (NIV, 2007) Then He sent his son into the world to be a perfect sacrifice to pay for the sins of man and provide an example of how we should live our lives, constantly seeking to be more like Christ.

    To me this means that God wanted us to be able to connect to Him and have a relationship with Him. He sent His son to die on the cross because He loved us so much. Whether we connect to Jesus because we have this image of Him as the same race as ourself or the community we grew up in, or a more realistic image of Him as a middle eastern Jew, that shouldn’t be a major problem because His love should be what people see not his skin tone. And some christians do promote Jesus as a man of middle eastern decent. I just reread a book called “The Shack” that does just that.

    The fact of the matter is, God has this perfect love that can fill holes that no worldly thing could even try to and He’s not going to keep someone out of Heaven because they pictured him as a person from Asia, Europe or the Middle East.

    As always however, I love reading your blog. Keep up the good work Jamie and God Bless.
    -Liza P., Colorado

    • Hey, Liza,

      Thank you so much for your comments! I definitely understand and see the power in having a God that humans can relate to, can see themselves in, can understand in all human experience. I can understand that, and that’s why, though I think I prefer the approach of Muslims and Jews, I can understand the importance of having an image of Christ as man.

      However, when looking at the particular history of Christ as white, it is not a simple case of “I want my God to look like me.” Unfortunately there is a long history of oppression that comes with the particular depiction of Christ that I found at FOTF. Thus, I think there’s something to the approach “The Shack” takes, which focuses on a more historically-accurate depiction of Christ.

      What do you think?

      Peace be the Journey,

      Jamie

      • Sorry it’s been so long since I replied to a post Jamie. It’s been crazy town around here.

        There is a key point that you happen to me missing that I’m sure you may have run across in your Catholic upbringing. The whole point of Jesus is that the Incarnation is the central point in history for all peoples (as believed by Christians). It is not a political ploy to be used by the powerful to oppress the weak. The apostles were certainly NOT white and they were commissioned with spreading the message of the gospel to ALL people regardless of race. 2,000 years later, I would say that they did their job.

        The problem here lies not in how Jesus is depicted but WHO HE IS. You say that Jews and Muslims got this right, but all that says is that you are completely dismissing the significance of the Incarnation. That God became man and became intimately knowable to all peoples. Christianity to you is just one religion among many, but to a couple billion people on the earth it is not just one religion among many. If you want to rail against racism, fine I’m with you. If you want to point out the evils of imperialism, fine I think we can find common ground on that. But if you want to downgrade Jesus to a political tool used to impose “whiteness” on people, now you are minimizing the figure that many people uphold as God incarnate.

        As a final note, while FOTF does some good work, I would be careful when getting any type of definitive doctrinal or sociological input from there. As a suggestion, I would encourage you to read the works of Christopher Dawson who speaks of Christianity’s role in the development of culture. I think you would find it interesting.

        Peace,
        George

  3. George,

    While I agree that Christianity has little (though I would not say no) doctrinal structure that encourages oppression through the spread of the religion, white men in power have used the religion as a tool of colonization for quite some time. It is well documented that Christians in North America forcefully converted (and killed those who would not convert) the indigenous of the land. Similar practices were used throughout the world to try to impose the concept of white power and supremacy on colonized peoples. I am not downgrading Jesus to a “political tool used to impose ‘whiteness’.” Those white Christians who used his skewed message to further their work of oppression did throughout history. Shame on them.

    Jamie

  4. CSCSCSCSCSCSCSCSCSCS33

    http://www.thenazareneway.com/likeness_of_our_saviour.htm
    why trust the works of guessing anthropologist when you can trust the writings of the people of his era. especially the ones who did not believe his claims for they are more inclined to describe things as it was seen. he was of light skin, light hair, and light eyes. he was not a jew. the word jew didnt even enter the bible until around 1775-ish and his apostiles where adamic mostly greek speaking men. most of which where multi-lingual
    P.S. racism by definition is noticing the differences among various races(one against another) so everyone is racist. please stop carelessly tossing this word around

    • My friend,
      I see two points that need to be addressed in your response to my post. The first relates to your understanding of Jesus as White, and the other relates to your definition of racism. I will address them separately.

      1. The reason that I trust the work of anthropologists is because it is not guess work at all. It is based on scientific research. The evidence you have for Jesus being of “light skin, light hair, and light eyes” is in no way based on scientific evidence. For example, the first three descriptions of Jesus in the source you provide fall as such:
      “The Description of Publius Lentullus” – Publius Lentullus didn’t exist (or at least not in the way the letter purports him to have existed). The work that is quoted is seen as a fabrication that likely came about in the 12th or 13th century. It actually proves my hypothesis that the race of Jesus as White was largely a fabrication of White (in this case Greek) people who wanted to subjugate others because God supposedly looked like them.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Publius_Lentulus
      “The letter from Pontius Pilate to Tiberius Caesar” – This letter has largely been debunked as part of the “Acts of Pilate,” a 4th century forgery that was, again, created with a very specific agenda, part of which was to rewrite history to make Jesus appear in a specific light.
      http://www.fact-index.com/p/po/pontius_pilate.html
      “The Archko Volume” – Again, this volume has been widely proven to forgery. Rather than describing it myself, check out the excellent debunking here:
      http://www.epinions.com/review/Archko_Volume_by_McIntosk/content_559758675588

      I could go on and on, but I am tired. There is no evidence that Jesus was White that has withstood the test of time, and it doesn’t make logical sense. He was a member of the community of the Hebrews (what we now call Jews), which had a specific look: dark eyes, olive-to-dark skin, and coarse, dark hair. He would not likely have been trusted by the people of his time had he looked European in any way, and as such, he wouldn’t have been able to command the kind of widespread social movement with which he is credited.

      2. I am really confused as to where you find the definition, “noticing the differences among various races(one against another).” I have never seen such a definition, and I do not carelessly toss the word around. I use it with very specific purpose in my efforts to critique culture. Let’s try this definition:
      http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/racism
      A. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
      B. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
      C. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

      I prefer a definition of racism that brings a discussion of power and privilege, namely “Prejudice or Intolerance based on race plus social power.” Such a definition allows us to discuss the ways that racism creates systems of power and oppression based on the social construction of race in our society.

  5. CSCSCSCSCSCSCSCSCSCS33

    and not all peoples are meant to hear the word of the lord. “clouds that don’t hold water”
    Read the book, answers are there. and not the corrupted KJV which we can prove was largely modified.

  6. The crusades started when the Turks defeated the Arabs who then controlled Jerusalem. The Byantine emperor asked the Pope for help, not really expecting any, because Christian pilgrims were being inconvenienced. In fact, only Arabs were being killed. By the time the crusaders arrived in Jerusalem, Christian pilgrims were being welcomed by the Turkish rulers of Palestine. The European crusaders, who had an awful time getting there and were really angry, massacred every Muslim and Jew they could find in Jerusalem. For centuries, Christians, Jews and Muslims had all worshipped freely in Jerusalem, according to the injunctions of the Koran (the Turks took a few years catching up on Koranic studies). The crusaders were not racist, however. Everyone they massacred looked exactly like the Christians whom they had come to rescue.

  7. While medieval Europeans depicted Jesus as white, they were not racist.

  8. Racism as we know it was invented in the 1840s. Louis Agassiz, who founded geology, was appalled that abolitionists claimed slavery was inhumane. Agassiz, by photographing slaves who were emaciatied and missing body parts, tried to show that African Americans were not human. If slaves were not human, then slavery couldn’t be inhumane. Europeans copied these ideas later to justify colonialism, e.g., Kipling.

  9. Jamie,

    Thank you so much for your accurate insight! This has been a constant source of anger and frustration for me, as someone who follows the teachings of Jesus, yet feel marginalized and invalidated by others who claim to follow him as well.

    A university I used to attend has one piece of public art on its campus: a 30 ft tall depiction of Jesus who can only be described as white. What has been a source of pain for students of color since the day it was unveiled, has become a dismissal from the white community on campus to “stop complaining”. And the “discussions” that have surrounded the mural have ranged from “Art is just art” to “There go those angry black people, always having something to complain about”. All of which have been filled with White noise. The existence of white privilege (especially white heterosexual male privilege) is no where more evident and prevalent than in the Christian faith. Just wanted the defenders of Christianity on the comments to know that this criticism of how and why Christ is depicted as white is not just coming from those on the outside looking in: we who are supposed to be your brothers and sisters, but not treated as such, are reiterating the same thing. That should concern you.

    Thanks again, Jamie!

  10. […] If, on the other hand, you’re just that ignorant of history (which I highly doubt since you are a brilliant, well-educated woman), then please do me a favor and read this. […]

  11. Read the geneaology of Jesus in Matthew. He could not have been European. Truth is that it does not matter what color Christ was. If this is true and it is then why do people get offended when Christ is portrayed as non-White. Part of the issue is that man has made Color God.

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