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.
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.