One of my favorite things about my university’s library is its generosity. As it is excruciatingly old, from time to time it decides to rid itself of its multitude of outdated material. Every once in a while, when you walk in to crank out a paper, you might pass by a cart stacked from bottom to top with books, primarily related to the parenting, ministry or both. However, sometimes the free book cart contains other material. Today on my journey into distraction, I found that the library was giving away some illustrated children’s books. Per usual, I decided my backpack had enough room. I found some fun copies of fairy tales, books teaching children about the world and, of course, some illustrated Bible stories. As I excitedly opened the “Children’s Old and New Testaments,” I physically winced at the bright white skin I saw on the faces of Adam and Eve. In almost a morbid curiosity, I flipped farther ahead, and my suspicions were confirmed. There, before my very eyes, was a white-skinned, red-haired Jesus Christ.
What’s wrong with “white Jesus,” you might ask? Christianity is a global religion! Is it not best expressed in an artistic sense through a multicultural lens? In fact, if you were to step into the office of John Brown University’s intercultural studies professor, you might see on her walls art representing Bible stories in a Picasso-esque style with a Chinese flair. This is the work of He Qi, a Chinese artist and theologian who has sought to combine his culture with his training and understanding of Scripture. For generations, as formerly colonized countries have come forth in claiming Christianity as their very own, their artists have similarly taken ownership of Biblical narratives by portraying them as appropriate to their cultural contexts. As early as the 1970s, Christian artistry has arisen from Malawi, Puerto Rico, native New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, portraying the Madonna and Child, Nativity scenes, Adoration of the Magi and more.
As Christianity spread through Europe and retained its claim for generations, a wealth of Eurocentric Christian art has been produced. This fits within the pattern of cultural claims to Christianity. As the faith spreads, depictions of Scripture and Christ Himself are made to resemble the culture which it now bears. If this is all true, then why negate the existence of “white Jesus”? Is his existence not an extension of the European claim to the Christian faith?
If there is one characteristic that Christ was certain to take on in his human form, it was lowliness. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, NRSV). Jesus walked on this earth as a humble servant and poor teacher who was inevitably put to death by the political powers of the time. Even his ethnic identity as a Jew put him at a lower social rung than most in his ancient Roman context. Jesus Christ was not associated with social or earthly power. He possessed none of it whatsoever. However, his modern-day followers of European descent, especially in the United States, do possess said power. America was founded upon a race-based hierarchy, with Black, brown and Indigenous people at the bottom, topped off with none other than white people. After years of oppression, slavery and outright genocide, with a multitude of legislation attempting to make up for what had been stolen, to this day a power distance remains.
Generational wealth has been gained by white Americans, extending back even to times when many of their ancestors were slaveholders. Black Americans are unabashedly behind, often confined to a lower-class status due to their lack of a head start. Native Americans, having been ripped from their ancestral land, live on pathetic reservations which are far from comfortable or quality living. The cultural consciousness of the average American favors whiteness and looks down on or feels threatened by Black, brown, and Indigenous citizens. To me, it is undeniably clear that in the United States, whiteness is power. It is privilege. As Americans look upon this lover of us all, Jesus Christ, through the lens of whiteness, we are sorting him into our own social structure. He receives the benefit of white power and privilege and is placed at a distance from his followers of color. For Americans to truly understand the character of Jesus Christ, we must see him through our social cultural context. He was not white. He was Indigenous. He was Black. He was downtrodden, oppressed and impoverished.
To love this image of Jesus is to love the weary and downcast of our world, and to truly wear the desires of his own heart. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40, NRSV).
Photo courtesy of Arturo Rey at Unsplash