“What I do know, is that white Jesus is a lie. And is a tool of white supremacy created and advanced to help white people use the faith as a tool of oppression.”
Those are Shaun King’s words on a recent Instagram post. It follows King’s controversial urges on social media to tear down all depictions of Jesus Christ as a white man in the same attitude that protesters had assumed when they pushed over and vandalized statues of the likes of Francis Scott Key in Golden Gate Park.
Understandably, reactions were an entanglement ranging from full-frontal agreement to death threats and everything in-between. The seemingly radical stance that Shaun King has taken to can feel like an attack to conservatives faithful to the word of God. However, though I do not 100% adhere to King’s remarks, I can understand where he is coming from. But I believe that the subsequent outrage might have been minimized had Shaun held a different approach in announcing his strong proposal.
It is almost an indisputable fact that Jesus was not white – he was a brown-skinned man from the Middle East. Forensic researchers and archaeologists put together the most accurate image of Jesus Christ, probably to date. Contrary to popular thought, he had short, curly brown hair, dark eyes, a bushy brown beard, and olive skin.
While some may criticize the slight inaccuracy that forensic anthropology might sometimes have, Professor of Anthropology in the University of California Santa Cruz, Allison Galloway, reminds us of this: “[The forensically developed image] is probably a lot closer to the truth than the work of many great masters.”
Whether Jesus was white, brown, or Black, the cultural background of the worshippers, and therefore, the artists, play a big role in how Jesus is portrayed among themselves. And it is simply so that the dominant publishers of the classical material and artwork that today’s Christians are so accustomed to are historically from Europe – especially after the rapid expansion of the Roman Empire following the legalization of Christianity. The luscious haired Jesus was inspired by the Roman gods. And from before the 2nd century, there are few remaining images of Jesus, which adds to the mystery.
The critics in the thread below Shaun’s tweets were quick to point out that other cultures across the continents did have their own versions of Jesus Christ.
There is a long beautiful history of people depicting Jesus looking familiar to their place and culture. Jesus is not about race, and saying to tear down depictions that occur in a European-dominant context is as racist as removing them from any culture. pic.twitter.com/C1wFSr1xXr
— MrSubsidiarity (@MrSubsidiarity) June 22, 2020
So I don’t think that it is safe to say that white Jesus was created for white supremacy. Even if the various depictions, especially European depictions, were likely created with an underlying basis on ethnocentrism, they were not, fundamentally, erected for the sole purpose of oppressing other races on the belief that one’s own is superior. In this sense, King’s tweets can be misleading, and it is not a surprise that many took offense.
However, it is still very important to acknowledge that supremacist individuals and groups act on and justify their actions with the idea that their Jesus was a white person. Slave owners and even the Klu Klux Klan were and are motivated by this idea.
Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, authors of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, explain that the KKK was not able to rely on biblical scriptures but rather put their focus on the whiteness of Jesus. “It gets them away from actually having to quote chapter and verse, which they can’t really do to present their cause,” he says.
The other point Blum and Harvey put out there that is worth considering is that before the 1800s, Americans were far more comfortable with brown Jesus. But as immigrants began to flood in, they began to get on edge about the racial shift in their country, and by the 20th Century, advocators of immigration restrictions put in efforts to push the image of white Jesus.
What Shaun King might be implying is that many depictions of Christ in America might be created for supremacy. But I feel that this remains not as strong of a reason to tear down every single statue, mural, and image of white Jesus ever. If it were to be implemented, and if it were to be enforced fairly, it would be a question of which stained-glass murals, which statues, and which images were put up on the premise that white is the superior race.
And because this is dealing with places of worship, his very forward suggestion can be dangerous. Churches are meant to be a place of peaceful gathering, for people to console each other, exchange emotional strength, and reflect on themselves with their faith. In most churches, whether Jesus was Caucasian or not should not be a pressing matter, because at the end of the day – though we should still acknowledge that he was non-white – Jesus transcends race. People follow his word not because he is white, brown, or Black, but because his teachings console and enlighten them. So when Shaun King tells people to destroy all portrayals of white Jesus, many might understand it as telling them to vandalize the churches, not to mention historic artifacts.
What we should put forward as the right way to address this problem is to increase and continue communication with religious leaders and the churches to help followers fully understand the historic inaccuracy of white Jesus. It is still obvious that, even if faith surpasses race, the commonly accepted representation of Jesus as a white man can send the wrong message, however unintentional.
Religion is a strong system that can be extremely influential to an individual’s mindset, and in the wrong cases, manipulate it. While Shaun King’s frustration about European Jesus is reasonable, his sudden message to take down every single portrayal of him, just like the statues in San Francisco and Bristol, is pretty extreme. And, even if he didn’t mean to, his recent comments belie the good intentions of the anti-racism movement.
Featured image via Unsplash