Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Who's Your Jesus?

click on photo to enlarge

Dear Friends,

Statues of Jesus and Mary are now the target of hate by Black Lives Matter leaders and organizers. One of the most visible and listened to BLM leaders, Shaun King, has called for protesters to demolish all statues, images, murals and stained glass windows that picture Jesus and Mary as “white European.” He declared that all white images of Jesus “have always been a gross form of white supremacy” and are “racist propaganda.” Anthea Butler, a university professor of Africana studies said, “Every time you see white Jesus you see white supremacy (because) if Jesus is white, authority is white.” Churches, statues and crosses are now being attacked and vandalized and burned. A group of pastors in Seattle has formed a protection group and vowed to use physical force to keep their churches from being vandalized or destroyed by BLM protesters. Some of us White and Black Christians are confused and hurt. Why is the BLM movement, that we whole-heartedly support in its purest and non-violent form, now turning on us and attacking our churches? We’ll look at why this is happening in another AMEN Corner, but for now, let’s see if we can answer the question being asked by many Christians today. Was Jesus really White? If not, should He be portrayed as white?

Yes and no to both questions. Remember there is one race, one blood in the Bible but what we call the Caucasian (White) race is comprised of original people from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. So by our definition of race, Jesus was a “white European.” But we’re talking about Jesus of Galilee, not Jesus of Huntington Beach and some of our modern day images of Jesus look nothing like the olive-skinned, Semite, Jewish messiah that He was. The New Testament does not give a physical description of Jesus; presumably because the Gospel writers understood that their readers knew that Jesus looked like one of them. But in the writings of Rabbi Ishmael who lived in the first century, he said that “The children of Israel are like boxwood, neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.” The boxwood tree is found only in the Middle East/Mediterranean and its wood is colored light brown with a slight yellow/green tint. Its color is closest to the shade of skin found in populations from the Middle East. We call that “olive-toned” and that’s technically known as Type V pigmentation and is a skin tone ranging from olive to tan. 

Over the years, Roman Catholic artists have created the images of Jesus that we typically see today in our Children's Bibles and on our Sunday School walls. Look again at the Catholic Jesus. How on earth did an olive-skinned Jew morph into a feminized, blue-eyed Jesus with Lady Clairol wavy blond hair? At the time religious art became popular during the Renaissance period, antisemitism was raging and olive-skinned Jews were painted as demonic and ugly with grotesque hooked noses. That was when Jesus’ Semite ethnicity was erased by the Old Masters artists and He was transformed into a more comfortable image of a white “Gentile.” 

There is nothing racist about any of the above images of a white or black or brown Jesus. It is absurd for BLM leaders to call for the destruction of all statues and images of Him as a white European with light skin tone. The color of Jesus we worship is the one with which we are the most comfortable. As an example, the Anglican Church (Church of England and Episcopal Church) have images of a “White” Jesus while the Anglican Church in Africa typically has images in their sanctuaries of a “Black” Jesus. Looking again at the photos above, you might not be comfortable worshiping the Maori Indigenous Jesus with the facial tattoos but for the Maori Tribes in New Zealand, this is the Jesus they worship and revere. This is their Jesus. Asians have their Jesus. Blacks have their Jesus. We want our Jesus to be someone we can identify with, so we’ve created Him in our image. And while that’s understandable, when each ethnic group has their own personal Jesus, it can lead to further division and disharmony in the body of Christ. Where the trouble lies is when the image of Jesus in my church has skin the color of mine and the African American family in my church wishes that they could also have a Jesus who looks like them. Honestly. Would the typical White family be comfortable worshiping in a church with the Asian Jesus on the wall over the altar?

Pantocrator ~ St. Catherine's Monastery
That’s perhaps why we all need to stop creating images of Jesus as someone who looks like us and return to images of an olive-skinned Semite Jew that could look like Him. I don’t have “Protestant” or “Catholic” images of Jesus in my house. I have over the altar in our home chapel the earliest known image of Jesus created in around 550 AD in Constantinople during the Byzantine empire. This Eastern Orthodox icon is called the “Pantocrator” which is Greek for “God Almighty” and the original, painted on a piece of wood, has been at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai from the 6th Century. Byzantine icons of Jesus and His mother throughout the centuries have looked remarkably alike because it is said that the very first icons were painted by those who knew Jesus and Mary and the many icons painted from then on kept the same facial characteristics. 

What did Jesus really look like? Not like the Mormon’s movie star Jesus. Not the Catholic’s Disney Prince Jesus. Not like either the Chinese Kung Fu Fighter Jesus or the homogenized Protestant Jesus. Not like the Maori Warrior Jesus (although I personally think that’s the coolest Jesus). 

What Jesus may have looked most like is the Pantocrator Jesus in the Orthodox icon that you see pictured. We’ve printed small cards with this image of Jesus and given them to everyone who has ever come to our ethnically and religiously diverse church. Ask me to give you one if you'd like to have it. Perhaps this is the image that should be in every Christian church and the one we could then all look at and say, “That’s our Jesus.”

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