“What if Jesus was Black? What if all our pictures of Jesus were of an African Jesus instead of a European one?”
My friend wrote that question as a social media status. The backlash was quick and fierce. People swarmed his timeline calling him disrespectful for even positing the question. “Well Christ certainly wasn’t white,” my friend countered. These people acknowledged the inaccuracy reiterated over thousands of years of portrayals of White Jesus. “But,” they opined, “we shouldn’t replace one inaccuracy with another.” I found their reactions curious.
As it happens, the purpose of my friend’s query had not been to advocate for the placement of pictures of Black Jesus in sanctuaries and books and Bibles everywhere. His questions were intended to stimulate thought: if people had grown up seeing pictures and stained glass windows and Bible illustrations of a brown-skinned Jesus with curly, coily hair instead of a white-skinned, red-headed, straight-haired Jesus with blue eyes, how might societal attitudes be different? Especially among White people, how would the depiction of a Black Savior change their attitudes about Black people and about themselves? Even for those White people who one may not classify as racist, there is a definitive mindset that is curated from seeing your own image reflected everywhere – including in the face of God. And it would undoubtedly have an impact on those White people who do harbor animosity towards those who are Black, Brown, or otherwise different from themselves. After all, it’s difficult to claim racial superiority over someone who looks like the One you worship.
Of course, no one knows exactly what God looks like. But we definitely know that neither the Spirit of God nor God Incarnate look like the typical visual recreations. The Creator is not an old, wrinkly White man with a long, flowing, white beard. And Jesus of Nazareth was most certainly not a Jared Leto look-alike. Nevertheless, when confronted about their swift objections, all of those who had been quick to pounce on my friend's post admitted that they’d never verbalized disdain for the portrayals of White Jesus that permeate our culture at every turn. So why had they felt the need to descend so quickly to dismiss his questions, despite feeling no such compulsion to do so in the case of an inaccurate White Jesus?
Whether or not people want to admit it, our society is conditioned to view Whiteness as the default and everything else as “other.” This tendency even invades Christianity itself. This goes far behind White Jesus.
1. Western Religion. In no geopolitical configuration is the Ancient Middle East regarded as “the Western World.” And despite the birthplace of Christ being in the exact same region from whence many “Eastern Religions” have come, Christianity is regarded as a Western Religion in many minds. Some go so far as to call it a “White Religion.”
Not only was Christ not White, but we are told in Scripture that many of the first followers of Christianity were African. Simon of Cyrene and the Ethiopian servant to Queen Candace are just two of the African individuals specifically mentioned in the Bible. Candace’s official had been reading Scripture even before Philip came along, so clearly the Word was known to his people. Not to mention all of the references of African people groups and kingdoms throughout the Old Testament that knew about Yahweh. The thought that the very first time the Word was shared in Africa was after it was brought by Europeans is simply historically inaccurate.
2. Music. This topic has been a raging war within Adventism for decades and in the wider Christian sphere for much longer. Countless sermons have claimed that sounds derived from Afrocentric beats are tied to heathenism and devil worship. This misinformed stereotype has been passed down via ignorant missionaries for centuries. These baseless claims have led thousands of people to suffer through bland, dry, and rhythmless church services in the name of propriety in worship. Although this particular facet of discrimination is often covered in a veneer of concerns about syncopation and drums, it boils down to the same racism. Actual musicologists have debunked many of the myths surrounding these “warnings” many times over. Nevertheless, they persist.
3. Misogyny. One might think sexism is altogether separate from racism. And it is true that they are each distinct entities of discrimination. Yet, where there is one, you’ll often find the other lurking nearby. And these two forms of disenfranchisement were planted side by side in the church.
Despite attempts to lay the blame at the feet of South America and Africa for hindering the progress of Adventist women in ministry, African history shows a track record of egalitarian principles where the input of women has always been showcased and celebrated even among Christians on the continent. But along with the European portraits of the Messiah, missionaries from Europe brought their ideas about sex (that’s where the term “missionary position” comes from) and gender roles. As the White versions of Christianity spread and displaced the style of faith expression already in place, so too did attitudes about submission and misogyny replace equality and cooperation between genders.
4. Social Justice. In our current climate, the importance of actively seeking justice for others has been getting some time in the Christian limelight. But this focus is nothing new for the Historical Black Church. This was a driving principle of the Civil Rights movement and is precisely why several prominent leaders of that era were Reverends, pastors, and members of Christian groups. I will note that even outside of the Historical Black Church, there were other Christian sects, such as the Quakers, who tangibly sought after justice for all. Nevertheless, all too frequently we see Christianity’s focus on Heaven used as an excuse to discount the need to address injustice on Earth. Still, in 2020, it is necessary to write articles, preach sermons, and hold seminars to convince groups of Christians that it is not only ok to be involved in the causes of social justice, but it is part of our calling as Children of God (Isaiah 58).
5. Patriotism. On the surface, this may appear to be a problem exclusive to American Christianity. On the contrary, this concept has its roots in European ideas. The belief that God dispenses special favor on the land of the conquerors is echoed in the mottos and anthems and songs of nations throughout Europe. Divine Right, Manifest Destiny, and the White Man’s Burden are all fruit of the same poisoned theological tree that insists that the groups that display the ability to conquer by force are the groups appointed by God to rule over others; and they simply must do so as part of their lot as the Chosen. It is their responsibility. It is this same Spirit that fueled the Crusades to “evangelize” by violence. This has filtered down through the millennia in various ways. It just so happens that American patriotism is one of its most pronounced forms.
This is not to say that honoring one’s homeland is bad. However, it’s undeniable that some countries take this to the nth degree.
Although I’ve lived in other countries around the world, the majority of my life has been spent living in the United States. So although the United States is not alone in this, I am the most familiar with this phenomenon as it is demonstrated in the American church. The idea of “American exceptionalism” is interwoven within church practice. And in its extremes, it manifests itself as xenophobia concerned with preserving some idealized mental model of the country. Making or keeping the nation aligned with a preferred gilded fantasy is usually synonymous with resisting influences from people who would disrupt that status quo of perceived “greatness” (read: “Whiteness”). These ideals are insidiously intertwined with the teachings of Christianity. This is why the Constitution could be drafted by several individuals who considered themselves Christian, but who saw no disconnect in writing “all men are created equal” despite meaning only White men (which is part of the reason why, in the 21st century, saying “All Lives Matter” is not only offensive and misses the point, but it ignores the historical reality that marginalized communities have been purposefully excluded from the nation’s definitions of “all” from the start). So clearly there is a need to be specific that “Black” actually is included in the lives that matter. This mentality is why the KKK can un-ironically call itself a Christian organization. This is why the early White settlers of the United States had no qualms about committing genocide and enslaving human beings while simultaneously professing to be followers of Christ. And it’s why today, attitudes of racism and xenophobia are higher among Christians than other groups – including atheists and agnostics. When we perpetually reinforce the teaching that some groups are superior to others based on their power and privilege in the world, this is the result. And it’s hard to recognize just how disconcerting it is if you have only ever lived in a country where it’s perfectly normal to have the nation’s flag on the pulpit and to pledge allegiance to it during a worship service.
6. Prosperity Gospel. This naturally flows from the previous concept. Although it is totally antithetical to Christ’s teaching in Matthew 5 (among other places), there is still a belief that prosperity equals Divine favor. The richer you are, the more God loves you. It’s the exact same mindset that propels nations to equate power with the imprimatur of God. The prosperity gospel brings this concept to an individual level. The ability to amass material wealth is supposedly a signal of the Lord’s presence in your life. This is why many Christians think that capitalism is synonymous with Christianity.
There are problems with all earthly economic systems. There is no singular modern economic system that is prescribed in Scripture. And while many Christians have no problems engaging in critiques of other systems, they instinctively recoil from critically evaluating capitalism – as if any critiques of capitalism are attacks on the Bible and Christianity itself. If you don’t believe me, try it and see. Broach a discussion about evaluating capitalism. Not as an endorsement of any other economic system, just as an evaluation of capitalism as practiced today. Without fail, instead of engaging with the real problematic ways in which capitalistic philosophies impact our society, the inevitable shift occurs where people argue against other systems and how flawed they are. The deflection is like a reflex.
When criticizing others, a classic barb of some Christians is to point out that if they don’t fullthroatedly embrace capitalism, it is a problematic stance. I’ve known Christians that have stated their sincere belief that subscribing to any other economic system will ultimately lead to atheism. It is intellectually dishonest and spiritually manipulative for Christians to use capitalism as a stand-in for Christianity, or to use other systems as theological boogeymen. Even pastors have been known to defend capitalism as if it was handed down from on high, inscribed by the Finger of God on stone tablets.
This singular economic system is upheld by some people as if it is mandated in Scripture. It is not. In fact, several principles of capitalism – particularly as practiced in America – are distinctly antithetical to Christian principles. Chattel slavery and usury are two bedrock foundations of American capitalism. Yet and still, it’s almost as if Christians (especially in America) are allergic to confronting the flaws in Capitalism.
7. Saviorism. Much like the European missionaries believing that they brought light to a “dark continent,” our mission and evangelism perspective is often steeped in condescension. Of course we desire to be faithful to the Great Commission in Matthew 28. But instead of having a fervor born from a love for our brothers and sisters (1 John) we are often motivated by paternalism and pity. There is a difference. And it shows. There is humility in the former approach and arrogance in the latter. Many times we don’t approach people as equals, but as those deigning to interact with people occupying an inferior station. While this attitude is most frequently associated with folks who participate in foreign missions, it can be seen in local evangelistic approaches as well. Even in our speech we often fail to acknowledge that other people besides Adventists know who Jesus is. We are so insulated in our own subculture that we don’t even bother to familiarize ourselves with what others believe before proclaiming to them that, whatever they subscribe to, they ought to abandon it for our faith instead. This approach is directly descended from that of the colonizers who imposed their will on others in the name of the Gospel.
I firmly believe that these concepts that have been embedded in modern Christianity would not be present – nor would they be so difficult to extricate – if the portraits of Jesus we were exposed to weren’t European (I personally think we would be far better off if we took the second commandment seriously and avoided visual representations of God altogether). Unfortunately you can’t un-ring a bell. And the damage done by this small but effective reinforcement of White Jesus has impacted the Church Universal in profound ways. The work of decolonizing Christianity will be arduous. But difficulty notwithstanding, decolonization is a necessary moral imperative.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and President of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at:
Image Credit: Unsplash.com
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.