Jesus and the “Preserving History” Double Standard
Hey there, fellow Caucasians!
I know some of you are now footsoldiers in a growing Apoplectic Posse. The core group of you (mostly Lynyrd Skynyrd fans) enlisted as municipalities and/or protestors ripped Johnny Reb loser-traitors out of America’s public squares. But then, as Union presidents starting taking it in the (false) teeth, new recruits jumped on board, claiming this “goes too far!” Being candid, I share some of that angst.
The American Museum of Natural History yanked Teddy Roosevelt, Princeton renamed the Woodrow Wilson public policy school, and we may be dynamiting Mount Rushmore if the Native Americans get their way (and, if history has taught us anything, it’s they always do!)
While the tenor of these objections vary wildly — ranging from “I’d consider monument removal with a deliberative process instead of vandalism” to “this is the Soros-funded, Antifa DemonRat Plandemic to topple America” — all have a central theme: removing statues and names “erases history.”
Embedded in this idealistic notion is that historical accuracy should be inviolable, and if we omit some history, we lie.
Fair enough. But if accuracy is our chief aim, what should we make of the continued perpetuation of pure fiction on arguably the single most significant historical fact of American existence?
Jesus wasn’t white.
Bringing Jesus Down from the Cultural Cross
Liberal activist Shaun King received death threats (which strikes me as a weird reaction from a Christian, but maybe that’s just me) after he argued ALL depictions of white Jesus and “his European mother” should be scrubbed. He called this imagery “a gross form [of] white supremacy. Created as tools of oppression.”
Even if you reject King’s premise of malicious concoction, intellectual honesty forces us to acknowledge that, theologically and culturally, America’s dominant image of Jesus does not square with either scholarship or common sense.
Here’s the Jesus archetype I grew up with, and I suspect you did, too:
For many white folks, blue-eyed, white Jesus didn’t suffice; we had to craft Ginger Jesus…because we all know how well redheads do in desert climates.
The Bible teaches that Paul saw Jesus in a light from heaven on his way to Damascus. Subsequently, Paul stated that a man with long hair was a disgrace. Would the most influential figure of the Apostolic age say that if Jesus’s Divine lid was all Jason Mamoa? Also, the prophet Isaiah said Jesus had “no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”
Sorry to break it to you, but our Savior was a short-haired uggo.
And, yet, here is the most famous painting in history about Jesus:
You’re probably thinking, “You can’t blame America for some Renaissance-era Italian hack!” #Facts. Let’s see how America has portrayed Jesus in modernity. From 1961’s film King of Kings:
From 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told:
From 1973’s Jesus Christ Superstar:
From 1977’s Jesus of Nazareth miniseries (because with eyes this azure, you’ve GOT to serialize):
From 1988’s Last Temptation of Christ:
Evangelicals across the land lost their minds because Temptation departed from Gospel history by showing Jesus biting into some “forbidden fruit” in a fantasy, prompting the films’ creators to disclaim: “This film is not based on the Gospels, but upon the fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict.” Dafoe as Jesus prompted neither outrage nor disclaimer.
You may be thinking, “Temptation was 32 years ago. How could we possibly know an English-French-German-Scottish-Irish guy from Appleton, Wisconsin didn’t look like a Galilean Jew?”
Because in 2002, Popular Mechanics, in its most-read issue ever, revealed how an entire team of experts delivered our best indication of Jesus‘s visage through a process of delving through history, Biblical excerpts, and forensic anthropology, and here He is:
This image is consistent with the Book of Revelation, which says Jesus’s skin was burnished bronze. How dark that is varies depending on whether you’re looking at paint swatches, laminate flooring, or wood stains…
…but it’s at least as dark as olive.
Fortunately, once we learned this new information, we corrected all of our religious imagery to make it historically accurate. Ha ha ha! Just kidding.
This is the guy who played Jesus in 2004’s The Passion of the Christ:
The Passion was widely panned for being an anti-Semitic, gratuitous gorefest that Roger Ebert called “the most violent film I have ever seen” (and that dude suffered through the savage butchering Police Academy 5 and Rocky 5 both did to film, so that’s saying something). Ebert also took issue with The Passion’s historical inaccuracy of omitting ONE LINE from John’s Gospel. But he never referenced a Swiss-Irish-Slovak playing The Son of Man.
And why would he? White people are too busy protesting black guys playing The Human Torch or a Norse gatekeeper or black girls playing mermaids to concern themselves with who’s cast as the most important actual human ever.
And who can forget in 2013 when Megyn Kelly famously told America that “Jesus was white,” prompting a troika slam for bad history, theology, and journalism?
Despite this clap-back, and the added benefit of What Does Jesus Look Like, a book by Professor of Christian Origins at King’s College-London Joan Taylor, we keep motoring forward, learning — or at least changing — nothing. Taylor concluded via archaeological remains, historical texts, and ancient Egyptian funerary art that the Lamb of God “most likely had brown eyes, dark brown to black hair and olive-brown skin.”
Informed by this additional intel, here’s who played Jesus in 2018’s Mary Magdalene:
The movie is notable in that we let Chiwetel Ejiofor play Peter, so there’s that.
White People Rationalization #1 — Everybody Does It!
If you’re a defensive kind of white person, you’re going to be rabidly illogical right now and reply, “But people adapt images of Jesus to look like themselves in all cultures.” This isn’t universally true, as there are churches with white Jesus up…in HARLEM, but even if true, it’s irrelevant. God made us in His image, not vice versa.
We have ZERO historical evidence Jesus was Asian, so you’d co-sign him as looking Japanese? What about the inviolability of historical accuracy? Can we make Napolean tall? Can we build a statue of FDR jogging on a Peloton?
(Quick aside, in my futile quest to find a single image of Asian Jesus in an actual church, I learned that some believe Jesus didn’t get crucified but escaped to Japan where he chilled until his death by natural causes).
White People Rationalization #2 — We Don’t Know!
Next, you’re going to channel a sentiment shared by Assistant Professor Robert Cargill who opined we can never really know for sure what Jesus looks like. Maybe not precisely. But even Cargill conceded curlier hair, darker skin and eyes are closer to the truth, and he noted that Jesus “probably didn’t have blue eyes and blond hair.”
So why do even whiter images of baby Jesus persist?
Check out this alabaster figurine, which I fear may haunt my dreams for years:
Lest you think I’m cherry-picking, I Googled “Baby Jesus” for you. Try to find a manger action figure that isn’t one shade darker than Paul Bettany in The Davinci Code.
Yet we still provide comic books, coloring books, statues, figurines, stained glass, paintings, and film so white children know they are the same hue as the Prince of Peace and olive to black-toned children know they aren’t, even though we clearly have a choice to stop.
After all, Puritans who disdained religious imagery and, therefore, had no statues of Jesus, founded our nation, proving they weren’t just good for dope belt buckles on their hats.
Here’s how a church in Japan resolved the Jesus identity question. Observe what’s on the cross. Whatever happened to “when it doubt, leave it out?”
White People Rationalization #3 — Doesn’t Matter!
The color of a person’s skin doesn’t matter, you’ll say, powerfully evoking the one quote you’ve memorized from Dr. King. “The content of his or her character does!” M’kay. So if it doesn’t matter, we can go ahead and change all our imagery to Arabic Jesus?
If you just had a minor freakout over “black Jesus,” don’t be surprised. In Kevin Smith’s comedy Dogma, Chris Rock plays Rufus, the 13th Apostle, who discloses that Jesus is black, prompting disbelief. Rufus pegs us cold:
It’s not an idle question to wonder how likely segregation or even slavery would have been had every white child in America known for hundreds of years that Jesus looked more like a black kid than them.
This brings us full circle in our revelatory journey, friends!
Do you genuinely believe people will forget who wrote the Declaration of Independence if we remove Jefferson’s name from schools? This notion is so nonsensical, it’s demolished by asking how we know Hitler’s deeds when he doesn’t have any statutes or as little as a namesake dorm at Heidelberg University. Until people storm the Smithsonian, start burning books, and hacking every e-book cloud storage device on the planet, I’m pretty sure Thomas‘s legacy — for good and ill — is secure.
So what are you fighting for? Because, as our Jesus imagery shows, it isn’t historical accuracy. Maybe (as with Jesus also), we fight for the power to preserve heroes crafted in “our” image, even when the result is an incomplete history (which we intimate is the same as a fabrication).
As Candler School of Theology’s Director Charles D. Hackett, notes, fashioning Jesus as white “is a reminder of our tendency to sinfully appropriate him in the service of our cultural values.”
How ironic, or expected, is that?
Ask yourself if you are channeling the astute American philosopher, Slim Charles (Anwan Glover) from The Wire, who once said about a war mistakenly entered, “Once you’re in it, you’re in it. If it’s a lie, then you fight on that lie. But we gotta fight.”
Maybe we don’t. Maybe we can embrace truth, and let the chips (or monuments) fall where they should.