Last year, I read a great (and eye-opening) book, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey.
A passage from Chapter 8, “Civil Rights and the Coloring of Christ” really caught me off guard:
In 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. received a letter to his syndicated “Advice for Living” question-and-answer column that cut to the heart of concerns about racial identity and God’s work: “Why did God make Jesus white, when the majority of peoples in the world are non-white?” King answered with the essence of his political and religious philosophy. He denied that the color of one’s skin determined the content of one’s character, and for King there was no better example than Christ. “The color of Jesus’ skin is of little or no consequence,” King reassured his readers, because skin color “is a biological quality which has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the personality.” Jesus transcended race, and he mattered “not in His color, but in His unique God-consciousness and His willingness to surrender His will to God’s will. He was the son of God, not because of His external biological makeup, but because of His internal spiritual commitment.”
Try as he might to downplay race altogether, King could not avoid the color of Christ. In his attempt to separate Christ’s body from his soul (and thus whiteness from godliness), King inadvertently upheld the assumption that Jesus was white. The Son of God, King continued, “would have been no more significant if His skin had been black. He is no less significant because his skin was white.” Jesus had white skin, but it did not matter to King; it was Christ’s spirit that made all the difference. Another of King’s readers was “disturbed” by this assumption: “I believe, as you do, that skin color shouldn’t be important, but I don’t believe Jesus was white.” He then asked, “What is the basis for your assumption that he was?”
King never replied. Just like so many other Americans, King had no biblical basis for his assertion that Christ’s “skin was white.” He just assumed that somehow, someway, Jesus had been a white man. Like other Americans of his age, King inhabited a world populated by images of white Christ figures. These representations and racial assumptions possessed such power that they did not have to be proven or defended. They just were.
MLK was a man of his time, of course, so I shouldn’t have been so surprised that even this country’s top Black civil rights’ leader believed Jesus Christ was White. Now perhaps you don’t see what the big deal is. Or maybe, like Megyn Kelly, you agree (or, like Kelly, maybe you’re not sure). The problem came when Jesus’ divinity became wrapped up in white supremacy:
Southern whites before the Civil War tried to sanctify slavery and Christianize slaves by presenting Jesus as a servant.
Confederates considered Christ to be on their side, but when they lost national independence and their slaves, they thought themselves buried with Jesus. They arose from the ashes of physical and spiritual chaos with a new savior, one who shared their sufferings during Reconstruction. Now they, not enslaved blacks, were crucified under an imperial regime, just as Jesus had been. The most belligerent sons of former Confederates clothed the Son of God as they did their horses—in white. He became not just a member of the Ku Klux Klan but its original founder.
[By the 1920s] White Americans sanctified their disdain for Jewish and Catholic immigrants by crafting and globally distributing a blond-haired, blue-eyed, non-Semitic Jesus. Faith in and depictions of this new “Nordic” Christ symbolized white Americans’ righteousness—and self-righteousness—as they took control of foreign peoples, lynched black men, and barred or discriminated against immigrants. White supremacists linked new bodies of Jesus to his moral qualities of love, mercy, and grace. They presented their racial ideology as sacred, and therefore as above human creation and beyond human control.
In part, racial assumptions about Jesus were unavoidable because the images were often presented to children at very young ages. Whether through tracts, Sunday school cards, or church art or on television and in movies, visual depictions of Christ lodged the idea of his whiteness deep within cultural conventions and individual psyches. Before many children could consider other lessons of faith or morality, they had seen images of white Christs and experienced adults seeming to regard the pictures as authentic. The goal of the pictures was to teach Christianity, but an unintended consequence was to create an often unspoken belief that Jesus was white. This made Christ’s whiteness a psychological certainty. It could be felt without thought and presumed without proof. To imagine Jesus as other-than-white would demand a conscious process of unlearning.
So I can say, with all of this in mind, that I was pleasantly surprised that on Sunday, every single one of the kids in my Sunday School class colored their little Jesus various shades of brown. These kids are children of immigrants, from Haiti, Trinidad, Colombia, and Barbados. And for them, Christ, savior of the world, sent from from God, the Word made flesh… can have flesh just like theirs. We are all made in His Image.
How did Jesus look like? Maybe…