What colour is your Jesus?

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It’s that time of the year again (Christmas or Easter) for someone out there to come out and say something provocative about Jesus in order to get the maximum media exposure. “Jesus didn’t really exist” is a bit old and busted; it seems to come up virtually every year. The “queer Jesus” story popped up just in time for Easter this year but it’s based on some old material, so it doesn’t really count (“Dr. Tat-siong Benny Liew, chair of New Testament Studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., said Jesus was a ‘drag king’ who had ‘queer desires.’ He also claims the Last Supper was a ‘literary striptease’ and that Jesus was not a man, but gender fluid.” This is, coincidentally, the same college, which is now dumping its Crusader sports mascot lest it offends people).

Instead we’ll have to settle on a new favourite in our age of identity politics: “Jesus wasn’t white: he was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jew. Here’s why that matters” (courtesy of The Conversation and News.com.au).

You can of course guess “why that matters”, but just in case:

If we can recognise the importance of ethnically and physically diverse role models in our media, why can’t we do the same for faith? Why do we continue to allow images of a whitened Jesus to dominate?…

[White Jesus] allows the mainstream Christian community to separate their devotion to Jesus from compassionate regard for those who look different.

I would even go so far as to say it creates a cognitive disconnect, where one can feel deep affection for Jesus but little empathy for a Middle Eastern person. It likewise has implications for the theological claim that humans are made in God’s image. If God is always imaged as white, then the default human becomes white and such thinking reinforces racism.

Historically, the whitewashing of Jesus contributed to Christians being some of the worst perpetrators of anti-Semitism and it continues to manifest in the “othering” of non-Anglo-Saxon Australians.

This Easter, I can’t help but wonder, what would the Christian church and society look like if we just remembered that Jesus was brown? If we were confronted with the reality that the body hung on the cross was a brown body: one broken, tortured and publicly executed by an oppressive regime.

How might it change our attitudes if we could see that the unjust imprisonment, abuse, and execution of the historical Jesus has more in common with the experience of indigenous Australians or asylum seekers than it does with those who hold power in the church and usually represent Christ?

To summarise: white Jesus is racist and perpetuates racism.

Jesus wept.

Where does one even start?

We don’t know what Jesus (and yes, the consensus is he was a historical figure) looked like. No description of him exists in the writings of the New Testament, and the beginnings of the familiar Christian iconology of the long-haired and bearded Christ only start more than two centuries after his time. If there were some oral traditions regarding his looks that fed into those earliest representations they did not survive in any written references.

For that matter, we have little idea of what a “brown-skinned Middle Eastern Jew” might have looked like two millennia ago. We generally have an incomplete understanding of the ancient people’s appearance, including their skin tones, and even more so in case of Jews, since Judaism prohibits images of living things. Since ancient writings (such as these of the Old Testament) are generally not interested in personal description, most of what we have to go by are the limited representations of ancient Israelites in the art of their neighbours, primarily Egyptians and Assyrians. What these mainly tell us is that Jewish men wore modest-sized bears, unlike the clean shaven Egyptians or the hipster-looking Assyrians. Some scholars speculate that Jesus most likely had short hair and if he had a beard at all, it was quite short. Skin colour? Sure, Jesus didn’t look like, say, a contemporary Celt or German, but beyond that it’s anyone’s guess. Clearly, the vast variety in the appearance of modern Jews is largely the result of the diaspora across the world over the past two thousand years, but we don’t really know what an “average” Israelite ca. 1 AD looked like, much less the whole range of looks one could come across walking the streets of Jerusalem.

None of that really mattered to people who started to create the images of Jesus from about the mid-3rd century onward. They were trying to represent the idea or the concept of a Messiah rather than having a stab at guessing Christ’s actual appearance. Hence the iconographic cross between a Good Shepherd and an Emperor. And this is the key to the whole issue: all pictures of Jesus are just representations and those who created them by and large represented someone who would be most familiar and recognisable to their people, someone they could understand and identify with.

Thus, Jesus is a Caucasian male in European art, sometimes even a blue-eyed and blond-haired one. But as even The Conversation article acknowledges, different ethnicities around the world likewise portray him as one of their own. Hence in South America you will often find a Latin Christ, in Africa a black one, in Asia an Asian looking one. Even in Australia, some Indigenous Christian artists will paint an Aboriginal Jesus. And so on.

But clearly, according to Robyn J Whitaker at The Conversation, only a Caucasian Christ is a problem. In short: if we had a brown Jesus we would be nicer to brown people.

This is a ridiculously simplistic argument. The history of Christianity is chequered, as is that of any human institution; people rarely live up to the ideal, torn us they constantly are by many different impulses and beliefs. But Christianity was actually the first major universalist religion that posited everyone’s equality in the eyes of God regardless of the skin colour. This is why the Apostles themselves by tradition had gone out and preached the Good News from India to Spain, and their successors subsequently spread throughout the world evangelising people of all races and nations. Sure, in practice Christianity could co-exist and often mix with anti-Semitism, toleration of slavery or the excesses of colonialism, but this is a one-dimensional view that disregards all its positive influences and impacts. It is a universal human trait to see oneself as a member of a group and to differentiate between “us” and “them”, including on the basis of ethnicity and race. If anything, a universalist religion like Christianity (and later Islam) was one of the major factors throughout history to counter and transcend that tendency.

One gets the impression that Ms Whitaker hasn’t actually been to many Australian churches she generalises about. In my experience, it’s actually the various Christian denominations, from Catholics to Presbyterians and everyone in between and beyond, that are amongst those sections of our contemporary society most engaged in advocating for and actively helping various underprivileged and “marginalised” groups like refugees and migrants, Indigenous Australians, and other minorities. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the churches’ political and social views, they do it precisely because they see Christ in everyone, regardless of what colour the Christ on their wall is.

Whitaker has created a straw Jesus. Clearly, if you see whiteness as a nail, you will turn everything into a hammer.

Happy Easter everyone.