Here, the color of Jesus Christ matters while simultaneously being of little import. Thus, a paradox. If the color of Jesus Christ is unimportant, why then the objection to the question and a resistance to changing the images to be more historically accurate? Moreover, such a basic question about the lie that is White Jesus, is often deflected and redirected into one which ends with the power of the White racial frame enabling those invested in its distortion(s) of reality arguing that anyone, especially an African-American, asking such things must be a Black “racist” or anti-White.
If a Christian is a true believer why would they have difficulty reconciling their faith with such a superficial thing as changing the historical lie that is White Jesus into one that is more accurate, a Black man, whose message would be unchanged? Would it really be that hard for some White Christians (and others) to kneel before a Black or brown Jesus Christ? Are the psychic wages of Whiteness so great as to distort a person’s image of God?
These matters of race, religion and politics remain potent even in 21st-century America. See how President Obama’s presidential campaign was almost destroyed by Reverend Wright and the White conservative bogeyman known as “Black liberation theology.”
Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo’s White Jesus were iconic images that enabled European colonialism and imperialism. In these grand projects of global White power and conquest, “Christian” became synonymous with free, White and civilized. “Heathen” meant that whole populations could be subjected to extermination, enslavement and exploitation.
The current and most popular image of Jesus as created by Warner Sallman in 1941 depicts the former as a White “American.” Here, American exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny, and rise as an Imperial power were ordained as being one with Jesus, and a blessing from God for a country whose elites imagined it to be a “shining city on the hill.”
This logic is perfectly cogent: a racial project of exploitation and enslavement of non-Whites by Europeans, one legitimized by a belief in the natural inferiority of Black people, the pseudo-science of the Great Chain of Being, a belief in the Curse of Ham as well as other myths, must, for reasons of practical necessity, be predicated on the existence of a “White” God.
A twisted complement to how the Whiteness of Jesus has been historically naturalized in the West is how the same ahistorical image adorns many African-American churches (as well as those of Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, and others) in this country and throughout the world.
Is there any greater example of the twisted nature of the color line, and the power of internalized White supremacy, than how many millions of Black and brown folks kneel and pray before the image of a White god — an image which has long been used to justify and legitimate White supremacy and racial exploitation? Black and white Christians pray to the same mythologized and historically inaccurate image of Jesus; yet, they do not pray or worship together in the same churches.
Research shows that White audiences will not watch TV shows or movies which they judge to have too many Black people as characters. A historically accurate version of the Bible, which embraced the demographic realities of the era such as HBO’s epic series, “Rome,” would be a revelation. Unfortunately, many in the American public would be unwilling to hear such a basic truth, for it would be too upsetting for those who have internalized Whiteness and White privilege even on matters of religion and faith.
By Chauncey DeVega