You might have seen this recent photo of an anti-racism protester holding a sign that reads, “There are no white people in the Bible. Take all the time you need with this.”
At first, you’d think no one would need any time to digest that news. Of course, there are no white people in the Bible, unless you count the Romans who crucified Christ. And maybe the Gentiles in Galatia. But even those with just a passing knowledge of the Bible would know the main characters – Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Deborah, Ruth, David, Isaiah, Jesus, and his disciples – were all brown, Middle Eastern people, not white.
Except we don’t.
It seems that the Western church’s beloved images of a white-faced, blue-eyed Jesus with his cascading treacle-toned hair have shaped our imaginations more than the very Bible itself.
We keep telling ourselves that Jesus wasn’t white, but then, in 2001, a forensic anthropologist Richard Neave created a model of a Galilean man for a BBC documentary, Son of God, using an actual skull found in the region, and people were shocked to imagine Jesus looking like that!
To clarify, Neave didn’t claim this was Jesus’ face. He just wanted us to know what a typical first-century Galilean man looked like. Note, the heavy brow, the broad nose, the swarthy skin, the curly hair. Jesus probably would have kept his hair short-ish because long-haired men were immediately identifiable as those who had taken a Nazirite vow not drink wine or cut their hair. Neave’s Galilean man is thick-necked and bullish. Surely, Christ couldn’t have had such an appearance?
Joan Kelly of King’s College, London, has researched clothing styles of the day and compared them with the scant references to Jesus’ apparel in the Gospels and concluded, “Jesus is presented as an ordinary [looking] man, wearing ordinary clothes, made from undyed wool.”
Nothing like the depictions we find in European art of a handsome, smooth-faced Messiah, dressed resplendently in white robes and new Birkenstocks.
I remember showing my students a number of paintings of Jesus back in the early 2000s, asking for their responses to each. When I showed them Neaves’ “BBC Jesus” most of them recoiled. One student exclaimed, “I definitely don’t pray to that Jesus.”
Here we have an example of simple cognitive dissonance. We know Jesus wasn’t white, but we flinch at depictions of him being brown.
I propose we need to work on our appreciation of non-European portrayals of Christ. We need to put all those Warner Sallman illustrations of “Swedish Jesus” in the storeroom and hang some new images that help us align our perception of Christ with our reading of Scripture. Not that this will be easy for some.
Recently, British artist Lorna May Wadsworth moved her painting of the Last Supper, featuring a black Jesus, from a country church, where it had hung for ten years, to Sheffield for an exhibition at the Graves Gallery. As she was unpacking it, Wadsworth realised there was a bullet hole in the side of Jesus. Someone had been so offended by the portrayal of Jesus as a black man they had shot him with an air rifle!
But this isn’t simply about our taste in religious art. It’s about what sociologists call whiteness theory, a set of ideas and practices that makes whiteness the default standard about race. They refer to discursive theories of whiteness, which analyze the ways our language and symbols, through the media and other forms of public discourse, frame whiteness as both the preferred and the normal state of being. When white is the norm, then blackness or brownness is seen as its alternative or foil.
When white people decide to confront our own whiteness it often results in us creating strategies for “inclusion.” But talk of inclusion presumes white is central and therefore automatically included. You don’t need to include whiteness. That’s assumed. When we talk about creating opportunities for black and brown people to be included it says something very powerful about what we considered to be normal and preferred.
And this is why our depictions of biblical characters, and Jesus in particular, is so important. In Scripture, brownness is normal and it is white people who are offered an opportunity to be included.
In one of Jesus’ most scandalous sections of teaching (John 10), he condemns Israel’s religious elite for creating a toxic system in which people, like sheep, feel penned in and gripped by fear and threats of exclusion. The pharisees, he charges, are like thieves or wolves, terrorizing God’s people. Then he famously declares that he is the good shepherd who has come to lead the people to freedom and fullness of life.
That was radical enough. But Christ went further. He added this intriguing line, “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (Jn 10:16).
God’s chosen people were brown people. But Christ does an outrageous thing. He calls people of other cultures and other skin tones to join his radical, rainbow-colored new covenant community.
Willie James Jennings says Jesus came to “form a new family in Israel,” a revolutionary act that “challenged the very foundations of [the Jews’] social life by challenging the power of the kinship network which organized the central social, economic, and geographic realities of life in Israel.”
This new redeemed society would spread throughout the Near East, into Northern Africa, Asia Minor and eventually Europe, gathering people of all colors, including the probably predominantly white-skinned Galatians whom Paul was forced to rebuke as “You foolish Galatians!” Struggling as they were with the limits of this new family of God, Paul explains to them,
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:26-29).
That’s why our preferred depictions of Christ should be brown-skinned ones. Not only are they more historically accurate, but they break the nexus of whiteness and remind those of us who are white that we are children of God — through faith, not our race!
Whoever snuck into that English country church and shot Lorna May Wadsworth’s painting of black Jesus was distressed by the very sight of a Christ that didn’t normalize his or her color. If you’re white and pictures of black or brown Jesus make you feel uncomfortable, good. They remind you that you are saved by grace, not skin tone.
Depictions of brown Jesus move those of us who are white to the edge of the frame, be they John Giuliani’s image of Lakota Jesus, or Robert Lentz’s Mexican Christ, or Jesus with Middle Eastern appearance.
Or it could be Congolese artist, Francis Mampuya-Kitah’s depiction of the cross (La Sûprematié), or Indigenous Australian Greg Weatherby’s painting of the same scene, or one from Latin America’s Maximino Cerezo Barredo.
As Todd Atkins-Whitley once wrote, “White Jesus must die, must be renounced as a false God, an American idol, an impotent Savior, an empty relic created by an ungodly system… White Jesus is a charlatan, a puppet of white supremacy. He bears no witness of our suffering or the suffering of anyone else. He sets no one free and makes no one an heir of God’s promise.”