I was steeped in Christian culture from the womb, so I grew up surrounded by pictures of Jesus. One hung on a little plaque in my grandmother’s apartment, a Jesus looking mournfully skyward with blue eyes and flowing, light-brown locks. Then, at my church, there was the black velvet painting of Jesus praying in agony at the garden of Gethsemane. This one had red hair and green eyes.
Of course, I can’t forget all of the other Jesus pictorials I grew up with: those cut from Sunday school books for the flannel-graph or the ones illustrating the stories in my children’s Bible. All of them looked like me: white.
At first, I thought nothing of it. At the time, everyone I saw at church, or at school, or at the grocery store was white. Why wouldn’t Jesus and his disciples be white, too?
But as I studied these depictions of Jesus, something about them struck me as false. Contrived. Superficial. It wasn’t just the perfectly trimmed beards, Colgate smiles or the soft, womanly eyes. Something told me that the real Jesus probably looked very different than what these pictures showed.
Then I started encountering other people in my community. People who didn’t look like me. I began learning about people in other countries and what they looked like. And, soon, the white Jesus began to trouble me. Deeply. The depictions struck me as caricatures, poor imitations of the Jesus I read about in the gospels. It seemed that members of my white Christian community had created a Christ in their own image.
Then, one day, I unexpectedly encountered ethnic Jesus. And it changed my life.
It happened at the Living Water Christian bookstore in Millington, TN. I was about 17 years old, and I had walked in to browse some CDs. And there, on the back wall, was one of the most moving paintings I’ve ever seen. It was Jesus, shown weeping over the death of Lazarus. He was bent in a position of genuine human grief, with his head bowed and his hand raised to wipe away his tears. And this Jesus wasn’t white. Not even close. His skin was rich and dark like an Arab’s, his hair and beard long and fully black. I stood transfixed in the middle of the aisle, unable to tear myself away from this image. It was like I was looking at the real Jesus – for the first time ever.
Granted, Jesus lived over 2,000 years ago. No one today knows what he really looked like. The gospels never describe his appearance (only Isaiah suggests he was ugly). But nearly all scholars agree that he couldn’t have been white. Not as a native of the ancient Middle East, anyway.
I think there is a clear danger in presenting a Jesus that physically resembles ourselves. Humans are predominantly visual creatures, and the images we produce are loaded with powerful messages. A white child seeing a white Jesus will eventually come to assume that a Jesus that looks like her must also think and feel like she does. We’ve got a lot of Christians in American today who believe that when Jesus said, “Thy kingdom come,” he was referring to America, or that Jesus supported capitalism and individualism, or that Jesus’ desire is for his followers to gain power in our current political system and rule over the unbelievers until he returns. There are many reasons for this, but I believe it starts with the visual heresy. Each ethnicity carries with it a historical and cultural background. When we white-wash Jesus, we cut ourselves off from his culture and assign him our own. And it is through this distorted lens that we learn to read and (mis)interpret scripture.
It was when I encountered ethnic Jesus that I realized the significance of the gospel. Here was an olive-skinned savior dying to redeem white people, black people, Asians, Latinos – all who would call on him. His love was not limited to his own people, and neither was his message. I continually marvel at the fact that there are Christians in China, India, Russia, Brazil, Tanzania and elsewhere reading Christ’s words and putting their faith in him. In spite of ethnic differences. In spite of cultural differences.
I think this is why the Bible doesn’t tell us what Jesus looked like. Not that he was giving us free reign to cast him in our own image, but that we would find commonality and comfort through his love, not his skin tone.
Still, if at 17 I had had the $250 dollars for that painting, I would have bought it. 🙂