What Color Was Jesus?
I came across this photo by James C. Lewis in a collection called Icons of the Bible. The photographer has portrayed a number of characters from the Bible as people of color. It's a gorgeous collection and can be viewed on this Pinterest link or at the artist's page. (And, please, do go look at the images. They are well worth your time.)
When I first viewed the collection and saw Jesus depicted as Black, my first thought was, "Jesus wasn't Black, he was from Palestine, so he was brown". But, was he? How do we know? We have no physical descriptions of Jesus, from the Bible or any other sources. How am I so sure Jesus wasn't Black? Palestine in the first century was a pretty busy place with traffic from Africa, Asia, and Europe. It's certainly possible that there were some Blacks who were Jewish. Maybe not likely, but possible.
I grew up as a Southern Baptist and have been going to church since I was a tiny baby. Some of my earliest memories are Sunday School classes with Bible stories illustrated by flannel graph figures of very White people. I went to a Christian school where I saw more images of White characters from the Bible. In fact, I taught my own children about the Bible with books illustrated with White characters and I'm sure that they saw more illustrations in their own Sunday School classes and AWANA books.
My friends of color say that "representation matters", and, indeed, it does. I hope that the next generation of children are taught about Jesus and other characters in the Bible using appropriately depicted characters. They won't assume that the children in the Bible look like them. My grandchildren will, hopefully, have some idea about the culture in which these characters exist.
In the Bible, though, it's more than representation. When we see Jesus as White in our culture, we see him representing White culture. What I and many others grew up seeing White Jesus representing is White Christianity with a strong strain of White Nationalism. White Jesus approved our upper middle-class ideals and our "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" mentality while we paid little attention to those impoverished and on the margins. White Jesus didn't mind that we didn't have much opportunity to mingle with those of color. White Jesus pretty much liked the status quo. And, let's not forget that White Jesus was American. After all, there was an American flag in the sanctuary of just about every church I've been in.
Looking through those photographs and finding myself objecting to the Black Jesus tells me that I need to interrogate my faith with regards to race. Historically, Jesus may not have been Black, but does Jesus identify with people in our culture who are Black? That's certainly hard to say because Black people are not a monolith and are found throughout our social classes, professions, and religions. However, given the racism that has shown its ugly face in the last month, I would argue that Jesus would identify with people of color.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 (as well as other places and by example) that we are to feed the hungry, take care of the sick, visit those in prison, and stand up for those on the margins of society. Jesus stood up to society's leaders against those who were oppressed. These are not the actions of the White Jesus that I grew up with. Yes, I learned about these scripture passages, and we did some charity work, but we didn't do the hard work of racial reconciliation or poverty ablation.
The color of the historical Jesus doesn't really matter. That's a debate the academics can have. The real Jesus is the one that calls us to lay down our lives every day as we "love God and love others". Real Jesus says do what it takes to make a just society, to be an anti-racist, to be an LGBTQ+ ally. Real Jesus says to love one another with more than words.