What did you think of when you read that?
For some it’s just an exclamation for when someone cuts them off abruptly in traffic. Most likely though, it probably conjured the image of some skinny white guy with long hair and a beard, you know, like the one Mel Gibson picked for the Passion of The Christ.
And that’s the problem. This image is ingrained in our minds, cities, campuses, and religious studies classes, and worst yet — some people love this.
NBC’s Megyn Kelly, back when she was working at Fox News, remarked in a 2013 broadcast that “Jesus was a white man, too. He’s a historical figure, that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa, I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy in the story and change Santa from white to black?”
The fact is that Jesus was not white. He was brown. There is major historical consensus that the skin colour of Jesus was brown. The Atlantic’s Jonathan Merritt states: “Consensus is that Jesus similar to most first century Jews was a dark skinned man.” Go looking for the historical Jesus. Make the trek and what do you find? A brown guy. Despite Fox News, and despite medieval assumptions connecting whiteness with light, divinity, significance, and complexity, Jesus was not in fact white.
Why does this matter? Because it’s the truth and more importantly, an ironic truth. Christianity and whiteness go hand in hand. After Jimmy Carter, white Christians, especially conservative evangelicals, have continually harmed minorities. Jimmy Carter, who in his first election win was supported by white evangelicals (the last Democrat to win among this group) who embraced his vision for care of the poor and equality, saw the tide turn with the rise of the moral majority and inherent racism in the group. Randall Balmer, a Dartmouth professor articulates the reasoning fuelling the switch to the Republicans by saying, “The religious right, who liked to call themselves the ‘moral majority’ at the time, actually organized around fighting to protect Christian schools from being desegregated. It wasn’t Roe v. Wade that woke the sleeping dragon of the evangelical vote. It was Green v. Kennedy, a 1970 decision stripping tax-exempt status from “segregation academies” — private Christian schools that were set up in response to Brown v. Board of Education, where the practice of barring black students continued.”
Gandhi once remarked how shocked he was when an Indian friend of his who converted to Christianity was pressured into wearing a European wardrobe. Furthermore, we can’t forget the systemic effort to take the “Indian out of the Indian” in the residential schools right here in Canada. Many Christians have been determined to sustain racial / cultural oppression of the Palestinians. Many of them vote to stop minorities from coming into the country. Some go as far as to support racial profiling.
And yet here’s the kicker: Jesus himself would have been profiled and seen through these lenses described above. He was not, according to one black theologian “made in their image.” God was not, according to the tradition and narrative, white.
So what does this mean for churches in Abbotsford? They need to look in the mirror and ask, “Why?” As in why do they continue to sustain the false image of Jesus? Is it because the idea that the New Testament revolves around a brown Middle Eastern family (on the run as refugees by the way) poses too much of a political threat? Is it the fact that much of global Christianity now has shifted to the two-thirds world made up of primarily Asian and African descent too much of a bitter pill to swallow for the North American church? Is it that they are too lazy or flippant to avail themselves of the subtle, innocent, non-malicious racism that is highly characteristic of Canada? Or is it that realizing the one they worship might not be quite what they imagined opens the door for more serious questions about their own doctrination and belief formation?
While they figure it out, and figure it out they must, here’s the challenge for those who have ears to hear as the ancient brown man would say:
Save yourself from the white Jesus.
Embrace the brown Jesus.
Embrace reality instead of hate.
Realize race does matter until the day it actually doesn’t matter anymore.
And paint him brown.
For Christ’s sake.