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    The Face of God

    Why Jesus’ race matters. January 3, 2020 by Darryn Oldford
    Filed Under:
    Opinion & Critical Thought
    A depiction of Jesus by Richard Neave, a British expert in forensic facial reconstruction
    A depiction of Jesus by Richard Neave, a British expert in forensic facial reconstruction
    Picture Jesus in your mind. What does he look like? Is he fat, thin or in between? Is he frowning? Smiling? Crying? Does he have long or short hair? Is his beard close-cropped or bushy? Now tell me, does he have light-brown or blond hair, blue eyes and pale skin? That was the image of Jesus I’d seen for most of my life. From Sunday school illustrations, to paintings in church foyers, to actors portraying Jesus in films, Jesus was always a handsome and white—or, at best, slightly tanned—man. This version of Jesus, however, does not match reality.

    Isaiah 53:2, believed by many Christians to be a prophecy about the Messiah, states: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” This is echoed throughout the New Testament. Although Jesus’ appearance is never spelled out in vivid detail, his ability to blend into crowds would lead us to believe that he looked like a typical man of his day. As a Middle Eastern man who walked in the sun from village to village, he probably had dark brown skin. The Jesus we see in murals and paintings, white-skinned with flowing hair that would put any shampoo commercial to shame, is not the truth.

    So why do we show him this way? In most, but not all, places in the world, Christianity spread with colonization. In North America, influenced by Europe, that has meant representing Jesus through a predominantly white cultural and historical lens. By doing so, however, we chip away at the important human side of Christ.

    It is a tenet of our faith that Jesus was fully God and fully man. Most of us have the God part figured out—we pray to him all the time—but Jesus as a man is harder to wrap our heads around. When his friend Lazarus died, he cried. When he saw the moneychangers in the temple, he got angry. When he wandered in the desert, he was hungry.

    Like us, Jesus saw the world, felt the ground beneath his feet, heard the birds sing, smelled the spices in the market and tasted food. Jesus was born in a particular time and place, within a particular ethnicity. This is the mystery and beauty of the Incarnation. He was the Word made flesh, and the flesh he chose was a Middle Eastern Jewish man. To deny Jesus his humanity is, in effect, to deny Christ himself. Unless we are willing to love Jesus as a brown-skinned Jewish man, can we really say we love him?

    This is not a call to haul every blond-haired, blue-eyed portrait of Jesus to the dump. Some people take comfort in these paintings. I have seen images of Black Jesus in Kenya and Asian Jesus in South Korea, and they show us that he belongs to every culture. We must be careful, though, not to worship our own image. That is the textbook definition of idolatry.

    I must confess, however, that while I have no problem with Asian or Black Jesus (in fact, I have a Kenyan artist’s portrayal of the Last Supper hanging in my dining room), I find Caucasian Jesus problematic because of the historical baggage associated with colonization. European features were considered beautiful and people of colour were treated as inferior.

    Sadly, these messages continue to influence how many people of colour see themselves, in addition to perpetuating racism, which hurts society as a whole. It’s important to combat old colonial notions of what Christ looked like, to open the door further for those who aren’t white-skinned and blue-eyed. Portraying Jesus as Caucasian reinforces colonialism and can make him a symbol of oppression.

    If the only way you can serve Jesus is by seeing him as white-skinned, I suggest that your faith is not in God, but in the power that comes with cultural Christianity. Portraying Jesus as he actually looked may help break down explicit and implicit walls of racism in the global church, and work toward a true fellowship of all believers. After all, we all serve a Middle Eastern Saviour.

    Darryn Oldford is a senior soldier in Toronto.

    Comment

    On Saturday, February 8, 2020, Alonzo Twyne said:

    There is only Race - the human race and we are all many shades of brown. There are no black and white people. The Creator is Amazing but it's hard for His fallen creation to see as He does.

     

    On Friday, January 17, 2020, Patrick Lublink said:

    Thank you for an interesting article. It is true that the physical appearance of Jesus doesn't really matter at the end, however since this article has been published on this site, I wonder if any of you author and those who commented) are aware of recent discoveries with regards to the Shroud of Turin. I am a retired SA officer and for the past several years I have studied the subject in depth and can speak about it with some authority.

    I obtained a Postgraduate Certificate in Shroud Studies from an institute in Rome (2019) and have made several presentations on the Shroud in several churches including two local Salvation Army corps. I have now been invited to speak at a number of churches between now and Easter, including an Alliance Church, a Baptist Church, an Anglican Network church, a Roman Catholic church with a special invitation to Anglican churches and a military chapel. I have also been a guest presenter at an International Shroud Symposium held at Redeemer Seminary College (Christian Reformed Church) in August 2019 when I presented two peer-reviewed papers which have been accepted for publication. These two papers will also appear in the next several weeks on the oldest Shroud internet site, www.shroud.com. I have had the pleasure of sharing a meal a year ago (at Tim Horton's) with the person who was the official photographer of the Shroud in 1978 during the most intense scientific inquiry on the Shroud.

    Everyone is free to accept whether the Shroud of Turin contains an actual image or not of our Lord taken at the very moment of his resurrection. I believe that if someone is interested, he or she does not need to try to guess what He looked like while He was on earth - the Shroud is a gift from God to us. In my case, I can testify that when I first saw his picture (well over 40 years ago), the Holy Spirit moved in my heart and at that moment I knew I was looking at Him.

    Blessings

     

    On Thursday, January 16, 2020, Stuart MacMillan said:

    Interesting piece. I have seen this particular portrait of Jesus before. I dont believe it really matters what color you see Jesus, as or which part of Jesus personality resonates with you the most and therefore identify with. My only issue with the article is the rather strange comment that its okay to see Jesus as black or Asian... but if you saw him as white ... thats a problem essentially because of European colonization thereby conflating personal interpretations of Jesus with earthly geo political issues and in particular the contemporary “progressive” narrative. Either we believe that we should embrace an authentic version of Jesus... or we believe that we should be able to make our Jesus whatever works for us... To suggest we can make him whatever works for us as long as its not white is not logical and simply panders to the current woke mentality which our Jesus relationship should rise above.

     

    On Saturday, January 4, 2020, Josephine `Nicolosi said:

    I agree with you. We tend to think that we created God in our own image and that is so wrong. Yes, Jesus was born into a Jewish culture and He himself was a Jew. He probably looked like most middle eastern men. Jews say that they are God's chosen people and so they are but I thank God that in his unconditional love adopted someone like me.

     

    On Saturday, January 4, 2020, Melvin said:

    I have always said none of us really know what colorJesus is. To me color should not matter.WE all have the same color Blood.Jesus shed his precious Blood for all mankind. Red and Yellow Black and white they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves all people in every part of the World.Trust HIM.Believe in HIM.Serve Him.Live for Him.Accept Him as your Lord and Savior.BLESSINGS TO YOU ALL.

     

    On Saturday, January 4, 2020, Barbara McIntyre-Butler said:

    Thank you for sharing this article. I agree that we must not get caught up in skin color and such but remember that we are all made in God's image. That's in Genesis. The portrayal of a white Jesus has been the object of many conversations and will be. I love this article and I am a Soldier in The Salvation Army here in Cleveland. Ohio (USA) An in-depth Bible study on this subject would be awesome. Can you provide more of where you information came from? Continue to share your faith. Agape

     

    On Saturday, January 4, 2020, Rob Webster said:

    It sounds crazy but I saw him. He appeared to me in a vision. He had brown eyes but was very white. Whiter than me and I am a white man. Maybe the Hewbrews were whiter than they are now or maybe he appears differently to different people.

     

    On Saturday, January 4, 2020, Norma trewhella said:

    I don’t care what He looks like. When I look into His eyes, I will know Him . Nothing can compare to that.

     

    On Saturday, January 4, 2020, Herb Presley said:

    The actual physical appearance of Jesus is not so important as how He appears to us in our heart of faith. Romans 10:10.

     

    On Saturday, January 4, 2020, Dian Wollison said:

    The caucasian, blue eyed, long blonde hair just didn't make sense to me. I have thought to myself, what would he have really looked like. Thank you for sharing the depiction.

     

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