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Jan3FriWhy Jesus’ race matters. January 3, 2020 by Darryn Oldford
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.
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- Opinion & Critical Thought
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.