Keeping those white Jesus statues

Images besides Warner Sallman’s

head of christMy utter fascination with the physical portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth is well established. For instance, was Jesus homely?

In a recent discussion, someone noted that the conversation about Jesus’ skin tone was not important. I would argue that while it may be a prosaic issue, it is also significant. Otherwise, why was FOX News’ Megyn Kelly so insistent, back in 2013, that Jesus, and Santa, were white?

I rather like James Martin, S.J. in America: the Jesuit Review. “Jesus was not white. Here’s why we should stop pretending he was.” As in that very famous image by Warner Sallman that existed in my grandmother’s house.

Martin says: “Images of White Jesus have obviously been used to promote the idea that white is best… And that has the most terrible effects on people who do not look like that. I’m reminded of Toni Morrison’s magnificent novel ‘The Bluest Eye,’ where the young girl believes that whiteness is beautiful. If Jesus is white and you’re not, what does that say about your relationship with him? What does it mean that Christ came for ‘all,’ if you feel left out?”

What color is your Jesus?

Emily McFarlan Miller describes How Jesus became white, which I think it’s important to understand. But the title continues, “and why it’s time to cancel that.” (My comfort toward even the term cancel culture is fairly tenuous.)

She quotes Edward J. Blum, who co-authored the 2014 book The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. He said “many Christians remain hesitant to give up the image of white Jesus. He believes the continued popularity of white depictions of Jesus is ‘an example of how far in some respects the United States has not moved. If white Jesus can’t be put to death, how could it possibly be the case that systemic racism is done? Because this is one that just seems obvious. This one seems easy to give up.'”

I need to unpack that. Unlike say, the Confederate stats and bars, I had not experienced a clear historic movement that to rid ourselves of the white Jesus. And I think the notion of “giving Him up” is not obvious and very much not easy. There have been hundreds of years of paintings, stained glass, and figurines. When activist Shaun King said that ‘White Jesus’ statues should come down, I was not on board. King, who I learned about from my daughter, is a pretty savvy guy, but I disagree with him here.

Conversely, I AM fond of the notion of more and different portrayals of Jesus. Jemar Tisby, author of the 2019 best-seller “The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism” believes there’s no “one depiction that is coming to the fore… I think [that] is illustrative that people are resisting a monolithic vision of Jesus’ embodied self and, and understanding that his very incarnation — the fact that God became a human being in itself — is a way of identifying with all peoples everywhere.”

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