First posted to my newsletter which you can subscribe to here.
This week, in my little corner of the Internet, some people were wringing their hands about white Jesus. As statues and monuments to the Confederacy are being torn down, some people have begun to wonder whether it’s time to remove representations of Jesus which portray him as white.
To these suggestions, others countered with the fact that Jesus has often been portrayed with the cultural and ethnic distinctions of the person artistically representing him. A good case can be made that these diverse representation actually point to one of the unique claims made by Christians, that God became one of us. The miracle of the incarnation comes into view each time Jesus is represented in a culturally accessible manner.
I think too of Lamin Sanneh’s work on the translated nature of Christianity into particular cultures. “[With] the shift into native languages, the logic of religious conversion assumed an internal dynamic, with a sharp turn away from external direction and control. Indigenizing the faith meant decolonizing its theology, and membership of the fellowship implied spiritual home rule.”
Christianity, Sanneh asserts, is a religion which expects itself to be translated into the cultural vernacular. The linguistically and culturally diverse pilgrims of Acts 2 didn’t have to get help to understand the disciples’ message; the Holy Spirit translated it.
In other words, there are traits inherent to Christian faith which provide a certain logic for culturally diverse portrayals of Jesus. So, what’s the problem with white Jesus?
The problem is theological. White Jesus is not an expression of cultural or ethnic uniqueness. Rather, he represents the move away from the Jewish particularities of Jesus to a racial construction in which, in Willie Jennings’ words, “the body of the European would be the compass marking divine election.” It’s not that white Jesus represents the incarnation to a particular group of people; he claims a universal power to represent God to all people. White Jesus is not one cultural expression of the gospel’s ability to translate itself into many cultures; he represents the erasure of those cultures.
So, should white Jesus come down? Well, how about this question: Can white Jesus be displayed in a manner that doesn’t reveal what his racialized nature was meant to communicate? In other words, can white Jesus take his place as yet one expression among others of the incarnation of the Son of God? Or is there something inherently anti-Christ (anti-incarnation, anti-contextualized translation of the gospel) about this image’s whiteness?
For me, the answers are no, no, and yes. How about you?