I grew up believing that Jesus was a white man. The Jesus I saw in my grandmother’s illustrated Bible was white, as well as the one in the framed ‘Sacred Heart’ picture displayed prominently in her living room.
In my own illustrated Bible and Bible story books, he was white too, and when I went to Sunday school and church, all the images I saw depicting him showed a white dude, usually with blue eyes and blonde hair. As for the movies I watched about his life, all the actors I saw depicting him were, you guessed it… white.
I recall witnessing discussions about Jesus Christ’s ethnicity, and hearing Christians say that it did not matter. Being a Christian myself at the time, I agreed, and dutifully kept worshipping and praying to a man I believed was white. However, as a I grew older and began to become aware of my blackness and the history of my African ancestors, I realized that the colour that Christ is depicted as does matter.
Christian scriptures say very little about Jesus’ physical appearance. For example, in Isiah 53:2 it was written that, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”
According to the Bible, Jesus said that “the truth will set you free.” The truth, however, is that Jesus was not a white man. He was, in fact, a Middle Eastern Jewish man living in Galilee in the first century. You know, the type of guy who today might be profiled for additional security screening by the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) at an American airport, and ironically, the type many white American Evangelical Christians would not want to come to and settle in their country.
Some of the earliest known artistic representations of Jesus were produced in the mid-third century A.D., more than two centuries after his death. These paintings in the ancient catacombs of St Domitilla in Rome, depicted Jesus as a young, short-haired, beardless man with a lamb around his shoulders. Another early portrait, painted in the sixth century A.D., portrays him with short curly hair.
Cultures tend to portray gods and iconic religious figures to look like the dominant racial groups in their societies. So, when Europeans embraced Christianity, the illustrations of Jesus began to change, to depict him to look like them. Good for them.
Most black people in the West are descended from slaves taken from Africa. When my African ancestors were brought to the Americas, the people who enslaved, beat, maimed, tortured, raped, sodomized, demoralized, dehumanized and killed them, introduced them to a religion whose central figure was depicted as a man who, not only looked nothing like them, but also conveniently resembled their captors. Not only were they instructed to worship him, but were also told that their very salvation depended on it and failure to comply would lead to eternal damnation.
The white Jesus myth is not harmless. It has been used by Europeans who invaded countries all over the world to subjugate both the indigenous people they dislocated and those they introduced to these societies for the purpose of slavery. The fact that some Biblical verses correlate lightness with purity and righteousness and darkness with sin and evil helped them to execute their brilliant but evil master plan to control and dominate.
We are now in the 21st century, and while some Christian churches have rejected the concept of a white Jesus, many still cling to the idea, and the depictions of their Saviour as a white man are common.
Recently, while attending a funeral at a popular church, I recall looking up at the ceiling and walls and seeing numerous stained-glass paintings of Jesus, his disciples, angels and other holy figures, and noting that they were all lily white.
There is a reason why companies pay millions of dollars on advertising, to have images of their products displayed on countless video boards, billboards, and other signs. It is because it works. Seeing images repeatedly does have an effect on our subconscious. Similarly, going to church or Sunday or Sabbath school every week, and seeing images of a white Jesus, helps to further the agenda of reinforcing the concept of white superiority.
Let us be real. Depicting Jesus as a white man is blatantly dishonest. After all, the Ninth Commandment, found in Exodus 20:16, tells us to “not bear false witness”.
It is unlikely that Jesus Christ looked like Idris Elba. But it is also unlikely that he resembled Brad Pitt. Jesus most likely had brown eyes, dark brown to black hair and olive-brown skin.
So, if we know that Jesus was not white, why do we tolerate, propagate and revere images of him being depicted that way?