White Jesus… and those who insist he stay that way.

by K.W. Leslie, 08 August 2020

This is the only physical description of Jesus in the bible.

Revelation 1.12-16 KWL
12 I turned round to see the voice speaking with me,
and in so doing I saw seven gold lampstands.
13 In the middle of the lampstands: One like the Son of Man,
clad in a full-length robe with a gold belt wrapped round his chest.
14 His head and hair: White, like white wool, like snow. His eyes like fiery flames.
15 His feet the same: White bronze, refined in a furnace. His voice: Like the sound of many waters.
16 He had seven stars in his right hand. From his mouth came a sharp, double-edged saber.
His face: Like the sun, shining in its power.

Since it’s in Revelation, a book which largely consists of apocalyptic visions, people don’t take it literally. I find this to be true of even the nutjobs who take everything literally in that book. A Jesus with bronze skin and white hair? Gotta be a representative vision. ’Cause Jesus, as everybody knows, is white.

Been white since medieval times—’cause that’s how artists painted him.
Warner Sallman’s 1941 painting Head of Christ, the one many an American Protestant church has on the wall somewhere. Wikipedia
Arguably been white even longer than that: You know that picture of Jesus I use on the TXAB banner? Comes from Khristós Pantokrátor, one of the oldest ikons of Jesus we have, dating from the sixth century. Painted by Byzantine Greeks… so, no surprise, Jesus looks Greek. ’Cause when people try to produce an image of God, we have the bad habit of rendering him in our own image.

So that’s what we see in every European painting of Christ Jesus: He’s European. Artists wanted to identify with him, or make him more familiar-looking to local audiences, or portray him in church pageants without wearing brownface. Northern European paintings tend to make him look northern European; southern European paintings tend to make him look southern European. Italian artists made him look Italian, French artists made him look French, Dutch artists made him look Dutch, and American artists made him look… well, whatever ethnic background they have. Usually white.

So when I was growing up, just about every picture of Jesus to be found in Protestant and Catholic churches, depicted him as white. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the most diverse parts of the country, and even so: White Jesus was everywhere.

Most popular was Werner Sallman’s Head of Christ, which you’ll still see all over the Christian subculture. Even in predominantly nonwhite churches: Black, Latino, Chinese, everywhere. They frame and display it the same way government offices display the President’s portrait. And of course white Jesus was all over our stained-glass windows, paintings, statues, Sunday school materials, Nativity crèches… stands to reason you’d get that idea fixed in your mind.

Plus, all the Jews I knew where white.

Yes, this is an excuse for being ignorant. You see, we were never taught otherwise. No pastor ever gestured at the portraits of white Jesus and pointed out, “Of course, you know he’s not really white.” This was the image of Jesus, and we unthinkingly accepted it.

More or less. Different artists might render the beard a slightly different color. Conservative churches might insist on pictures of Jesus with hair which doesn’t go past the neck. Movies might depict him with a fringed cloak and tunic—you know, like an actual first-century Jew. But for most Americans, that image from the Sallman painting would kick in: The real Jesus had brown hair, a white tunic, and either a red or blue toga. No fringes. Fringes look raggedy.

We’re meant to outgrow this worldview. But not everyone does.

Nonwhite Jesus.

Now since white people get to make white Jesus images, why can’t black people make him black? He “belongs” to everybody, so everybody should get a shot at adapting him to their own image, right? Why do white folks get to have all the fun?

And this is when white folks finally begin to realize what we’ve been wrongly doing all along.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland’s 2008 ad featuring a black Jesus—cleverly referencing Sallman’s painting. Coloribus

Back in 1999 I was managing editor of the Nevada County Countryside Post. For our Christmas issue I figured we’d appropriately put a picture of baby Jesus on the front page. We had one of those 20-disc packages of clip art (most of which were poorly drawn and unnecessary, but people don’t know this when they buy it) and somewhere among their images was Mary holding baby Jesus. It had a stained-glass quality I liked. But they were white and blond, and being the stickler for historical accuracy I am, I figured I’d fix it: I opened the file in Adobe Illustrator, darkened their skin tone a tad, and made their hair black.

I should’ve adjusted it to specific Pantone shades. But I eyeballed it, sent it to the press, and didn’t see it again till it was printed and ready for delivery. You guessed it: Mary and Jesus were now a nice, deep brown.

“Great; now he’s black,” was my first reaction. I’d replaced one historical inaccuracy with another. Aw well. We distributed it anyway.

And got complaints. Nevada County, California, was more than 90 percent white. They weren’t at all used to seeing nonwhite Jesus. They assumed I was trying to provoke ’em. “Jesus isn’t black!” was the usual objection.

“True,” I said, “but you know he’s not white either. He’s middle eastern.”

This statement took most of them aback for a second. ’Cause they’d never thought of it. But they had to acknowledge it’s true. “Okay,” they said, “he’s not white. But he’s definitely not black.”

It comes an unthinking, unconscious presumption that white is normal and okay and needn’t be questioned, but black is not, and black is subversive. It’s why a lot of ’em act like every black Jesus painting was created for political reasons. To say “He’s ours, not yours.” Never realizing the reason they presume blacks think like that… because they think like that.

It’s why they can tolerate an historically inaccurate white Jesus, but make him black and suddenly they’re all about historical accuracy. Interesting.

…Nah, I’ll stop being subtle. It’s straight-up racism.

I know; people are gonna object to my calling it that, because they don’t hate other races. Don’t hate black people, don’t hate brown people; why some of their best friends aren’t white. But racism isn’t about hatred. It’s about race. It’s about the knee-jerk attitude that white is acceptable and black isn’t. Even though both are incorrect.

Brown Jesus.

People who object to Revelation’s depiction of a bronze-skinned Jesus tend to jump sideways to Isaiah’s description of him:

Isaiah 53.2 KWL
He grew up in God’s presence like a sapling, like something rooted in dry ground.
We could see nothing honorable in his form. He wasn’t anything to look at.

Again, it doesn’t tell us much. Because it’s just as non-literal as John’s description in Revelation: It’s meant to make us feel something about the suffering servant Isaiah described. Not physically describe him. How’s “nothing honorable in his form” gonna help the cops spot him in a lineup?

So this leaves us with no physical descriptions of Jesus outside of apocryphal gospels, hearsay from various saints, and personal visions. Of course, these visionaries usually try to not describe him. Because either they had an apocalyptic vision where they didn’t really get to see what he looks like… or the dreams came from their subconscious, not God. They dreamed of a white guy with longish hair and a beard—like me, only thinner—and assumed that’s Jesus.

The “real face of Jesus,” reconstructed. Popular Mechanics

British forensic anthropologists decided to take a whack at what Jesus likely looked like, based on first-century Palestinian skulls. Their result, originally published 2002, was the “real face of Jesus.” Since Jesus is still using his skull, there’s no way they could possibly get ahold of it. So this isn’t Jesus; this is a neighbor of Jesus. The guy down the street. Or the guy in the next village. There’s more chance he looks like Jesus than my next-door neighbor looks like me (’cause I’m white and he’s not) but then again, there’s as much chance he looks like Simon Peter or Antipas Herod.

Still, better chances than one of those Sallman paintings. But if you grew up with Sallman paintings, your first reaction is gonna be, “That’s Jesus?” I mean, you knew he doesn’t look like western artists portrayed him. But this… well, thanks to years of conditioning—and you never suspected it, huh?—you’re inclined to embrace the imagination of a 20th century religious painter, over the reasonable guesses of the sort of scientists whose testimony gets used in courtrooms.

Jesus’s color should really be a non-issue anyway. Especially since we know he’s not white. My Lord and savior is of a different race than I am. He’s a Jew; I’m gentile. He’s brown; I’m so pasty white it looks like I was found underwater. He’s one of God’s chosen people; I’m one of the dogs which get to eat the crumbs that fell from his table. Mk 7.28 I’m totally okay with that. It’d be utterly ungracious of me otherwise.

Claiming Jesus for my race is a delusional form of pride, and Jesus doesn’t even care for legitimate pride. He chose to become a person from a despised race to make a point: He wants us to deal with our hangups and prejudices. He wants us to love everyone, not just the people who look like us. That is after all the point of the Good Samaritan story: Lk 10.25-37 Neighbors won’t necessarily look like you. Love ’em anyway. As is appropriate for us foreign followers of the King of Israel.