What does it mean to have images of a White Jesus, Asian Jesus etc.?
Most of the time we don’t really think about how we depict Jesus, but perhaps it is important that we think of it with more intent.
Historically a depiction of a white, western European looking Jesus has been the most prominent. Arthur Maxwell’s “The Bible Story” and the Hanna-Barbera video series “The Greatest Adventure Stories from the Bible” are two examples of how mainstream Evangelical Christianity has made Jesus white. But incorrect ethnic depictions of a “black” Jesus can be seen in the Ethiopian Orthodox church, and South American Christians have utilized a Latino Jesus.
We unfortunately create Jesus in our own image. So who was Jesus?
Jewish as a Hebraic Jew, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but his earthly mother, Mary, and his earthly father, Joseph, were from the northern parts of Galilee. Jesus would not have been white; he would have been olive-skinned. The closest thing in our day and age would be Middle Eastern Arabs or Middle Eastern ethnic Jews.
Jesus would have looked like a multi-ethnic Jew. He would have most likely had Jewish traits, a prominent nose and jaw, and dark hair, but he would have most likely also had traits and blood from various ethnic and cultural lines (look at the inclusion of Ruth (a Moabite), Rahab (a Canaanite), and others in Jesus’ genealogy). Additionally, as the son of a carpenter and a young man who trained in carpentry, we can deduce that Jesus was probably tanned by the sun and at least in decent shape. Archeologist put pieces of history together and actually deduced that Jesus maybe looked similar to this . . .
Generally, I believe we depict Jesus in our own image because we are ethnocentric and prideful. We want to normalize and validate our own race, ethnicity, and/or history. Some times that comes with elements of power. Although it isn’t a comfortable reality, a white Jesus normalizes Christianity as a “white man’s religion.” Historically, within the American context this has been painstakingly true. Native-Americans/First Nationers, Black Americans, and Asian-Americans have struggled with the possibility of Christianity, partly because it meant that they would have to follow a “white man.” Obviously, folks within these groups became and are Christians nonetheless, but Christianity’s presentation of Jesus was incorrect and a hindrance for many.
But this is not a “white issue.” It is a Christian issue. A lot happens when we create Jesus in our own image. We have Aryan depictions which fueled Nazi Germany & the KKK, We have Black depictions that form an Afro-centric/Black Power Christianity. We have European depictions that encouraged the Crusades. We have Latino depictions that lead South Americans to violence. Having a Jesus that looks like us makes us – even if not consciously – feel entitled to view our expression of faith as true, sometimes despite the unbiblical reality of our expression.
* I must establish that rich art is something different than normal depiction. For example, the artistic depiction of Jesus as an African-American slave says something much more than Jesus is Black. In fact, it doesn’t say that at all. It says that Jesus can identify with the suffering of Black slaves in the United States and suffering as a whole. To depict Jesus as an Italian immigrant can speak of Jesus’ extraterrestrial alienation in this world. It is not art that is of our concern. In fact, Jesus art should be celebrated. We run into trouble when we normalize the race and ethnicity of Jesus to our own presuppositions rather than truth.
Does it matter what Jesus looks like?
Some say that Jesus’ physical appearance doesn’t matter, that it is superficial, but that isn’t reality. Jesus’ social environment was impacted by his culture and his appearance. Jesus was a Jew. That means people treated him like a Jew.
We have a temptation to want to be nice and color-blind or ethnic-blind (probably a better fit, but not as catchy). We wish we didn’t see difference, but that again isn’t reality. I am black, specifically African-American. To assume that my ethnicity hasn’t shaped my perception of the world and the world’s response to me is preposterous. My African-American”ness” doesn’t ultimately define me, but it is a part of who I am and who God made me. Maybe you are European-American, maybe you are Kenyan, maybe you are Black Jamaican, maybe you are Chinese-American, etc. Whatever ethnicity/race you are does not define you, but it is a part of your definition.
Jesus’ jewish”ness” connected him with humanity, with a people who had suffered, who had ruled, who had been in favor with God, and who had felt the hand of God.
Jesus dealt with – in neither an explicitly positive or negative way – being a Jew in a Roman land, being officially a bastard (lest we forget although Mary and Joseph were pregnant before they were married, even though we understand the work of the Holy Spirit impregnating Mary – try selling that to a whole society), a lower/middle class individual, a carpenter’s son, a brother, a Nazarene (thus, not from a “good” part of the middle-east), being most-likely tri-lingual (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic), and being connected to a Hebrew ethnicity and history. His ultimate identity was the son of God, but he had many identities, one of which was his race/ethnicity.
So what do we do with depictions of Jesus? That is the hard question. I don’t know if there is a 5-step plan or that I can give a 5 point sermon about it. But here are some simple thoughts.
1- Internally and Externally acknowledge that Jesus was an Arab, Hebraic Jew
2- Confront incorrect -non Artistic – depictions of Jesus
3- Realize that artistic depictions of Jesus are not suppose to create an image of Jesus as a human, but as the Messiah (e.g. Black Jesus relating with liberation from American slavery equates with Jesus liberating us from the slavery of sin)
4- Understand how incorrect images tied with power (KKK, Nazi Germany) distorts the Gospel and is a hindrance to others.
The hope of a Hebraic-Jewish Jesus.
Seeing Jesus as Jewish liberates us from power plays. We all, despite our current ethnicity/race, most identify with the lineage, history, and stories of the ancient Hebrews. If “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22), we must realize the depth of understanding. God worked within the Hebraic context in the Old Testament, but Jesus widened the perspective, it was no longer necessary to specifically join this people group. What Jesus brought was a multi-cultural expansion to where and to whom God would work. The Kingdom of God became open to all who wished to enter and was historically tied, but not bound to the Hebrew people.
In many ways this is obvious. If we as Christians weren’t supposed to connect to the Hebrew people, what is the point of the Old Testament? Yes, there are prophetic allusions to the Christ and we have a broad understanding of who God is by reading the Old Testament. But God could have simply placed the remnant of all those things within various cultures without having us follow a unified grand-narrative (I argue that he did give us pieces to look at in various cultures). But God pinpointed a certain people group to work through. Through their ethnicity and history we read the Old Testament and connect, in part because we are, too, God’s people. Like Ruth said to Naomi, we say to Jesus, the Christ, “your people shall be my people and your God my God.”