Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock, or are somehow disciplined enough to stay away from the endless entertaining and sad feeds of social media, you’ve probably noticed that racial tension has become an omnipresent issue for our society in the past few years. For me, this subject is uniquely painful, awkward, and important because I am a church leader in an incredibly diverse city that finds itself inside of the tangled intersection of this subject *1. And as if the deep dynamics of modern racism weren’t complicated and difficult enough, through my vocation and work I’ve chosen to add Christianity to the mix, creating an even more volatile cocktail of ingredients, and that’s what I’d like to wrestle with in this post. As our culture continues to struggle through the pains of our own racism, I feel particularly responsible to address one area where change is needed. Specifically, I’d like to share some thoughts and stories that illustrate the problem of God’s Whiteness.
First let me state up front that I sincerely believe in and have experienced the goodness, healing, and reconciliation that my particular religious tradition can offer a world as systemically divided as ours. But I’ve also encountered the beyond tragic reality that sometimes my faith tradition has made things worse, not better. My hope is that we can learn from our mistakes by acknowledging our flaws and shortcomings, and continue the difficult but desperate work of healing.
But… God isn’t White????
From a theological perspective the idea that the Divine has a racial identity seems ridiculous doesn’t it? The answer is yes. But realistically speaking, in our history and lived practice, God has consistently been portrayed as white. Just try google-imaging Jesus. What you’ll see is a very European looking dude that looks something like this:
Yup, there he is, porcelain-white with high cheek bones and maybe even blue eyes. God himself. Every time I create slides for a church sermon and search online for images of Jesus to help me communicate, I notice just how common white Jesus is.
Hey wait a second…..
You know what?
If that guy gained a few pounds, he’d kind of look like me!
And herein lies our massively tragic error. Western Christianity has made God-incarnate white, an oversight so global in scale that it’s hard to even fathom how severe and terrible the consequences have been and still are.
One story to illustrate.
I’ve been involved with ministry work in Myanmar for the past 12 years and was once invited to speak at a college class for ministry leaders in the city of Yangon. At the time I was maybe 20 years old and still working on my undergraduate degree. For some strange reason I was perceived as being respectable enough to speak before this classroom filled with folks from a different culture and whom many were older than I.
Wanting to help, I accepted the offer thinking that I would approach the class lecture a little different. Instead of teaching on ministry or theology, I would ask questions of the students and create a discussion space to process and learn together. After a few questions and moments of conversation (I had a translator in case you were wondering), I asked the class what folks who were not Christian thought of Christianity.
Their response revealed a deeper issue.
They said that their family and friends who did not identify as Christian saw Christianity as a white religion. Christianity could not fully be embraced because it was seen as specifically Western.
In response I tried to explain how this was historically inaccurate, that Jesus actually had more in common with their culture than my own. I shared that Jesus was technically from Asia, not Europe or North America. I explained that he likely ate meals while reclining on a rug, lived in a nation that was occupied by the Empire, and did not have freeways, television, or the internet. Furthermore, his skin tone was probably not like my own freckled and pale exterior, and more like theirs.
I wasn’t getting anywhere. It felt like I was trying to damn a river with a rope.
Then it hit me.
I looked up on the wall behind me and I surveyed this image:
There he was again, porcelain Jesus. See, in Burmese culture most folks are Buddhist and as a sign of respect and reminder of their sacred tradition, they almost always have a picture or statue of Buddha somewhere on the walls of classrooms or other gathering spaces. Christians often do something similar by hanging a portrait of Jesus in an important place, and since the context of my “lecture”, was a Christian classroom, it was appropriate to see this picture hanging there.
Interestingly enough, this specific portrait of Christ was created in 1940 by an American and has become one of the most famous images of Jesus in the world. Through all my international travel and ministry I can verify that this picture is globally widespread. Some have even said that this painting has become the visualized image of Christ for hundreds of millions.
While the act of placing a religious image in the front of a classroom isn’t itself problematic, the content of the picture absolutely is. Why? Because the painting is historically inaccurate and has been used, whether intentionally or unintentionally, to prop up white hierarchy.
Think about it. If God is white, doesn’t that say something about whiteness? Are white folks like me, especially men, closer to God in some way?
As a completely unqualified speaker to that classroom in Myanmar it dawned on me.
I was given a pulpit and authority in part because I look like God, or at least the cast of God that we’ve created in our image. And if I as a white male have benefited from this globally incorrect portrayal of Christ, how else has this portrayal been used to capture power and authority?
In their book, The Color of Christ, Edward Blum and Paul Harvey discuss at great length this history and the consequences of recreating God as a white man. They argue that making Jesus more white subconsciously communicates greater value for whiteness and subsequently lesser value for non-whiteness:
“The racial history of the American Jesus shows how the sacred has been racialized and how the spiritualization of race has given notions of human difference not only a life beyond scientific studies or anthropological insights but also a sense of eternal worth” (15)”
What does it mean for us today that most of our visualized expressions of God look like a European white man?
The unfortunate reality is that white Jesus, when combined with our human tendency towards ethnocentrism and tribalism, and mixed with centuries of European domination of the world, provides the perfect framework for justified oppression and exploitation of others, something that couldn’t be further from the essence of Jesus. When you start to understand that Jesus was an impoverished middle-eastern refugee who criticized institutional power, embraced the marginalized, and was executed for what we would now call terrorism*2, you realize that porcelain-white Jesus is actually very offensive. Furthermore, the possibility that white Jesus has in any way propped up- even in the slightest bit- things like slavery, manifest destiny, or white supremacy, should be beyond offensive to anyone who has aligned themselves with his teachings and actions.
That’s why, as part of the healing process with regards to race in America, we must deconstruct white Jesus.
There are many dimensions to modern racism. As a faith leader, I’m responsible not only to engage this injustice in our societal systems, but also within my own religious tradition. So here it is: Jesus was not white. He didn’t look like me. His movement was one of downward mobility, surrendering power instead of capturing it. The message of Jesus disrupted the center and embraced the margins. As someone who finds himself in the global center, his message should challenge my comforts and draw me into closer proximity with those in need and those subject to injustice. We have a responsibility to deconstruct the images of Jesus whenever they are used to prop up specific racial identity, exploited for political gain, or used to in any way marginalize people. All of these appropriations of Jesus completely juxtapose the historical and scriptural accounts of his life and movement.
Here is my point: Porcelain Jesus is a lie that has tragically been used for the benefit of people like me and at the expense of people of color. This is one of the many elements of our flawed history that we must address and deconstruct.
*1 Though the subject of racism is awkward, painful, and complicated for me, I do not claim to even begin to know the depth at which it is those things and more to people of color. I do my best to listen and empathize, but I will never know this struggle.
*2Ok, terrorism might be a little hyperbolic and inflammatory, but he must have done something that made him a perceived threat to the state to be crucified. In fact many argue that crucifixion was not for mere criminals, but for insurrectionists. Pretty sure a modern day insurrectionist could also be called a terrorist.