I got the opportunity to go off on a lengthy diatribe to a friend this week about the harm of White Jesus when I found out that History Channel’s “The Bible” will soon be made into a feature film. The network, Mark Burnett and his wife Roma Downey will be bringing White Jesus, White Moses and the devil that kind of looks like President Obama to the multiplex to inundate a new generation of children with the notions of White privilege and White supremacy.
(If you want a better understanding of White privilege, the ability to recolor the Messiah and make him in your own image, despite prevailing and obvious factual impediments is a good place to start.)
At this point, most people agree Jesus was not the blue-eyed surfer dude that is consistently depicted upon cathedral walls and in pop culture. But whenever I start talking about the generally accepted notion that Jesus was not White, the typical response is, “Why does it matter?”
The answer to this question was perfectly answered last year when a movie based on a popular book series chose to stay true to its depiction of Black characters, at least the auxiliary ones.
When “The Hunger Games” debuted in theaters – to an insane $155 million opening weekend – in March 2012 with a Black Rue, Thresh, and Cinna, folks took to Twitter and Facebook to collectively lose their minds.
“EWW rue is black?? I’m not watching,” said @Joe_Longley.
“why does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie,” said @maggie_mcd11.
“Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad #ihatemyself” said @jasphperparas.
“The posts go on and on and on. It’s not just a coupe [sic] of tweets, it’s not just a coincidence,” wrote Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart, who cataloged the tweets. “There’s an underlying rage, coming out as overt prejudice and plain old racism. Sternberg is called a ‘black b*tch,’ a ‘n*gger’ and one person writes that though he pictured Rue with ‘darker skin,’ he ‘didn’t really take it all the way to black.’ It’s as if that is the worst possible thing a person could be.”
Feel free to look at the tweets yourself, there are literally hundreds of them.
You could call this racism or you could call it the shock of living a life full of White privilege and then going into the multiplex to see heroes that suspiciously don’t look like you. You’re angry, you’re disappointed and you’re just so full of apathy for these Black characters, because, you know, “EWW.”
This is the harm of a White Jesus. It’s part of a theme in American culture that internalizes the superiority of whiteness. That message is imbued to white kids and black kids and everyone else through the etiolation of all things good and pure. The most well-worn agent of this message is the archetype of an inexplicably White Jesus.
There’s a fantastic examination of the history of White Jesus in the book “The Color of Christ” that looks at how the image worked in concert with slavery and ensuing notions of race in the U.S.
“The birth, growth, and evolution of white Jesus imagery dating from the antebellum era and exploding in the twentieth century coincided with the birth of an American empire founded, in part, in notions of race,” said Paul Harvey who wrote the book along with Edward J. Blum. “The assault on that sacralization of whiteness through the civil rights years has not, and could not, defeat it entirely, and the depth of religiously-fueled sentiment directed against Obama suggests that as well.”
Essentially, it’s a lot more difficult to justify overtly heinous bigotry, like enslaving an entire race of people, or even seemingly innocuous racism when the son of the God you pray to before every meal is a Black man and His virgin mother is a Black woman. Conversely, it’s much easier to justify when they’re not.
Ask yourself the question, why would Jesus be White? The only possible explanation is that a historically accurate Jesus isn’t palatable to greater (white) society. That should invite the follow-up question, why is that?
Portraits of White Jesus by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were created to “honor” the kings of their time who were White, but why have they endured?
“This logic is perfectly cogent,” writes Chauncey DeVega in a piece for Alternet, “a racial project of exploitation and enslavement of non-whites by Europeans, one legitimized by a belief in the natural inferiority of people of color, the pseudo-science of the Great Chain of Being, a belief in the Curse of Ham as well as other myths, must, for reasons of practical necessity, be predicated on the existence of a ‘white’ God.”
While I disagree that the paleness of Jesus can be held responsible for the historical misdeeds of centuries of Europeans, it can be reasonably asserted that a White Jesus allows for a spirit of antipathy and degradation of people of color. That spirit can be seen in ritualistic slaughter and inhumane enslavement of historical masses in centuries past or on Twitter today.
Admittedly, no one knows what Jesus really looked like. Despite the depiction of a man with hair of wool and skin of copper from the Book of Revelation, which is actually an ethereal remembrance of Christ after death, not a depiction of his living self, we don’t have any descriptions to use. But we do have common sense, which tells us that a boy who was born in the Middle East, raised in Northern Africa and was a member of a group of people that were predominately dark-skinned is probably not going to look like Diogo Morgado, Jim Caviezel or any of the other benevolent Caucasians who have played Jesus over the years.
So, does it matter what color Jesus is? Yeah, it matters a lot.