Jesus Isn’t White: Undoing the myth of a European savior, again

Unconsciously white Jesus

We started a conversation last Friday to shine some light on the myth of the white Jesus. One reason we want to “decolonize” Jesus is because continental scholarship and theology—that is to say, theology and scholarship in Europe—largely dominated the landscape of Christianity for a long time shortly after the movement started. European and Christian were synonymous for a long time, and even after the Reformation, when the church split, it remained that way. So on one hand, Jesus was “white” by default. White people studied him, evangelized Christianity, and understood him through their lens. They never thought of themselves as making Jesus white, because like many white people, they didn’t have to consider their race very much at all. The dominant aren’t confronted with their uniqueness as a problem. And so to them, they just did what seemed to be normal. Were they malicious? I don’t think intentionally, but there was definitely a large degree of ignorance and violence that many of them spread, both against Jewish people and the people that they would eventually be complicit in colonizing.

But it’s not all “innocent” ignorance, if you can even call it that. It’s not just unconsciousness that leads people to both assign people a “white” race, or not consider race at all. Also rooted in Christianity is indeed deep-seated racism that expresses itself in all sorts of ways from justifying slavery to justifying concentration camps. There is a distinct and unfortunate connection between the American church and racism. And I think it’s a sordid enough history to exercise extra caution, especially when we incidentally racialize Jesus.

Christianity being a “white religion” cuts both ways

One of the issues that we are faced with, though, is that Christianity has such a reputation as a “colonizer’s” religion or a “white religion” that we have people who are leaving their faith because they view it as an oppressive tool. Now, I agree that Christianity has been an oppressive tool, but reducing it to that does some violence to the people who come from oppressed groups who subscribe to Christianity. Reducing their faith to a tool of their own oppression denies them agency in how they follow Jesus and Jesus’ teachings.

Many Christians see Jesus not as a “white savior” or an “oppressor,” but the ultimate liberator, the one who frees them from oppression all together—who saves them from the sin of the world. Christianity has a long tradition of seeing Jesus as a liberator, not unlike Moses was to the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. When we think of Jesus in Circle of Hope, we see him as freeing the captives and oppressed, freeing both oppressor and oppressed from the condition they are in. God is aligned with the oppressed and has aligned himself with the downtrodden of humanity, even by becoming human himself.

The mysterious being of Jesus

Jesus is then not static or easy, but rather mysterious. Jesus incarnated to us as a first-century Jewish Palestinian man. He was a real human, and fully human. He lived under Roman captivity, and we know he lived a lowly, nonviolent life, in stark contrast to the image of Messiahs around him and also Kings. Jesus, and all of the Jewish people alongside of him, were not living in the Kingdom promised to them by God. But Jesus was fully a human being. He did everything we do as humans. The humanity of Jesus is an important part of who he is and shouldn’t be undone.

The continental theologians I referenced earlier have done some damage to the “human Jesus,” by removing him from his own body and making him a cosmic, universal figure. It is too harsh to say that they did this just for the sake of the prejudice of their time, but at least in part, the fact that Jesus was Jewish was part of the appeal. European Christians made Jesus more of a “Christian” than a Jew, and that does damage to who he is as a person.

When we err too much on the side of Jesus’ humanity, we cause problems with the New Testament vision of the cosmic universality of Jesus. Jesus is both a specific person in a time and place, and also an eternal savior, here from the beginning of time and until the end, in all things. We need to hold both. It’s OK to be caught in the tension. Jesus is both a brown Jewish man and all things to all people.

The early church couldn’t quite figure out how to sort through this problem, and they needed a Council to help sort it out. From the very start of the church, the language we adopted was meant to hold the tension together, and thus hold people together, not divide them.

Jesus’ particularly leads to His universality

The mystery is that in becoming a human, Jesus became particular. But in his humanity, he relates to all of us right where we are. Jesus was a Palestinian Jew, that’s true. But he was also a human and relates to you. Expressing Jesus in your own cultural framework for your time and place is good and appropriate. Singling out your expression as the one that dominates others or reigns supreme is not. And in our world of sin, power, and domination, we look to the Savior to free of us of these things. God is aligned with the oppressed, so Jesus relates more to victims of racism than its perpetrators. This is why it is necessary for the powerful to subvert Jesus to their own ends if they want to use him. When we reduce Christianity to that, we actually allow the powerful to overtake our movement: which starts with a humble, crucified savior, one who took on flesh and become one with us.

So how do we make an anti-racist church? How do we decolonize Christ?

At the end of our discussion, we wanted to move toward practical application. Here’s what our diverse group came up with.

They thought we needed to have non-white people lead us in the church. Recruiting and intentionally pursuing people of color to lead helps us to see that all sorts of people are following Jesus. If we have white leaders and select them with impunity, we reinforce a different message.

More than just leaders, our group thought that we needed to hear stories from a diverse group of people. Both real-life stories and also interpretations of the Bible.

We also thought we needed to “materialize” Christianity, that is to say move it from abstraction into reality, that indeed there is physical and material consequence to following Jesus in the world. One person noted that her very body and skin color made her inherently political and thus how she expressed her faith politically too.

In terms of anti-racism, one passionate person said we needed to be unapologetically anti-racist. Without any compromise, we needed to oppose racism and white supremacy. Another one, new to Circle of Hope, emphasized the importance of making art, music, and performances that showed Jesus in a different light and showed Christianity in a different, non-dominant one. We’ve been dreaming of an arts collective.

And there’s so much more we can add. We want to keep being an anti-racist church. We want to give the world both the authentic Jesus and the one that relates to them where they are. Not the Imperial Jesus, not the White Jesus, but the humble, self-giving, incarnate God. We express him through our very bodies.

Featured image by artist Kelly Latimore.

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