What Color Was Jesus’ Skin, and Why Does It Matter?

August 6 | 2020

Does blue-eyed, wavy haired, glamour-shot Jesus have a place in the church or is it time for his image to come down? (Yes, people are having this debate 😂)

I actually think it’s a conversation worth having, because I think the image of Jesus we put in our brains matters in shaping how we see God, ourselves, and the world.

I think the *particular humanity* God chose to inhabit carries implications for Christians of all time.

As Kelly Brown Douglas puts it, “The context through which God enters human history is revelatory…”

So, let’s talk.

If you were given the mission to "change the world," how would you go about it? If you had the choice…

Would you rather EMBODY the poor or the rich? Would you rather SUFFER at the hands of unjust rulers, or forcibly TAKE CONTROL as one of the ruling class? Would you rather POSSESS a bag of carpenter’s tools, or the most terrifying military power of the world?

There is really only ONE smart, obvious way to go if you want to change the world. Right?!

But (the Son of) God does not, apparently, share our strategy (using wealth, power, or violent force “for good”). Rather, he takes the form of a vulnerable, humble, “nothing” man from Nazareth. And, in the body of Jesus, God makes a public announcement:

God is on the side of the oppressed.

Historical-Jesus’ skin tone was somewhere on the brown spectrum. But, I think an even more important identifier than his skin color, was his SOCIAL LOCATION.

He was born into a minority group (the Jewish people), under the occupation of a dominating group (the Romans). So, within the social hierarchy of his day, he was without status, economic security, or civil protection. From the beginning of his life (born among the farm animals) to the end of his life (a victim of mob violence), he lacks “power” in the traditional sense of the word.

Not only that, God-in-flesh suffers unjustly at the hands of religious and political rulers, and does nothing to defend himself — He does not fight violence with violence, death with death (perpetuating those destructive cycles).

When God’s own body is broken open,
Love and Life pour out.
THIS is how God changes the world.

Jesus’ death sentence does not have the final word, injustice does not win the day, the cycle of violence is finally broken, when the dead man comes back to life!

Now, hold that in your mind.

What happens when we tell the Jesus-story differently? What happens when God kills his own son, in our place?

Our understanding of God takes on a totally different meaning! We see God working within the logic of “empire,” caught up in the same destructive cycles: God is violent. God is retributive. God must kill, must have blood, must punish, to appease his purity and holiness.

Why would anyone want a God like that?!!?

I think I know why, actually! It’s wayyy easier to pray for “forgiveness of our sins” and “salvation from hell in the afterlife,” than follow a God OOZING LOVE AND LIFE, CALLING US TO PRACTICE JUSTICE.

Now, hold that in your mind.

From the very beginning of the “American experiment,” a particular group of people held POSITIONS of advantage, POWER over others, and CONTROL of the narratives of society. It was people of European descent, with white skin, who were at the highest SOCIAL LOCATIONS (think: the Romans).

Note: This is not a slam on white people. It is simply to point out where we came from, our context, our indisputable social location…the fact that “whiteness” set the rules for everybody.

The non-violent, lowly man from Nazareth didn’t work within the narrative of the “Christian” rulers (from Constantine to the colonizers). So, instead of accepting Jesus in his historical-social context (on the side of the oppressed), he got a RE-BRAND!

Enter White Jesus.

“White Jesus” conveniently became what “white rulers” required (forgiver of sins, saver of souls, absolver of guilt) SO THAT they could continue to war and pillage; acquire, control, and profit off of HUMAN BEINGS as property; AND (bonus!) “save souls” along the way.

Despite this abusive use of religion, many enslaved peoples found a way around “White Jesus”! As Howard Thurman puts it, “…the slave undertook the redemption of a religion that the master had profaned in his midst.

But, “salvation” in the Black faith was far from a hyper-spiritualized, abstract thing (like the white church made it out to be — getting “saved" to go to heaven). It meant real, immediate, existential FREEDOM from enslavement, poverty, rape, family separation, the terror of lynching…all the inhumane realities of being Black in America.

As I’ve heard Lisa Sharon Harper say:

“White Jesus” came to save white people from their sin & guilt...

Black Jesus” came to save Black people from white people.

What a gut punch!

Or, in the words of Ida B. Wells: “Our American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in hellfire to save the lives of black ones from present burning in fires kindled by white Christians.”

My diagnosis: “White Jesus” is a fraud and a disgrace.

It is long past time we denounced his white exceptionalism, and legacy of violence.

It is long past time we took his false image down from our walls,
AND from our hearts.

We we will ALWAYS be at risk of imagining a god who looks like us, thinks like us, shares our “smart" strategies, excuses our selfish behaviors, lets us off easy for hurting others, and endorses our right to defend ourselves with hate and violence. This is what humans have always done.

It’s the very reason God took on human form in the first place.

Jesus, the “nothing" man from Nazareth, shows us who God really is. That is: on the side of the oppressed. And he’s asking us to join him there.

This, and my previous poem, were influenced by Kelly Brown Douglas’ exploration of Black faith and God’s freedom (Stand Your Ground). As well as Lisa Sharon Harper’s IGTV entitled: “White Blessing and the Very Good Gospel.”

Quotes from Ida B. Wells and Howard Thurman were taken from The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone.

Cover image is from the Catholic memorial at Dachau concentration camp 💔

Next: Whose Side Are You On, Anyway?

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Felicia Melian

Pushing back on whatever IDEAS are acting as obstacles to JUSTICE among white evangelicals