The head of the global Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, believes that the time is due for the western Christian tradition to reconsider its portrayal of Jesus Christ as a white man.
The archbishop was speaking to the BBC over the weekend and made the point that having the image of Christ re-thought and “re-imagined” is due to how far the Black Lives Matter protest movement has come.
Welby was also quick to add that his idea is not novel having come across different ethnic iterations of the Christ.
More about this
“You go into their (non-Western) churches and you don’t see a White Jesus — you see a Black Jesus, or Chinese Jesus, or a Middle Eastern Jesus — which is of course the most accurate. You see a Fijian Jesus — you see Jesus portrayed in as many ways as there are cultures, languages and understandings,” he explained.
The Anglican Church head also reiterated that although the image of Jesus Christ is not that which Christians worship, a physical representation of divinity “who became fully human” for the sake of all people, is a good reminder.
Can the western tradition have a non-White Jesus?
The earliest artistic reproduction of Jesus Christ has been traced to a painting on a plaster from about 235 AD in an area in Syria known as Dura-Europos. The Christian savior was depicted, interestingly, as a young man with no beard but possessing an authoritative look, like that of a revered teacher.
In Europe, the pictorial imaginations of Jesus are from around the 3rd and 4th centuries, especially from the Catacombs of Rome. There too, he looked nothing like the man easily identifiable these days.
Indeed, the beautiful bearded man with chiseled abs that most Christians insist upon today is a result of philosophization by the earliest fathers of Christianity including Augustine of Hippo. Augustine and others theorized that a divine being could only be beautiful in human form – as Augustine himself wrote, “beautiful as a child, beautiful on earth, beautiful in heaven”.
It is actually misleading to suppose that the earliest portraits of Jesus are the closest to the truth. A significant majority of these portraits from the earliest years of Christianity are based on third-hand recollections or worse.
How did Jesus Christ become Caucasian? It was probably not an intentional propaganda material until about the 15th century.
As Jewish studies professor Deborah Forger believes: “When Christianity is bolstered by Constantine’s rule, it begins to spread and flourish within the context of Europe. This is when we start to see more prominent Christian iconography of Jesus as white because the followers of Jesus have a tendency to create images of Jesus who look like them.”
It is agreed that he was a man who came from among a people who have olive or brown skin in the Middle East yet when different cultures imagined the Christ, the result was a man who looked like those doing the imagination.
Jesus Christ as an artistic reproduction was an imaginary product. But as Rev. Guy Collins argues, “[t]here is this imaginary, and it forms and shapes our reality.”
Collins explained: “Any [visual] representation is part of the imaginary, and if our imaginary is only shaped by representations that are factually incorrect and only present one side of the pluralistic reality of the human race; if we only see one type of face in the imaginary, then we’re actually — in theological term — denigrating the image of God in humanity.”
The universal image of Jesus Christ therefore, as a very white man, is universal at all because white men were able, through violence, to subjugate other peoples and impose on the subjugated a white man’s perspective. To say that Jesus Christ is a white man because of who got to write global history, is not an understatement.
From the 14th century onward when the goal of modern European territorial aggrandizement became clearer, we see the beginning of the utilization of white Jesus as that savior of the souls of the enslaved and colonized. The philosophy and praxis of white supremacy were also born just around the same time.
These days, it is common for those we may not ordinarily associate with white supremacy to fight off the idea of re-imagining Jesus as anything but white. Jesus Christ as a white man is therefore to most people, just the way things are and not plunderous propaganda.
We cannot underestimate the number of people in western societies whose world would come burning down if they are to unlearn what they have always presumed is the case. This is partly a result of the arresting psychology of religion but also due to the place of Christianity in Euro-American history and culture.
For Christian westerners, the perception of self and community is married into the “imaginary” that became reality. We may be asking them to undo their very selves if the Archbishop of Canterbury has his way.
For non-white people, most especially people of African descent who bore the worst brunt of European dominance, to ask that the image of Jesus Christ is re-imagined in the West may well be within our right. The psychological trauma brought by all the domineering elements, including Christianity, still exists for many of us today.
But what do we expect of a society that is not happy to pull down statues of slave owners? How willing would that society be to re-imagine one of the most, if not the most fundamental aspect of their heritage?
We should be ready to be asked in return: Would Africans also stop looking at Jesus Christ as a black man? Jesus Christ as a black man is a source of pride for a few million black people across the world.
If we are able to re-imagine Christ in the west, would that help?
An important accompanying question to this confounding problem is what it would mean to re-imagine the image of Jesus Christ in the west. Who are we looking at if not a white man?
Given that western countries are perhaps the more successful melting pots of peoples, the contest for who Jesus gets to resemble will not be mild. In effect, one can make a better argument with the cessation of Jesus’ iconography in Christian tradition than choosing which peoples get to draw him.
But let us suppose we are able to cross that Rubicon and settle on what Jesus Christ’s image should be. Are there measurable results for the fight against white supremacy?
Well, that seems like a very difficult question. This is especially so when we assume Frantz Fanon‘s lenses with regard to how non-white people are the subalterns in a reality created by Europeans and Americans.
Fanon’s subalternity accepts that Africans are not displaced from socio-economic institutions and the ladders of propriety simply because of skin color but also because they are not of European descent. This means that whiteness is more than ethnicity; it is also cultural hegemony.
In this vein, Christianity should be perceived as more than “white Jesus”. Rather, Christianity would come across as a western (or westernized) faith system.
If Christianity is an irredeemable western culture, it is hard to see how even a successful re-imagination of the iconography of Jesus Christ would help in the fight against white supremacy. There will be enough about the creed of the Christian which would still come off as western – Christmas, for instance, comes to mind.
The Archbishop of Canterbury seems to have his heart in the right place but the psychological project is too difficult to hope it would be accomplished in a few decades or even centuries. But then again, the human capacity to re-invent our environment is also infinite.