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Jesus is white. At least, that is how He has been depicted for centuries in paintings, sculptures, and icons in every form of visual media. Those who tried to capture the essence of Jesus were reflecting their predominantly white European culture. It is natural for particular cultures to incorporate their human features, including color, in religious images.
There was nothing racist about it at the time, yet white Jesus became a religious symbol of white superiority and Black inferiority over the years. Most African Americans who grew up in families who embraced Christianity recall the images of white Jesus (Divine Mercy), white Mary, his mother, and white apostles gathered around white Jesus at the Last Supper.
The reality is that Jesus was likely a man of color, olive-colored skin, possibly dark because of his lineage through Mary. She was Jewish and had DNA from Canaanites and other regional tribes. So if Christians want to depict an accurate image of Jesus on the cross prominent in churches, He would not be white but more likely a person of color.
Jesus’ initial ministry was focused on His family in faith, God’s Chosen people, especially their leaders. He taught them that being chosen in the eyes of God does not mean they are superior to others. Instead, being chosen means “specially blessed by God” to have a unique responsibility in caring for everyone else!
His ministry transcended all boundaries of race, tribe, social status, economic status, gender, and purity restrictions. Jesus met everyone exactly where they were, sinner or saint, conservative or liberal, clean or unclean. Jesus built a relationship with them and brought them to healing or conversion by the power of attraction and never coercion.
Like all the Old Testament prophets, Jesus had a preferential — but not exclusive — love for the poor, the oppressed, the downcast, sinners, the widow, and the orphan. He represented all of these people when He journeyed to Jerusalem to face false condemnation and be crucified.
On the cross, Jesus was representing everyone, but especially those in society who were often scapegoated, ridiculed, put down, discriminated against, forced to the fringes by those in power who felt the need to exercise power-over rather than the power of love to achieve their purpose to gain kingdom, power, and glory.
If His image on the cross today really represented who Jesus Himself represented, that image would be a person of color. Current statistics show that approximately 8% of the world population is white. Since most people in the world are people of color, it would make sense for Christians to have that image — Black Jesus — right in front of them every time they gather for Sunday praise and worship.
By doing so, it would be placed in the center of worship and the call for Christians to care for those considered by society’s “least among us.” Yet, in the eyes of God, they are the “greatest among us” because they invite everyone to share their God-given gifts to empower each person and lift one another up as one people.
In no way does such an image ignore poor white people. The cross is what unites Christians. It is their source of hope and Resurrection. Jesus on the cross also represents those crucified every day by systemic racism, sexism, ideological arrogance, arrogant nationalism, and discrimination based on faith, ethnicity, and gender identity.
Black Jesus, as a central figure in Christian congregations, would call everyone to focus not just on the cross as a sign of redemption and Resurrection. It would also point to the harsh reality of our times that so many people suffer unjustly every day, ‘crucified’ by the many emotional, physical, spiritual, social, and economic wounds inflicted by systemic racism, the destructive power of white privilege, and every other ‘ism’ in society.
If the cross is the central symbol for Christians, they must allow it to draw them into the immensity of unjust human suffering in order to then participate with God to bring Resurrection to all. No one can bypass the cross to get to Resurrection as they would often like. If Christians are to follow the model of Jesus, they must encounter the cross and pass through it in solidarity with God’s poor and oppressed, to allow Christ to lead us together to Resurrection and new life for all.
Opinion by Father Larry Dowling
Featured and Top Image by Elissa Garcia Courtesy of Unsplash – Creative Commons License
First Inset Image by Gift Habeshaw Courtesy of Unsplash – Creative Commons License
Second Inset Image Courtesy of uptowner’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License