White Jesus (and Other Revisionist Histories)
A colleague of mine told me a funny story once about his early days as a young assistant pastor. He was working at a large, influential megachurch in suburban Indiana at the time.
Each year during the Advent season, the church would set up a giant manger scene out near the entryway to the property so that passers by would be reminded of what Christmas is all about. There in the manger, nestled in the hay, my friend noticed something far too common in the suburban midwest. The baby Jesus figurine was white, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed.
Later that evening, in jest (or rather, protest) my friend snuck out to the manger scene and swapped out the white baby Jesus with a black one.
The next day he was called in before the Elder Board and nearly lost his job.
I mean, after all, his actions were anathema, right? Everybody knows that Jesus was a caucasian, blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby boy who exited the womb wearing a GAP onesie and a tossel cap from Urban Outfitters!
Sadly, this is untrue, though accepted as the norm in the minds of many North Americans.
It’s unfortunate that people of faith often fail to pause and examine our assumptions.
What assumptions, you ask?
- that God is male
- that God is an elderly white guy with grey hair and a long beard looking down sternly on the earth from some celestial location
- that Jesus was a handsome, white carpenter who would have looked good in a Home Depot Ad demo-ing a Black and Decker table saw.
None of these assumptions are backed up by scripture.
In fact, scripture says the opposite.
- God is not a man. (Numbers 23:19)
- Yes, Jesus’ Father Joseph was a carpenter (Matthew 13:55) but that doesn’t mean that Jesus was.
- Jesus wasn’t handsome. In fact, scripture says that “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2)
- And finally, Jesus wasn’t white. He was a Middle Eastern Jew.
Here’s what that looks like.
Scrutiny And Open-Mindedness
So when we think of God or Jesus, why do all the wrong images surface in our minds?
It’s because we have been taught revisionist history by those who were taught revisionist history, by those who were taught revisionist history by those who were taught revisionist history (ad infinitum). It matters not whether the teaching was done by well-meaning people. If it’s not true, it’s not true.
If our current religious and political climates teach us anything, it’s that we need to do less swallowing and more studying. When we hear political or religious leaders telling us who and what God is, our response should be to go back to the scriptures and history to see if these things are so. We ought to be a people who examine everything that we hear.
The people of Berea were commended for this in the Bible.
“The people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth.” (Acts 17:11)
The scripture calls this way of listening and reasoning, “open-mindedness.”
That’s so different from the world we live in now, where scrutiny, questions, and doubts about the “truth” coming from the mouths of our teachers gets labeled as closed-minded resistance.
We all have our assumptions. That’s an unavoidable bi-product of being human. But are we willing to examine (and reexamine) those assumptions?
If we aren’t, it may be that we don’t have assumptions at all. On the contrary, our assumptions may have us.