Black or white Jesus: does it matter?

Among the many debates about the authenticity of Christian history has been the issue of Jesus’ skin colour with people opposed to the traditional depiction of the Messiah as a White man up in arms saying their Saviour should be shown as a man of colour.

Fuelling the fire have been Black consciousness organisations that have variously declared Jesus to be “the greatest Black man who ever lived”, a “Black revolutionary of international note” and other such accolades.

But the question is; what colour was Jesus and at the end of the day does it really matter what colour he was?

One of the more light-hearted arguments propagating a Black Jesus says that he could not get a fair legal trial, liked Gospel and called everyone brother.

If the last 2 000 years of popular Western artistic depictions of Jesus were to be taken as the sole authority on the issue, then without a doubt the Christian Messiah would be a handsome White man with piercing blue eyes and long black/brown hair.

According to Black power publication the New Nation newspaper, “Ethiopian Christianity, which pre-dates European Christianity, always depicts Christ as an African and it is generally agreed that people of the region where Jesus came from” looked nothing like Western movies on his life have presented him as.

In his 1933 masterpiece, ‘A Rationalistic Review’, John G. Jackson wrote: “There is as much evidence that the Christian Saviour was a black man, or at least a dark man, as there is of his being the son of the Virgin Mary, or that he once lived and moved upon the earth.

“And that evidence is the testimony of his disciples, who had nearly as good an opportunity of knowing what his complexion was as the evangelists who omit to say anything about it.”

Jackson goes on to point out that the pictures and portraits of Christ by the early Christians he is roundly depicted as being Black adding that it was time the world got used to the idea that Jesus might not be what we think he is and if he were to come right now, how many among us would be prepared to continue worshiping a Black Messiah?

In ‘An Inquiry into the Origin of Languages, Nations and Religions’, Sir Godfrey Huggins, the British Orientalist, wrote: “In all the Romish (Catholic) countries of Europe, France, Italy, Germany, etc., the God Christ, as well as his mother, are described in their old pictures to be black.

“The infant God in the arms of his black mother, his eyes and drapery white, is himself perfectly black.”

Sir Huggins said the Cathedral at Moulins, the Chapel of the Virgin at Loretto, the Church of the Annuniata, the Church of St Lazaro, the Church of St Stephen at Genoa, at St Francisco of Pisa, the Church at Brixen in Tyrol and many others across Europe all had paintings and sculptures of a Black Jesus and a Black Virgin Mary.

“There is scarcely an old church in Italy where some remains of the worship of the black virgin and black child are not to be met with. Very often the black figures have given way to white ones and in these cases the black ones, as being held sacred, were put into retired places in the churches, but were not destroyed, and are yet to be found there.”

Interestingly, the Priests who care for these Churches hide behind the flimsy excuse that these depictions have become black because of the candle smoke in their chapels.

Sir Huggins proposed that early Christians were probably of the view that Christ was a member of the Ethiopian race – and at that time Africa was Ethiopia.

John G. Jackson consequently surmises thus: “Some of my friends have suggested that should it be generally believed in these United States that either Jesus or Jehovah was of sable hue that the Christian church would soon go out of business.

“They reason that white citizens of the nation, on account of race prejudice, would have absolutely no use for a black God: and the coloured citizens would not have any confidence in an Ethiopian God who had so long neglected his own race of people.

“However, I do not think such a situation will come to pass, for the overwhelming majority of people do not believe what is plausible or what is true; they believe what is comforting or pleasing.”

But at the end of the day, does it matter what colour Jesus was? After all, it is his divinity that people should be more interested in.

Writing on a web site sometime back, Professor Vincent Wimbush of California’s Claremont Graduate University, who is an expert on ethnic interpretations of the Bible, said the matter of the historical colour of Jesus seemed to him a “flat, dead-end issue”.

“He’s of Mediterranean stock, and it’s quite clear what that means. We see people like that in the world today, and that should end the matter,” but conceded that the fact that the debate was raging on regardless was fascinating because of what it said about people’s other issues.

Rosa Clemente of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement once wrote: “I was raised in the Catholic Church. From the moment I was placed under this religious institution, I was put in a situation where my saviour would never look like me.

“For me Jesus Christ was a white man with blond hair and blue eyes. Much of my high-school years were spent going to church and confessing my teenage sins to a white man who would absolve me of those sins and tell me to pray to a white woman (Virgin Mary) who in turn would save my soul.”

Clemente said by the time she was 14, she believed that White men and women were there to save people and the only people of colour she looked up to were her father – who did not look like Jesus – and here mother – who was nothing like the Virgin Mary.

She questioned the psychological effect such an upbringing would have and an impressionable child.

Later on in life, such a mindset leaves the individual with the belief that it is only Whites who can save and Blacks are there to be saved from themselves. In such a context, the colour of Jesus does matter as a person should have representations of a Messiah who is culturally relevant to his/her own life.

People will always deify characters that are like them, or – as one commentator has noted – people follow Gods who are the ideal versions of what they would like to become.

For this reason, people will over the years create artistic images of Gods that are culturally specific to their own historical experience and their vision for the future.

Today, for various racialist-historical and contemporary reasons, it is therefore more socially acceptable to have a White Jesus and as one colleague said: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you love Blacks.”

June 2006
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