What color is Jesus?

(NNPA) – From the first time Christian children settle into Sunday school classrooms, an image of Jesus Christ is etched into their minds. In North America he is most often depicted as both taller than his disciples, lean, with long, flowing, light brown hair, fair skin and light-colored eyes. Familiar though this image may be, it is inherently flawed. A person with these features and physical bearing would have looked very different from everyone else in the region where Jesus lived and ministered — Popular Mechanics magazine, December 2002.

“Now it doesn’t matter what color Jesus was. If Jesus were actually White, that’s fine. If he were. But he was not. Suppose Jesus looked like you [Black students]. You don’t want him now?” — Minister Louis Farrakhan at Alabama A&M, April 10, 2012.

What color was Jesus? Most American Christians, Black and White, would dismiss this question as both irrelevant and unanswerable as the Gospels fail to give us a physical description.

The irony is that most of these same Americans in their heart of hearts are pretty confident any way that they know what color Jesus was. They attend churches with images of a tall, longhaired, full bearded White man depicted in stained glass windows or painted on walls, and they return home to the same depictions framed in their living room or illustrating their family Bibles.

Further compounding the irony is the fact that America actually has an obsession with the (presumed) color of Christ and has exported her White Americanized Savior around the world, as recently documented by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey in their book, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (2012).

In fact, the world’s most popular and recognizable image of Christ is a distinctly 19th-20th century American creation. It is true that versions of the ‘White Christ’ appear in European art as early as the 4th century of the Christian era, but these images coexisted with other, nonWhite representations throughout European history.

The popularity of the cult of the Black Madonna and Black Christ throughout Europe is evidence of the fact that the European ‘White Christs’ never acquired the authority and authenticity that the White Christ now has globally. This Christ and his authority are American phenomena. As a predominantly Protestant nation, Early America rejected the imaging of Christ that characterized European Catholicism.

By the mid-19th century, however, in response to American expansion, splintering during the Civil War and subsequent reconstructing, ‘Whiteness’ took on a new significance and a newly empowered ‘White Jesus’ rose to prominence as the sanctifying symbol of a new national unity and power. As Blum and Harvey observe:

“By wrapping itself with the alleged form of Jesus, whiteness gave itself a holy face—with Jesus as White, Americans could feel that sacred whiteness stretched back in time thousands of years and forward in sacred space to heaven and the second coming. The White Jesus promised a white past, a white present, and a future of white glory.”

As America rose to superpower status in the 20th century, she became the world’s leading producer and global exporter of White Jesus imagery through film, art, American business, and Christian missions, and has thereby defined the world’s view of the Son of God. This globally recognizable Jesus is a totally American product. Indeed, he is an American. Warner Sallman’s iconic image of Jesus called ‘Head of Christ’ (1941) became the most widely reproduced piece of artwork in world history and its depiction the most recognizable face of Jesus in the world. By the 1990s it had been printed over 500 million times and achieved global iconic status. With smooth white skin, long, flowing blondish-brown hair, long beard and blue eyes, this Nordic Christ consciously disguised any hint of Jesus’ Semitic, oriental origin—and departed from the older European depictions. It both shaped and was shaped by emerging American ideas of whiteness. The beloved White Jesus of today’s world was ‘made in America.’

(To be continued next week…)