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What Do We Do with “White Jesus”?

There is a growing chorus of voices calling for the eradication of depictions of “White Jesus.” They are seen as symbols of racism and white supremacy.

Meanwhile, Eric Metaxas tweeted this yesterday.

Wait. What? Does Metaxas really think that Jesus was a white European? Not really. To understand his explanation, you have to know some things about the assumptions behind Critical Theory and how Jews are typically classified as "White." There is a whole lot of mess behind the history of who counts as "White" and how the U.S. Census Bureau categorizes people.

The rather straightforward historical reality is that Jesus was a Jew.  But saying that Jews in the first century look the same as European or American Jews seems highly anachronistic to me.

What did Jesus of Nazareth actually look like? Given the fact that the palace guards had to rely on Judas to point out Jesus with a kiss suggests that Jesus’ physical appearance was probably fairly average (Mark 14:43-46). He likely looked similar to other Jewish men of his time.

A number of years ago, researchers used forensic science to recreate a digital depiction of Jesus. Here is the result of one of those efforts.

Obviously, this depiction is speculative. However, it’s a lot closer than this portrayal of Jesus, which was common in children’s Bibles when I was growing up (see below). Or stained glass windows like this one, showing Jesus with flowing blonde hair. 

When White Jesus is a Hindrance to the Gospel

The “White Jesus” question is an important one to consider because there is a strong perception by many in the Black community that White Jesus is a symbol of racist propaganda. You don't need to be an advocate of Critical Race Theory to make the observation that Jesus looked more like a modern day Egyptian than a New York Jew. "White Jesus" also has potential impact on evangelism, as it can be a very real hindrance from some when it comes to engaging with them in a discussion about the Gospel.

Jesus was a Jew for a reason – to fulfill the promise God made to bring the Messiah through the Jews. He promised Abraham that the people of the world would be blessed through Him (Gen. 12:1–3). A few hundred years later, God promised King David that the Messiah would come through His family (2 Samuel 7:16). This is the heart of the Gospel: "But when the set time had fully come,God sent his Son" (Gal. 4:4). From there, the Gospel goes out to the nations (Matt. 28:19–20; Acts 1:8).

The Problem with White Jesus

Artistically depicting Jesus as white is, at best, historically inaccurate. But I would say the same about depictions showing Jesus to be Black with dreadlocks or Asian. Some Christians would go so far as to say that all depictions of Jesus are a violation of the second commandment (Ex. 20:4-5).

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.

The focus here, in particular, is created images to depict God as prompts for worship.

Personally, I am very cautious about visual depictions of the Son because I think it can inadvertently misdirect us to divide His humanity from His deity, which is a heresy. What I can say with more certainty is that literal depictions of Jesus as European (or African or Asian) certainly represent bad history. They may also represent bad theology.

To be honest, I am conflicted about symbolic representations of Jesus in other nationalities for missionary purposes. Jesus is regularly portrayed around the world with various ethnicities to show that He is the Savior of all nations, including Jesus as a European. And I get the sentiment behind that. As long as we are clear that Jesus has an actual ethnicity in real life: He was a first century Jew. On the other hand, I do struggle with these artistic depictions because I think they can lead to distorted views of Jesus.

[Sidebar: I am not addressing here depictions of Jesus in Orthodox iconography. Icons are intended to be symbolic representations of key biblical figures that act as a window into spiritual realities. They are visual prompts for prayer that connect us to the invisible reality of heaven. They are not intended to be literal pictures of people, including Jesus. That’s a different conversation.]

A Case Study on "White Jesus"

"White Jesus" also has practical realities, where tough decisions will need to be made. For example, I went to a university where there was a large mural of Jesus painted on the side of the science building. The artist used a Jewish person as a model. He attempted to craft an image that represented both east and west. Even so, some students complained that Jesus was too light-skinned and, as such, was interpreted as a symbol of white supremacy. Read the story behind the mural here. And the update here.

After many years of complaints about his light skin tone, rather than sand-blasting the image off the building, the University decided to darken Jesus’ skin tone a bit. Here is that result.

It certainly would have been concerning if the artist had given no consideration to Jesus’ ethnicity. However, that was not the case. By his own admission, he made an intentional effort to base the image on an ethnically accurate model. But the cycle of complaints about the appearance of the skin tone were relentless. And painful to the artist. The adjustment offered a path to preserve the integrity of the painting. But this situation is a case study of how complex and contentious the “White Jesus” conversation can be. It opens the door for all sides to be offended on some level.

What should Christians do about “White Jesus”?

I think we need a two-pronged strategy to deal with “White Jesus”:

1) What do we do with White Jesuses that are already in place? and

2) What do we do with images of Jesus moving forward? 

There is a growing sentiment that Christians should either remove or replace all images of Jesus that look white. But that judgment is somewhat subjective. For example, Biola students still complain that Jesus looks “too white,” even though his skin has been darkened. The practical outworking of this position would likely involve removing or replacing images embedded in cathedrals all over Europe. On a practical level, dismantling 16th century stained glass could get tricky. And destructive –– physically and symbolically –– to aspects of Western culture. In some cases, owners may elect to remove those images altogether. Others may choose to leave them in place for artistic purposes. Either way, there are no easy answers here.

While we can’t control what people have done in the past, we can advocate for more historically and ethnically accurate depictions of our Savior as we move forward. And we can look for positive examples of Jesus that have been done well. In recent years, filmmakers have made intentional efforts to depict Jesus in His Jewish context in a more accurate way. 

Here are a few additional ideas for what Christians can do on a practical level to rethink "White Jesus."

  • Parents, if you are reading a children's book and come across a depiction of “White Jesus," initiate a discussion with your children about Jesus’ ethnicity. Talk about what first century Jews looked like and why it was important for Jesus to be a Jew as part of God’s fulfillment of His promise to Abraham.

  • If you are a book publisher, consider how you can make illustrations of Jesus that are ethnically accurate.

  • If you are a pastor over a church with a depiction of “White Jesus” as part of the decor, consider discussing the matter with your elder board about whether to modify the image, remove it, or leave it as it is. If your church is located in a multi-ethnic community, there is likely missionary value in removing “White Jesus” and replacing the image with a different piece of art altogether.

Here are also a few additional questions for members of every ethnicity to consider: 

  • Do I have a bias toward depicting Jesus in a way that reflects my personal ethnicity?

  • Do I find it emotionally troubling to picture Jesus in a historically accurate way?

  • Am I stuck in an offense with other Christians about depictions of Jesus?

  • Do I need to repent of on-going bitterness toward others because they don’t see things my way?

  • What potential commitments am I willing to make in order to depict Jesus with ethnic accuracy? 

Is every instance of “White Jesus” the direct result of intentional racist propaganda? I can’t answer that. Some of them likely are. But the statement involves a rather sweeping generalization that includes a judgment about a lot of people’s motivations, both past and present. The biblical standard of justice requires evidence from two or three witnesses in order to establish the truth of a matter. Without such evidence, I can't judge a situation. Only God can judge the thoughts and intentions of the human heart.

However, I do think it’s worth reflecting on the complicated situations we've created by violating the second commandment. We should also consider what each of us can do in our own sphere of influence to advocate for ethnically accurate depictions of Jesus, as well as consider the hindrances White Jesus has presented to the Gospel.

At the end of the day, however, our efforts ought to focus on the reality that the second person of the Trinity came in human flesh and conquered sin and death. Whatever we can do to refocus the discussion on the main thing, the better.

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