'Tis the Season: Christianity and Jesus in Black and White

What message does a white Jesus send to Christians who are not white?

Editor’s Note: There's a lot of uncertainty about religion in schools. Teaching Tolerance recommends that public schools teach about religions inclusively and neutrally—as the law allows—without crossing the line into celebration. In that light, deconstructing the intersection of race and culture, including religious iconography, is an important critical-thinking skill that can be taught in a culturally responsive manner. Watch for “In Good Faith” in the upcoming issue of Teaching Tolerance for more on the benefits of teaching comparative religion.

Back in 1994, I wrote a piece titled “Angels of Color: Divinely Inspired or Socially Constructed?” that was published in Diversity: A Journal of Multicultural Issues. In that essay, I questioned the general absence of brown angels in literature and in popular culture (for example, holiday ornaments and cards, Christmas-tree toppers and Angel Soft tissue advertisements). As a brown parent of two brown children, I was well aware that nutcrackers and Santas are almost always white. And, while I did find examples of brown angels here and there in my search, it struck me that non-white icons of Christianity are pretty hard to come by. 

It’s almost 2014, and while we may see more diversity twenty years later, I am still reminded at this time of year how, in this country, whiteness continues to prevail in the holiday images of Christianity, particularly images of Jesus. A recent assertion by Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly that both Santa and Jesus were white reinforces this white-dominant perception, as does the Jesus staring from the cover of LIFE magazine’s special recent release, Jesus: Who Do You Say That I Am? This Jesus is a thin, white, slightly bearded man with green eyes and straight, brown, shoulder-length hair. I purchased this publication for my studies on racial representations and notice that it also features biblical characters illustrated as white people: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Noah on his ark, Moses preparing to destroy his tablet, the kings David and Solomon, and Mary nursing baby Jesus. The special issue also includes illustrations of both Ethiopian and Asian nativity scenes, so colorization and alternative representations are indeed possible and desirable. 

I am not a Bible student or scholar, but I know the debate lingers about the racial/ethnic identity of the historical Jesus. I am familiar with the oft-quoted but vague reference to Jesus’ physical body in Revelation 1:13-16. I also know that every time I see production images for the Broadway rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus is cast as a white actor. And I’ll never forget the controversy at Selma High School some years ago when students and parents raised concern that the theater director cast a white student as Jesus in black author James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones at the mostly black school solely because the actor had long hair. Think James Patrick Caviezel as Jesus in the 2004 film The Passion of the Christ

What messages do these social constructions and representations send to non-white observers of the Christian faith? This question brings to mind a provocative 1940 short story by John Henrik Clarke called “The Boy Who Painted Christ Black” (and its 1996 TV movie adaptation in America’s Dream starring Wesley Snipes) about an African-American student artist who paints Jesus as a black man and submits it to a contest—and the conflict that inevitably ensues. In reference to this notion of a non-white Jesus, one commenter offered this response via YouTube: “Now this piece … challenges us to embrace our individual selves; and to make sure that we see ourselves reflected in everything that we do and everything that we believe in. Because only then can we truly be our best; and why not Christ painted black? Other artists of other races have painted pictures of their gods and whomsoever they worship to represent and reflect themselves, I see no reason why we should be immune to such a wonderful privilege.” 

Paying critical attention to these kinds of images and presentations is not about faith but rather about interpretation, creative possibility, internalized messages and blind acceptance of tradition. Even as I pen this piece, I am reminded that a white Jesus has always appeared on the handheld church fans at the black churches I attended in my youth and is imaged in the extravagant stained-glass murals at my small, black, hometown church in northeast Georgia and in the historic church in Phoenix, Ariz., I now attend. Whether these depictions speak to a lack of cultural imagination, a cultural brainwashing or something in between, the prevailing western imagery is clear. And, in the words of one of the Selma High School students who years ago protested the casting of a white Jesus, “If you make Jesus white, you’d have to think, even subconsciously, that God is white since he is the son of God, and that could cause self-hatred if you’re black.” Or, at least, a lack of personal validation and yet another clear cultural absence.

Lester is Foundation professor of English and director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.

Abolitionists William Still, Sojourner Truth, William Loyd Garrison, unidentified male and female slaves, and Black Union soldiers in front of American flag

Applications Are Now Live for LFJ Teaching Hard History Fall 2022 Cohorts

Teaching Hard History Professional Learning Cohorts provide educators the chance to deeply engage with Learning for Justice Teaching Hard History: American Slavery framework, collaborate with LFJ staff and 25 other cohort members across the country, and gain insights and feedback on implementation—all at no cost. Submit your application today!

Learn More