Why objections to a white Jesus are only skin deep

Views 108 | Time to read: 4 minutes | Uploaded: 3 - 8 - 2019 | By: Robert Gundry

Robert Gundry
Professor emeritus and Scholar-in-residence

The OpEd published in the Horizon on February 14 titled, “Westmont needs to face its White Jesus,” deals negatively with the portrayal of Jesus in the stained glass window that graces the Nancy Voskuyl Memorial Chapel on Westmont’s campus. But I fear that arguments in this OpEd trivialize legitimate concerns of the world’s oppressed and disadvantaged peoples. Take the following arguments, for example:

The OpEd reads, “To take away the darkness of Jesus’ skin [as is done in the portrayal] removes him from the context of oppression that he lived in.” But the oppression in which Jesus lived (that of the Roman Empire) had nothing to do with skin color. So the OpEd’s preoccupation with skin color, though relevant to current questions of White privilege, is irrelevant to the color of the historical Jesus’ skin.

Jesus “was neither European nor privileged,” observes the OpEd. But most slaves in his world, unprivileged as they were, came from Europe and had white skin. So by being non-European and (supposedly) non-white, was Jesus somehow privileged according to the OpEd’s standards?

“The historical person of Jesus was not White,” says the OpEd. A capitalized “White” carries connotations beyond skin color, but “White” includes whiteness of skin. Furthermore, Jesus was a Jew; and the vast majority of Jews have traditionally been classified as Caucasian, i.e., white. How then does the OpEd know that Jesus had dark skin? In fact, nobody knows for sure the color of his skin. He may well have been fair-skinned.

How fair does skin have to be to qualify as “White”? For that matter, how dark does skin have to be to qualify as of “color”? Why the OpEd’s lack of attention to different colors in colored skin: black, brown, yellow, red, and various shades in between? Are we supposed to conclude that all non-whites suffer oppression at the hands of whites?

The OpEd complains that the portrayal of Jesus as a “White” man “standing on North America” is “historically inaccurate.” This complaint betrays a disregard of artistic freedom. I have a coffee table book full of artistic images of Jesus and other biblical people as African, Asian, Polynesian, et al. For the sake of theological diversity and relevance, it’s sometimes good to dispense with strict historical accuracy. After all, the historical Jesus never set foot in Africa, Eurasia, South America, Australia, or Oceana any more than in North America. But what Christian would deny that Jesus commands authority over all parts of the earth, not just over the narrow strip of Middle Eastern land that he trod in the first century?

According to the OpEd, “The image of a White Jesus represents the colonization of the central figure of our faith.” Presumably, “colonization” means tarring Jesus with the history of White privilege at the cost of black slaves and Native Americans on the North American continent. But following this logic, to portray him historically as a Middle Eastern Jew could equally well be said to tar him, despite his advocacy of social justice, with the history of ancient Jews’ practice of slavery.

My first friends and playmates were exclusively black as black can be. My later friends and colleagues were often Hispanic. Knowing them as I have, I can’t take seriously—or as accurate—the OpEd’s implication that for them as people of color “salvation became about being or becoming White.”

Finally, to darken the skin of Jesus on our chapel’s stained glass window would spoil the symbolism of his identifying himself with Nancy Voskuyl, a white-skinned North American young woman. After all, the chapel memorializes her, not any of us, regardless of our skin colors. So the legitimate concerns of oppressed peoples throughout the world need better arguments than the OpEd has put forward, and need a Jesus who, in accordance with Scripture, is simply but gloriously human.


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