We Need to Talk About White Jesus
Image Source: Unilad, Emma Rosemurgey, https://www.unilad.co.uk/life/expert-says-this-is-what-jesus-would-have-actually-looked-like/
The American debate regarding White Jesus goes back at least to W.E.B. Du Bois,1 and surely further back to the founding of the Invisible Institution—the secret church of enslaved Black people.2 Yet, it has become increasingly pronounced now that protestors are forcing America to confront its racist past. Particular occurrences have heightened this debate, for example controversial activist Shaun King tweeting that “statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down,” and Rev. James Martin, SJ writing an article in America magazine arguing that we should “stop pretending” that Jesus was White. In this piece I want to focus on unpacking Martin’s article because, while I largely agree with his conclusions—namely that images of White Jesus are damaging and Jesus ought to be depicted in diverse ways—I also agree with some critiques of his article that point out that what he says, at least on its face, is “largely incoherent.” So, I will first summarize Martin’s article and point to the seeming contradiction, and then attempt to resolve that contradiction by drawing on the theology of James Cone, the founder of academic Black theology.3
Martin, the author of the widely acclaimed Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, has garnered praise in progressive circles for advocating for the Catholic Church to love and welcome LGBT4 Catholics—though he agrees that homosexual activity or marriage is “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to natural law”—and for this same reason has drawn criticism from conservative Catholics and conservative bishops. His recent article on White Jesus has drawn similar responses. Martin begins his article quite reasonably by stating that Jesus was not White (indeed, no one at that time was White in the modern sense of the word), and that it would be good practice to portray Jesus “more like he (probably) looked,” namely more like what people in Galilee look like today. Martin then goes on to briefly note the harm that White portrayals of Jesus have done. By associating Whiteness with divinity, White supremacy is bolstered—“used to promote the idea that white is best,” as Martin puts it. Where things take a paradoxical turn is Martin’s next claim that, “Images of Jesus need to be inculturated into every culture… That’s why I love seeing images of Jesus in every culture and in every hue.” This desire to see Jesus “in every culture and in every hue” is perhaps a beautiful sentiment, but it raises the rather obvious question, what about White Jesus? Is there not a White culture, is White not a hue? It is perhaps understandable, then, that a number of responses to Martin’s twitter thread that became this article stated something like:
Martin does not provide an answer to this question in his article, nor in any subsequent Twitter responses I have seen. So, here I will assume that this challenge to Martin was raised in good faith, and field a response drawing on the theology of James Cone.5 First, I suggest that we distinguish between the historical Jesus—Jesus as a first century Palestinian Jew—and Jesus as he is today, a distinction that Martin relies upon but does not make fully explicit. Nearly all Christians will agree that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew, as the incarnation is central to Christian doctrine. However, Cone takes this doctrine and argues that, based on Jesus’ incarnation in the past, we can identify Jesus’ incarnation in our present. More specifically, Cone argues that Jesus was “not a ‘universal’ man but a particular Jew who came to fulfill God’s will to liberate the oppressed,”6 and that from this point of departure we can understand Jesus’ “present involvement in our struggle.”7 More specifically, Jesus’ incarnation among the poor and oppressed in Palestine means that today “divinity [is] taking on humanity for the purpose of liberating human beings.”8 That is, if we wish to find Jesus today, we will find him struggling with the oppressed for their freedom.
So, what Cone shows us is that it is correct—indeed required if we wish to fully understand Christ’s work in the world—for us to simultaneously affirm both that Jesus was a Palestinian Jew and that Jesus is Black. Jesus, who came to liberate the poor and oppressed, is incarnated in the community of the poor and oppressed today. And, because in America Black people are among the poor and oppressed, and because White supremacy globally oppresses Black people, it is right to say that Jesus in the present is Black. However, Christ is not exclusively Black. Rather, Christ is in solidarity with and incarnated within the oppressed. So for example, in China Christ can be found among the persecuted Christian church there and in the Uighur population, against whom China is currently conducting a brutal, technologically advanced genocide. The problem with a White Christ is that as a group, White people possess the most power, wealth, and privilege in society and the world. And, Jesus did not become incarnate among the powerful Romans or even the elite Jewish leaders, but took up his place among the poor and oppressed in the land.
In making this argument, however, Cone does not suggest that White people lie outside of God’s salvation. God’s salvific plan has always flowed from a specific person or group out into the rest of the world. To oversimplify a long story, i.e. the Christian Bible, God chose and blessed Abraham in order to bring a blessing to all nations. Israel was called to be a “kingdom of priests” to continue this mission of interceding for and sanctifying the nations. From Israel came Jesus, who first went to the Jewish people, especially poor and oppressed Jews, and then sent his disciples to proclaim the good news to the “whole creation.” White people are welcomed into God’s salvation history, so long as they are willing to give up the unearned status and power that comes through the dominating system of White supremacy. Jesus welcomed all to join him in his kingdom but, in order to join, the rich and powerful needed to give up their riches and power. Indeed, this is what Mary prophetically states that her son’s birth portends, namely, “[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” In our world the privilege, power, and wealth of Whiteness is brought about through systems of anti-Black racism, the idolatry of Whiteness, and exploitative economic systems. Thus, this privilege, power, and wealth must be rejected by White people who wish to enter into the kingdom of God.
In summary, I agree with Fr. Martin, both that Jesus should be represented as he likely appeared in history, and that Jesus should be represented as present in all people groups and cultures, with the caveat that Jesus should always be depicted as in solidarity with and incarnated through the poor and oppressed in the land.9 That is why it is consistent to call simultaneously for historically accurate depictions of Jesus as well as Black, multi-ethnic, and female depictions of Jesus. The God of the Exodus, the God who made a home among Palestinian peasants, is today found among the oppressed struggling for liberation. Thus, if we wish to learn to recognize Christ in our midst we ought to depict Christ as incarnated in and among these freedom fighters and in solidarity join in their struggle, which in reality is our common struggle to be free and fully human.
(1) See chapter 4 of Dwight N. Hopkins’ Shoes that Fit Our Feet, for example.
(2) In visions of God reported by formerly enslaved people (see God Struck Me Dead: Voices of Ex-Slaves, ed. Clifton H. Johnson), God is often described as being or shining white, however, enslaved Black Christians also clearly saw Jesus as identifying with them rather than with their enslavers. This is clear in said conversion narratives, and accounts of enslaved Black Christianity, for example Albert J. Raboteau’s Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South, especially chapters 5 and 6.
(3) I say “academic” Black theology, because Black people in America have been doing theology essentially since they were forcibly brought to these shores. James Cone, however, was the first person to bring these Black sources into the American academy and challenge the invisibilization of Black lives and theology there.
(4) Martin, when I have seen him writing or speaking on this topic, consistently uses the acronym “LGBT” rather than “LGBTQ” or “LGBTQ+.” It is not clear to me why Martin makes this choice, but I’ve decided to preserve his usage of “LGBT” to more accurately represent his writing/speaking.
(5) I do not suggest that Martin had James Cone in mind when he wrote this article, only that I believe that the main points made by Martin can be harmoniously brought together using the theology of Cone.
(6) James Cone, God of the Oppressed (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1975), 109.
(7) Cone, God of the Oppressed, 110.
(8) Cone, God of the Oppressed, 115.
(9) This does not, I think, rule out depicting Jesus as King. However, it does rule out depicting Jesus as a certain kind of King. That is, when Jesus becomes King, he turns kingship on its head. He does not force others to suffer for him but instead suffers to save those in his kingdom. He does not rule with violence but wields the weapons of love. So, Christ certainly is King, but he has redefined—indeed inverted—what it means to be king and therefore cannot be said to be like the human kings with which we are familiar.