In December a lawsuit was filed against the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City claiming that the artwork of Jesus hanging on the museum’s walls is “racist propaganda” because the pieces depict Jesus as white.
Noting that the Met receives “millions in taxpayer funds,” Justin Joseph, the New York City resident who filed the federal lawsuit, argues that this makes it “government speech” and that the government should not support speech that is racist.
Annie Armstrong, writing for the Creators Project posits:
Joseph’s case raises the question of whether museums ought to edit their displays to evolve with the sentiments of contemporary audiences…[This] case urges us to rethink the context that plays into displaying singular cultural perspectives today. In a cultural moment growing ever more politically correct, inclusive, and intersectional, it’s a paramount moment for this kind of conversation.
Joseph’s suit comes at about the same time that “the most accurate image of Jesus Christ’s real face,” put together using forensic anthropology, was making the media rounds (though it first appeared in a BBC documentary from 2001 called Son of God). This Jesus didn’t look like the pop culture renditions of the Son of God we’re used to seeing, but a “dark-skinned man with short, coarse hair and a beard.” [See image right.]
Whatever the outcome of Joseph’s suit, and whatever comes from the renewed interest in this depiction of Jesus, they have opened up dialogue once again on the color of Jesus. Back in 2012, I participated in an RD discussion on this very topic based on Ed Blum and Paul Harvey’s The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, which traced interpretations of the color of Jesus throughout America’s history. What these historians discovered, according to Harvey, was that:
[T]he birth, growth and evolution of white Jesus imagery dating from the antebellum era and exploding in the twentieth century coincided with the birth of an American empire founded, in part, in notions of race.
The whiteness of Jesus was integral in the development of this nation and his “color” served as a function of white supremacy. In short, the color of Jesus mattered in the justification of what many did “in his name.”
What the whiteness of Jesus did and continues to do is support the ongoing white supremacist narrative. This is why Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, writing in 1898 (which is often seen as the beginning of American imperialism), declared that “God is a Negro.”
Demented though we be, whenever we reach the conclusion that God or even that Jesus Christ, while in the flesh, was a white man, we shall hang our gospel trumpet upon the willow and cease to preach.
Turner’s issue with a white deity was not only that it constructed holiness as white, but that it also made God (Jesus) beholden to White interest. Within this racist framework, it was easy to declare that the devil and all manner of evil are Black.
However, despite a lawsuit; forensic evidence from scientists; evidence from biblical scholars and theologians; despite Turner’s declaration at the very time people were constructing American Jesus; and despite the overall mountain of evidence that Jesus could not have been white—white Jesus remains the norm. From movies to television programs to the paintings in many museums, churches and homes across America, Jesus is depicted as white.
What I do find interesting is that when confronted with the overwhelming amount of evidence that concludes Jesus could not have been white, many invested in the whiteness of Jesus immediately default to the “it doesn’t matter what color Jesus was” defense. Part of the defensive rhetoric is to remind us that we do not know what color Jesus was because he never “sat for a portrait or sculpture.” Another is to deny Jesus’ appearance and to focus specifically on his ministry.
In response, I can’t help but ask, “If it doesn’t matter, why are so many still invested in Jesus being white?”
Maybe because the truth is that Jesus’ color does matter. Just ask the folks in Melbourne, Australia who took offense when a member of parliament displayed a nativity scene with a dark-skinned baby Jesus on her desk. Some resented the display because it “changed who Jesus was.”
Even though some may see Joseph’s lawsuit as frivolous or sensationalistic, it was likely instigated as a sort of activist project, designed to spark dialogue. Considering the conversations about white Jesus that are now taking place, one could say the suit is already a success outside of its outcome.
As Blum and Harvey remind us in their book, Jesus can be “white without words”—no explanation or defense needed, just a cultural understanding that he is white. Others who contend that Jesus was not and could not have been white find themselves pushing against a deeply embedded belief. However, in seeing all that’s been done in the name of “white Jesus,” they continue to argue for a more inclusive, historical interpretation of Jesus—even using the judicial system to be heard.