COVID-19, horrid as it is, has gifted me with time. Hours that normally would have been used to go here and there, doing this and that, have been spent at home. Much of that at-home time has been filled with watching and learning. I’ve learned about viruses, flattening the curve, and handwashing/mask wearing requirements. I’ve also been exposed to George Floyd’s lynching shown live on TV and the resulting protests over his death. Cable TV and the internet have brought the world into my home. I have learned from CNN and MSNBC, The Washington Post and The New York Times, The Atlantic and The New Yorker. Yes, I’ve learned. More accurate, I’ve been poked at, kicked in the butt—I’ve been woke!
I believe in life-long learning. It’s a thrill to learn something new and satisfying to deepen my knowledge in areas where I already have some bit of expertise. It is embarrassing, though—dismaying, actually—to have my blind spots exposed. I recoil at the number of times I’ve had to say, “I’ve never thought of it that way before.” Digging out my white supremacy is excruciating.
At 76, I’m finally acknowledging that the U.S. history I was taught was tragically flawed. America-the-Beautiful was founded on bloody land, stolen from its owners who were systematically slaughtered. Our system, our rules, and ways of life were created by slave owners. I’ve “known” that – but, until now, I haven’t considered the on-going consequences of our nation’s beginnings.
I feel the most guilt about a third travesty. I was born into a Christian family. Church has been important to me my whole life. I have, by my inaction, furthered Christianity’s falsehood that Jesus was a white guy.
I don’t remember being told that Jesus was white. Instead, following the advice given to writers to “show, not tell,” my church elders showed me his whiteness. The stained-glass windows, illustrations in my bible, every piece of the Sunday School materials perpetuated the myth. When I close my eyes, I can picture white Jesus knocking at a door, seated with children, and walking with the disciples. More than any other image, I see Warner Sallman’s “The Head of Christ.” Drawn first as a charcoal sketch, Sallman’s famous depiction of Jesus of Nazareth was painted in 1940. His Christ, a gentle man, blue-eyed, with dark blond hair, became the best-known image of Jesus, reprinted close to a billion times. The painting is sometimes referred to as “a photograph of Jesus.”
I don’t apologize for my childhood naiveté. I do cringe at how long I allowed those lily-white imprints to stay in my mind. As an adult (as an adult!) I became interested in religious art and started to notice renderings of Jesus as Native American, Black, Japanese—so many differing nationalities and races. I would say to myself, how meaningful … they are imagining Christ in their own image. Yes, they were. And, that was good. What I didn’t say was, just as we white-skinned people have always done. I am particularly chagrined by this transgression.
No one knows, of course, what Jesus looked like. Tall? Short? Lean or stout? What we know with certainty is this: Jesus, a Jewish Palestinian, was not white.
In this set-apart pandemic time, I’ve spent time thinking things through. I’ve spent hours and hours on “Jesus wasn’t white.” How would I have been different if I acknowledged the reality of Jesus’ physical being? How would I have been different if, instead of the comfort of his familiarity, I had been given the helpful challenge of a leader so different from myself? How would my church, my community, all of Christianity been different?
The protests following George Floyd’s death are a roar of grief and lamentation. They are also a call to action, to change—to making things different. Mississippi has chosen to change its state flag. Confederate statues are being torn down throughout the South. There’s strong belief that the symbols of discrimination must, as a statement of repentance, be eliminated.
This determination to eradicate the symbols of white supremacy has also focused on white Jesus. The Washington Post, on June 25, 2020, ran an article titled How Jesus Became So White. The article focused first on the pervasive impact of Sallman’s “Head of Christ.” It then discussed the backlash of rage that’s occurring. It notes civil rights activist Shaun King who called for statues depicting Jesus as European to come down, calling those images a “form of white supremacy.”
The article also quoted Jemar Tisby, author of the 2019 book The Color of Compromise; the Truth About the American Church’s Complicity on Racism. “To say that Jesus is black — or, more broadly, to say that Jesus is not white — is to say that Jesus identifies with the oppressed and that the experience of marginalized people is not foreign to God, but that God is on the side of those who, in Matthew 25, Jesus refers to as ‘the least of these.’ “
For years, the United Methodist Church has known it needs to change. Doings things as they have always been done has not been successful. Figuring out what and how to change has been a challenge. Perhaps the answer lies within today’s protest and unrest.
White Jesus has to go. His truth needs to be told—and shown in our signs and symbols. I am eager to talk with like-minded others in my congregation about how we might (must) bring in images more truthful to Jesus’ human form. I’m particularly interested in talking about why that’s the thing we must do to honor our Savior, the dark-skinned Jesus?
Friends, how can we work together to stay woke?