On December 11, 2013, TV host, Megyn Kelly of Fox News caused a stir in the ever-moving current of national discourse by claiming that it was a “verifiable fact” that Jesus was a White man. While making the case for “White Jesus” and “White Santa”, she opined, “Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change.”
A firestorm ensued with swaths of scholars and writers attempting to correct Kelly’s historical inaccuracy regarding Jesus. As a first century Palestinian Jew who lived just 2,000 miles from the equator in a largely agrarian society of farmers and day laborers, many scholars are in agreement that Jesus would have had a skin tone closer to that of Dr. King than Billy Graham. In fact, a significant number of Christian leaders have said quite emphatically that Jesus was a Black man. While that’s certainly a position that is regularly radicalized by detractors, the Black Madonnas from medieval Europe, the climate and geography of ancient Palestine, and biblical events like baby Jesus and his parents hiding out from Herod in North Africa lends itself to the “Black Jesus” view.
Despite this position, the Black Church just doesn’t seem to believe that Jesus could’ve been anything other than a White man. Too much of the Black Church and many of its leaders find themselves in agreement with Megyn Kelly and Fox News believing that Jesus looked like a modern day European.
Which is why Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s movie “Son of God” hardly raised a religious eyebrow. On the last day of Black History Month 2014, “Son of God” opened in theaters with Jesus played by Diogo Morgado, a White guy who is a former model and native of Portugal – a country that ironically played a leading role in the European Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. And with this movie, the legacy of spiritual slavery continues.
There are libraries full of books detailing how a Western/European version of Christianity has long been employed as an effective instrument in the enslavement and colonizing of people of African descent. The proponents of White superiority cobbled together an interpretation of Christianity that helped further a narrative that provided a divine sanctioning of the dehumanization of Black people. “White Jesus” was the obligatory face of White Power and under his gaze millions of Black and Brown people the world over have been raped, lynched, terrorized, and otherwise decimated in the name of God.
For hundreds of years, Black pastors, activists, and academics have been challenging “White Jesus” and trying to get Black people to recognize how deceptively dangerous this brand of mental slavery is. From A.M.E. Bishop Henry McNeal Turner’s assertion in 1898 that “God is a Negro” to Dr. Frances Cress Welsing’s work in The Isis Papers arguing that Jesus was a man with melanin in his skin to Pastor Albert Cleage’s defiant embrace of the “Black Messiah and Black Madonna” to Dr. Marimba Ani’s exhaustive work, Yurugu, which outlines the imperial and destructive aims of European Christianity to Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas’ Black Christ, to Cheryl Sanders, James Cone, Dwight Hopkins, Jeremiah Wright, Albert Raboteau, and the list goes on and on.
How is it that the Black Church can safely pretend as if it doesn’t know better concerning the danger of continuing to digest “White Jesus?” With all of the educated and schooled church leaders who now pastor, teach, and preach to countless thousands, why are pastors so easily chummy with “White Christ?” Given White theology and the White Church’s history related to the enslavement, discrimination, and oppression of African people the world over, why does the Black Church so uncritically embrace their interpretations of God, Jesus and the Bible. As The Last Poets said in 1971, “The White Man got a God complex” and unfortunately, it’s a complex that the Black Church helps to maintain.
With large support from African American denominations and Black Pastors, “Son of God” opened #2 in the box office and raked in more than $25 million dollars during its first weekend. Groups like Urban Ministries Incorporated, the Chicago-based Christian Education company which touts itself as the “largest independent, African American-owned Christian media company,” sent messages throughout their national network of Black Churches promoting the film. Dallas-based mega pastor, Bishop T.D. Jakes of the Potter’s House Church gave the film a ringing endorsement as well as even taking to Instagram to say, “You don’t want to miss this amazing dramatization of the Life of Christ.” Countless more Black pastors across the country mobilized their members and in partnership with Burnett sponsored exclusive screenings of the film. Black Christian adults and children were subjected to nearly 2 ½ hours of theatrical religious conditioning that reinforced their social and spiritual location as being marginal to the story and plan of God.
Many of these Black Christians will say that the color of Jesus’ skin doesn’t matter. It’s the story that is most important. However, interestingly enough they don’t say the same about Barack Obama – the first Black president. It is precisely because of his skin and the skin of his wife and children that Black folks were shouting, crying, and leaping for joy at his inauguration. They’ll say it’s not about the skin of Jesus, but it was about the skin of Lupita Nyong’o, the 12 Years A Slave actress who before winning her Oscar, said in a recent interview that when she was a child she recognized that girls like her weren’t represented in the entertainment industry so every day she woke up hoping her skin was a little bit lighter.
How does the skin of Obama and Lupita matter to Black Christians, but the skin of Jesus doesn’t?
Like an aggressive cancer, Western/European Christianity with its imperial DNA spreads throughout the body and soul of Black folks locking us in the cells of slavery and “White Jesus” is the warden of the jail. More religious abolitionists like Valerie Bridgeman, Eboni Marshall Turman, Jawanza Eric Clark, Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Jesse Mugambi, Kofi Asare Opoku and many others are needed to wage war against damning depictions and doctrine that justify the dehumanization of Black people in the name of God. More Black pastors need to join the growing chorus of those who without hesitation challenge and hold “White Jesus” accountable for his sins.
Given his legacy of terrorism known the world over, I’m not sure that “White Jesus” can be saved, but it is my ardent hope that the mind and souls of Black people can be freed from his grip.
Rev. Heber Brown, III serves as pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in Baltimore, MD and is Founding Editor of Orita’s Cross, an African-Centered Church School Curriculum.