White Jesus, the media and the state of racial flux
03 July 2020 | Opinion
Warner E. Sallman’s Head of Christ painting has no doubt fixed the image of Christ as white, with blond hair and blue eyes in the popular imagination. This has been reinforced by Hollywood depictions that show a good-looking saviour who is, of course, White. A good-looking Jesus is to be expected from the media as this makes for better optics and box office sales.
But this is not the reality based on scriptures. No matter how you read Isaiah 53:2b “… He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”, the conclusion one arrives at is that when the Lord walked the earth, he had no such comely appearance that Hollywood promotes.
Now let’s take a look at his colour. Was he really Nordic White with blue eyes and blond hair? The Washington Post reports that it was popular for people to depict Christ as a member of their ethnic group and that Sallman did exactly that. The only problem is that the painting gained so much traction that it crowded out other images of Christ, so much so that people who try to de-market African Christianity in favour of their own faith and worldview call it the White man’s religion which is a complete travesty as their reasoning does not go beyond the nineteenth century missionary enterprise in the African continent.
Christianity in Africa predates the missionary enterprise of the nineteenth century. Elizabeth Isichei’s ‘History of Christianity in Africa’ has documented the faith in Ethiopia, Nubia (around Sudan), Egypt and North Africa from 1500-1800 long before the West appropriated the religion and brought it into other areas of the continent and stamped their own character on the faith that they propagated. There were, of course, a lot of good that came with it but we must also mention the discrimination and other evils that were perpetrated under the guise of the Christian faith. These are some of the reasons why people have suspicion of Christianity and some cousin faith try to promote themselves as representing the authentic African experience more so with the question of race being in the front burner today.
This is precisely the reason why as a Christian you must educate yourself about what it is that you believe so that now that the West is abandoning the faith, forgetting all about the Protestant work ethic and the accompanying providence that thrust them into reckoning and God’s purposes in revival and spread of the faith, you don’t have to follow suit. The scripture is clear: do not perish for lack of knowledge.
Jesus was clearly from the Middle East and let’s not forget that the glories and achievements of ancient Egypt are documented to be of Black and African origin. According to Jefferson J. A. Gatrall in his ‘The Color of His Hair: Nineteenth-Century Literary Portraits of the Historical Jesus’, the four gospels were stubbornly silent on how the historical Jesus looked like. I can surmise a guess though that, at most, he was brown as opposed to Nordic White and blue-eyed.
But let everyone paint him in the colour of their ethnic group because the idea is for him to be everything to everyone for the advance of the gospel as the good book says. But to have a monopoly of who Jesus is not what God intended when he gave this unspeakable gift.
*Professor Eno Akpabio is head of the media section in the Department of Information and Communication Studies, University of Namibia. The views expressed in this article are strictly those of the author and not of the university he works for.