White Jesus, Bible Jesus: Pick One

The Jesus of the texts is not the Jesus of the American white church

Photo by Pedro Figueras from Pexels

We must be shaken as people who are settled in their ways like the lees of a wine bottle stored far too long in a dusty cellar.

I don’t respond to every bit of white nonsense I hear, for two main reasons: one, I already have a full life of people and activities and interests. White nonsense is everywhere, and I simply don’t have the strength or wisdom or patience to deal with it all the time. Two, I’m white — 6F, as I put it — and I participate in white nonsense and sometimes create it. I’m working diligently to do that less, and I own every step of my own journey here on this earth. But just as you would not entrust an alcoholic to handle the booze in a restaurant, you should not entrust white people to deconstruct whiteness fully. We’re too much in it to see everything objectively — and yet we can still, like that alcoholic and their booze, become aware that something is very wrong, and, with the grace of God, make changes.

So with that caveat…

I recently ran across statement online how “it doesn’t matter what color Jesus was.” (To be honest, a friend pulled me into the conversation. “Come get your cousins” is how it’s usually put.) Some white lady in a conversation entirely not about her decided to come into that conversation and make it about her. The conversation was about something entirely different, but this lady just knew that she had to say something important about race in America because as a white lady her opinion is needed everywhere and valuable to all who would listen.

First of all: No. White people are not the Universal Donors of Wisdom for all situations. We are not the Type-O blood of the family of humanity.

Second: Not only is her opinion neither wanted nor needed, it’s not even accurate. I mean, it’s an opinion, which we all can have, even though we most always fail to also understand that opinions are not guaranteed acceptance and certainly don’t come with the imprimatur of inerrancy.

What she asserted is nonsense. And whether I respond or not, it’s still nonsense.

Her assertions about Jesus of the New Testament texts (this will be useful to remember later) is just Whitened Christianity, all the way, a parody of New Testament Christianity, a parody that presumes and then insists that Jesus is just like White Americans: White in his nature; white in his character; white in his outlook and prejudices and favorites. White Jesus is triumphalism for white people — “Look! Our Savior and Lord of the Universe looks JUST LIKE US!”

It is nonsense, and the protest that what Jesus looks like not being important is the sign that white people know that it’s very important who He is and whom He represents, and that White Jesus or a Bible Jesus are two very distinct things.

White Jesus colonizes. White Jesus enslaves. White Jesus strip-mines. White Jesus destroys. White Jesus defends bankers. White Jesus fights wars. White Jesus worships the flag and power. White Jesus puts America athwart all of history as the divine new kingdom of God, here to establish righteousness and purity and eternal domination over all the world.

Take away “white” from White Jesus, and white people no longer have a Champion. They have a Judge of their actions, and that is just not going to fly.

Jesus, by any sense of the word “white,” is not white.

He is not white according to any racial category, because not only was he not Caucasian as we describe Caucasian, there wasn’t even the mix of Northern European nations that self-identified as “white” around the time of his presence on earth. There were random bands and tribes wandering the Britain and France and Germany and Scandinavia of the first century of the common era, some conquered by the Romans, some unconquered and unconquerable. There was no over-arching sense of “whiteness” in Imperial Rome or the extended Empire and beyond. Various nation-groups and tribes and people groups were all present in various proportions in various population centers. But there wasn’t a “white” race. There were just people groups, some more distinguishable than others, but none who were identified by a race in the way we use race today.

He is not white according to genotype. Jesus was a Palestinian Jew from a long line of Jews and non-Jews, both right-living and wrong-living. According to various hints of his appearance in the scriptures, he was not particularly handsome. In the later texts he is described with skin like bronze and hair like wool. Umm… that is not what we think of when we think of the “white” genotype.

He was not white according to privilege. Again the texts remind us that Jesus was born to a conquered people in a conquered nation, who were subject to the arbitrary brutality of the Roman rulers. He was born to parents under unbelievable circumstances, so incredible that his mother was rumored to be a common sex worker and his father a Roman soldier.

He did not have his own home to stay in at his birth. He was raised in a dusty backwards town with a derisive name and shameful connotations. He may have been educated to the standards of his community, but he was not given full exposure to all the literature of Greece and Rome that favored people had access to — and lacking such education, he was laughed at and ignored. Along with his people the Palestinian Jews, he had no voice in government. As he was too poor to own a wardrobe or a home, he depended upon the random kindness of those he met along the way who were equally in the distress of poverty and poor nutrition.

He had no weapons and no army, and was surrounded by despicable people — people labeled and then dismissed as only sex workers, embezzlers, drunkards, thieves, thugs. The undesirables, the unwashed, the unwanted, the unseen. He was rousted by the religious leaders, some of his own people, some of the colonizers of his land. When he became too troublesome, a conspiracy was set up to have him arrested on false charges by bribes given to those whom he considered his closest allies. At the courts he was beaten by the police of the time, mocked in his innocence, pulled into one show trial after another, stripped of both his clothes and his humanity, declared guilty in absence of proof, judged worthy of death, and then cruelly abused until he expired.

His acquaintances, his allies, and his family all fled from him in the end, save a few who remained, but even those who most strongly assured him of their loyalty turned traitor on him.

He was alone in his dying, and in his death he was abandoned.

When he was finally tortured to death, he was pulled off from the electric chair of his time and hurriedly taken aside and buried with the hope that he would be forgotten and his words and his movement erased from history.

Does not sound like “white” at all, does it?

Now, when you say that you “don’t care if he was white or Black,” you are saying something very confused. You yourself are very confused. If Jesus was “white,” then he was associated with power and privilege and rule and authority and acceptance. He was associated with dominion and colonization and cruelty and exploration and conquering, with kingdoms and empires and dynasties and the most terrible of governments that mix religion and state together to form the Iron Fist of God. When you think Jesus was “white,” you make him to be an impossible Savior, and you make him to be a Messiah of no scripture — he is not the suffering Servant and Son of Man. He is not acquainted with sorrow and full of grief. He is associated with all the people who rule because they are cruel and unjust and in defiance of the God of the Kingdom. In the world of whiteness, the first are the first, and there is no middle but only last. And we all know who the last are.

It is not a harmless thing to paint Jesus white like the cards who painted the roses red in Alice in Wonderland. It corrupts everything to do with the meaning of Jesus as Messiah and Servant. It changes everything about our faith, our repentance, our humility, our relationships, even our activity in the Kin-dom of God. When we think Jesus is white like us, we see Jesus as benefiting us, and then turning around to say that all that we do as white people is ordained and blessed and desired by the God of Heaven and Earth. The white Jesus conquers and rules and commands.

The Bible Jesus (the Jesus of the texts) serves and weeps, breaks and dies. And this Jesus lives again, after he has been dead and buried, given up as lost by all who once trusted him. The Jesus of the texts lives again, and lives eternally by the Power of God, and that same power that has been demonstrated to effect life in the deadest of dead beings can be in those who believe in him and follow him.

If Jesus is white as we are white — then we really don’t need him. We don’t need a white Jesus, because whiteness already affords its own privileges and prestiges, its own power and authority, its own ownership and dominion. White Jesus works only for white people.

But if…

… if Jesus is not “white,” but “Black,” in any sense of the word that contradicts and confounds “white” — well, then that Jesus is for all people. That Jesus knows exclusion and despair, knows hopelessness and destruction, knows separation and loneliness, knows abuse and most certainly knows death. That Jesus knows all that there is to being human here on this earth with no form of comeliness or beauty, no place to call one’s own, knows the terror of abandonment and false accusations and imprisonment on false charges, knows the horror of death sentence by the hand of a government that plans, approves, implements, and justifies its barbarity upon the people who “deserve it” for not being born as the right kind of people.

From what I see when white people make the valiant but uneducated decision to “prove” that race and color don’t matter — it is always from the perspective of whiteness that simply does not see any other person in their own life situation. They don’t see themselves as “white.” They don’t see their families as “white.” They don’t see their neighborhoods and communities and schools and jobs and churches as “white.” Just “normal,” with all the removal of friction that is in place for white people. Such people imagine that everyone else outside the “albasphere” has neither impediment nor impoverishment due to their status as the outsider. It’s just the same for everyone, without color, white people assert, and the only reason that people outside the albasphere have for their troubles is that they aren’t acting “white” enough. Not respectful to authority. Not going along with things. Not pulling their pants up or covering their arms. Not serious about education or family or religion. Just not white enough.

Such people make absurd statements how color doesn’t matter because to them it doesn’t matter. But not a one of them would for a single moment want to live in this world where “color doesn’t matter” as anyone but a white person. Be Black for a week, then come back and tell me how color doesn’t matter.

To them, it doesn’t matter if Jesus is white or not, because they think Jesus is on their side, automatically. Jesus is for domestic tranquility and white supremacy, for strong borders and strong armies.

If Jesus isn’t white — if Jesus is Black — then their whole world crumbles, because then it would mean that they are outside looking in, their Savior isn’t automatically “on their side” — and they just might not have that “easy A” in obedience and in establishing the Kin-dom of God.

They might have to subject themselves to the kind of person that they least want to obey: someone who is outcast, broken, torn, and killed by the likes of them, and someone who has been raised up by the power of God to rule all things, including them. It is a terrible thing to consider that the Lord that we call our Lord was someone whom we mocked and tortured and killed, because then we cannot claim we have earned a single atom of his grace and love: we might have to throw ourselves upon the unbelievable riches of the mercy of God, leaving everything that we have and own and are, in order to be plunged ourselves into death and resurrection with him.

But that is the Jesus of the texts, and the Jesus with whom we have to deal with. If we’re not prepared for that — well, then, let’s not pretend we understand Jesus and Blackness at all.

Note on the insistence of “Jesus of the texts.”

I know that not everyone who knows of Jesus believes that he existed, or that he existed in the way the stories have come down to us, and that is fine. Be skeptical or disbelieving — that is up to you. What I do want to insist upon, however, is that we have a fairly reliable set of texts that, through ordinary literary criticism and textual analysis (and other things just as history and lexicography and language and study and all the rest) tells a story that we all pretty much agree upon is what the texts say. You do not have to believe that Jesus performed a single miracle or that he was raised on the third day as being factual, but if you read the texts, you have to agree that the texts say this. Much the same as we can say that the Canterbury Tales tell the stories of people who are archetypes and eponyms, even though they might not exist, the stories gathered in the New Testament texts tell a story that can be analyzed and dissected and studied. We might not believe that Jesus spat and turned mud into medicine, for example, but we can agree that the texts say that he did.

So if we’re going to want to know the Jesus that is described in the texts, we’re going to have to read them as texts. Whether that leads to knowing the Jesus who some claim lived in history is another thing for you to work out on your own.

Second Note

All the errors of fact and interpretation are my own, and I accept correction gladly. If you’d like to learn more about what I’ve been talking about from better scholars than I, I recommend the people who have influenced my journey in the last eleven years: Ta-Nehisi Coates, who first intrigued me and then convinced me with his work in City Pages and his blog on The Atlantic; Dr. Drew. G. I. Hart of Messiah College, with his analysis of the Messiah not as royal conqueror but Suffering Servant; Dr. Ibram Kendi and his works on race in America; Dr. Lisa Sharon Harper and her works in faith, politics, and race; Dr. Dwight N. Hopkins, from whom I first began to learn about the meaning of Black theology as differentiated from white Protestant theology; Jemar Tisby, doctoral student, with his works on American history and race; and many, many more books and resources that I’ve acquired over the years of digging into this journey that we are all engaged in.

Writer; observer; sometimes doer. Senior editor Our Human Family. Fiat justitia ruat cælum. More at stephenmatlock.com Mostly off Medium now & writing elsewhere

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