Recently, I attended a forum called “Race Relations and the Role of the Church” hosted by Claflin University. During the Q&A a black man stood to ask a very probing question. “Why should we continue to allow ourselves to be led around and dominated by a religion that was forced upon our ancestors? We need to embrace our own African spiritual practices instead of following the white man’s God.”Silence.
The panelists did not even attempt to answer the man’s question, but simply referred him to a book he could read. I was very disappointed and disheartened.
Over and over in my conversations with African Americans, I have heard this objection: “Jesus was white. Therefore, Christianity is a white man’s religion.” It’s easy for us to simply dismiss this claim and avoid dealing with the substance behind it. But if we are going to effectively proclaim the gospel to all nations and live in Christian unity, we must eliminate man-made barriers to the message. One of these barriers is how we portray Jesus.
In Western society, Jesus has generally been pictured as a light-skinned, blue-eyed, slender-featured, long-flowing-haired man of European descent. Pick up almost any children’s Bible and you will find a white Jesus. He graces the wall of many a Christian home. Church windows are stained with his image.
But “White Jesus” is historically inaccurate. The Bible doesn’t say much about his physical appearance, but we know enough to know that a white, blue-eyed Jesus is completely off base. He was born to a Middle Eastern Jewish family. And that means he inherited certain physical qualities and genetic characteristics. He most likely had black hair, dark eyes, and brown skin.It is natural to think of Jesus with skin on, but the second commandment actually forbids us to make an image of God. “You shall not make for yourself a [graven] image… You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4–6). As Christians, we confess the deity of Jesus, so this command applies to Him as well as to the Father and to the Spirit. Making an image of Jesus is breaking God’s law, and since we don’t know exactly what He looked like, it always creates a false impression of God the Son. So we end up worshipping not the Jesus of the Bible but a “white Jesus” created in our own image. That’s idolatry.
Why has this false image of Jesus been so damaging to the Christian witness among African Americans? This is the hard part.
We need to recognize ways that Western Christianity has been influenced and shaped by this false image of God. When our ancestors broke the second commandment by imagining a white Jesus, they also broke the first, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Euro-centric views of the world were rooted in idolatry, and commissioned images of a white Jesus served as graven images to this false god. And like all false gods, destruction ensued. This idolizing of white culture fueled and legitimized the European conquest and exploitation of darker-skinned native peoples around the world.The sin of idolizing a culture has had devastating consequences for the church and still has repercussions today. I felt it during the race relations forum in the awkward silence of that moment.
But there is hope. God stands ready to forgive those who repent and believe the Gospel.
Jesus was not a white man, but he was a real man. He was descended from one specific ethnic group, the family of Abraham. And through this family we can trace the promised “offspring of the woman” (Genesis 3:15) to the miraculous conception of “the Word [who] became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). God the Son became flesh in order that He might free us from our captivity to all kinds of false gods, including the god of cultural pride, displayed in a white Jesus. And in his body on the cross, he broke down the dividing wall of hostility, bringing reconciliation with God and among believers of every tribe and tongue.
By God’s grace, we can face and confess these ugly realities with confidence in our Savior, without fear and without ongoing guilt. Let us consider how we might tear down the idols of our culture and proclaim the glory of the one true God, our hope of salvation.