Confederate monuments are beginning to come down in the South as protests continue across the nation against racial injustice. Some monuments have been removed legally, while others have not, as was the case in Richmond, Virginia, last month when protesters tore down the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Confederate statues are not the only figures being taken down, however, as colleges and universities are removing names of prominent politicians and philanthropists who held white supremacist views. Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs will no longer bear the name of former President Woodrow Wilson, and Clemson University is changing the name of its honors college, which was named after former Vice President John C. Calhoun.
Amid all of these historic amendments as Southern states are grappling with their racist pasts, there are also calls for representations of Jesus Christ as “Europeanized” or as a White man to be taken down in churches. Shaun King, a writer and social justice activist, recently tweeted, “the statues of the White European they claim is Jesus” are “a form of White supremacy.”
I’m not surprised at all that a religious debate would also emerge from the racial tension currently expressed in the streets and in the media. There has always been black intellectual opposition to “White Jesus” imagery, and this has been used as a primary justification for many African Americans who reject Christianity because they see it as the religion of their oppressors.
Growing up in a Southern Black Baptist church, I never saw any depictions of a “Black Jesus” in our sanctuary. As a child, I really didn’t care what color Jesus was. And as an adult who is still maturing in my faith, I have learned that race is a master ruse of division that blinds people to the truth of who Christ is.
The demands that have resulted in the toppling of Confederate statues can be validated due to the Confederacy fighting, literally to the death, to maintain the depraved institution of slavery. Regarding King’s assertion that European portrayals of Christ uphold white supremacist tenets, I think many have this perspective due to how biblical teachings were abhorrently misconstrued to justify owning human beings as chattel. However, it is widely known today that other cultures have art depicting Jesus like their native people. We know from scriptural accounts of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, and where He ministered and traveled in Judea, Samaria and Galilee, that in the natural, physical form of a man, He was not white. Yet, even with the current demands from activists like King, I don’t believe that many white congregations are going to take down their images of Jesus on their stained-glass windows or in any other part of their edifices. And they should not have to.
A mere image of Jesus drawn by an artist, regardless of race, could never fully encapsulate His identity as the Son of God. In America, we have allowed the evil spirit of racial animus to impede the simple message of why Christ came: to deliver us from sin and to reconcile us to God. I believe that black slaves who accepted Jesus as their personal Savior in the midst of their oppression in this country truly understood that His ethnicity did not matter. They looked to Christ as their deliverer from bondage and trusted that He would break the shackles of Southern tyranny.
Harriet Tubman was a great witness to the battle-tested faith of slaves. She fervently prayed to God while leading slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad between 1850 and 1860. She believed who the Bible claimed Jesus to be and did not rely on artistic illustrations.
As more monuments are removed throughout the South, the white depictions of Christ in churches really can’t be compared with fatally flawed men like Wilson and Calhoun. Yes, throughout history, White images of Christ were spitefully used for racial subjugation, but there was no racial agenda in the ministry of Jesus. In John 6:37, Jesus said that He would not “cast out” anyone who comes to Him, so quarreling about His race is futile.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. @JjSmojc