Past Is Prologue

Why White Jesus Must Go

The image is not only inaccurate — it’s harmful

On June 22, 2020, Shaun King tweeted, “Yes, I think the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down. They are a form of white supremacy.”

Responding to the national call for the removal of confederate flags, statues, monuments, and memorials, Shaun King pressed things even further by demanding the removal of white Jesus.

The internet exploded as Christians throughout the United States proceeded to debate whether Jesus was a symbol of white supremacy. Arguments swirled around Jesus’ true ethnicity and the traditional white European depictions of him, ultimately leading to a call for these lily-white images to be eradicated.

Black Christians chimed in supporting that these images—from statues to paintings to stained glass windows—are not historical but are in fact tools of white supremacist intimidation and indoctrination. Such conversations raise several questions: What is the history of white Jesus? Why are white Christians so uncomfortable imagining Jesus outside of whiteness? And, in light of the progressive temperature of our moment in history, should art in the form of church architecture and paintings be changed?

Mosaic of Jesus Christ (13th century), found in the church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: hyanik/Getty Images

The history of white Jesus

Lacking a detailed description of Jesus’ physical appearance, many have used art to imagine the form of their savior. David Morgan, professor of religious studies and art history, in his book The Forge of Vision: A Visual History of Modern Christianity, stated, “Portraits of Jesus had become part of European visual piety” as early as the 13th and 14th centuries. During this time, portraits of Jesus tended to resemble the friends and family of the painters. Over time, artists merely reinterpreted paintings of earlier centuries, which led to paintings bearing typically similar characteristics. Morgan writes:

…a long face, large eyes, somber expression, shoulder-length hair parted in the center, short, slightly forked beard, and a broad uncovered forehead — have congealed into an abiding formula for representing the face of Jesus.

A Christ bearing these characteristics along with similar imaginings of his mother Mary and his apostles reached their height in the early 19th century.

Co-signing this visual history, Edward Blum, author of The Color of Christ, pressed this argument even further:

The white American Jesus first rose to power and prominence in the early 19th century. This was an era of the expansion of slavery and the often fraudulent and violent grabbing of Native American lands. It was also a moment of nation building and defining. Whiteness became a crucial symbol of national identity and citizenship.

While Morgan explained how these visual imaginings of Christ affected the personal and seemingly individual religious piety of white Europeans, Blum suggested these images also rested at the center of white Euro-American national and racial identity and subsequently sanctioned their various social and political crimes against humanity. Blum writes:

By wrapping itself with the alleged form of Jesus, whiteness gave itself a holy face. But he was a shape-shifting totem of white supremacy. The differing and evolving physical renderings of white Jesus figures not only bore witness to the flexibility of racial constructions but also helped create the perception that whiteness was sacred and everlasting. With Jesus as white, Americans could feel that sacred whiteness stretched back in time thousands of years and forward in sacred space to heaven and the second coming.

The famous ‘Head of Christ’

This imagining of Jesus as a white Euro-American with blond hair, blue eyes, and a soft, meek face reached its peak with the Warner Sallman painting entitled Head of Christ. Identified by some as the “best-known American artwork of the 20th century,” Sallman’s painting, completed in 1941, went on to be reprinted and mass-produced around the United States.

‘Head of Christ’ by Warner Sallman.

This image could be found in U.S. homes, schools, churches, and even films. In fact, Blum suggests the portrait was so iconic that a U.S. minister wanted “every Christian to carry a small print of Sallman’s Christ in their wallets.” This caused the “reproductions of this Head of Christ [to multiply] at an epic rate.” In fact, the Washington Post recently ran a quote from an interview with Anthea Butler, associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, in which she relayed how Sallman’s Jesus was so pervasive that it was “the Jesus you saw in all the Black Baptist churches.”

In other words, this image of Christ was not just accepted and championed by white America, but even Black Americans received and upheld the image. The image of this particular savior so permeated all U.S. culture that despite any critic’s suggestion of its historical inaccuracy, this portrait went on to become, in the words of Blum, “the literal face of Jesus to millions.”

Understanding this image’s social and political influence is critical because many argue that American art is merely a reprinted expression of European art. Blum believes this notion is a myth because it “ignores how the United States became one of the greatest producers of images of Jesus, universalist notions of freedom, and particular privileges of whiteness all at the same time.”

In other words, white America created and mass-produced a white Jesus that served not as a symbol of the biblical Christ but instead as a symbol of American freedoms, white privileges, and invariably the inhumanity and inherent subservience of non-whites. Quite frankly, their imagined and composed white Jesus was intentionally created to serve as a symbol of white supremacy.

In other words, white America created the son of God in their own image.

The truth inherent to this visualization of Jesus is that it did not depict a suffering servant, it did not express the demeanor of a religious radical, and it avoided any affiliation to Jesus’ experience with oppression. Instead, it expressed a meek, mild-mannered savior, passive and peaceful. It reflected the prevailing ideology of endurance in the face of inhumane treatment, all while holding the face of the very perpetrators of that violence. Butler says it like this: “[Jesus] looked like the people who were beating you up in the streets or setting dogs on you.”

A man is arrested near where a police officer was fatally shot during the Newark riots of 1967. Photograph: New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News/Getty Images

White Jesus is a white supremacist

The image of a white, Euro-American Jesus cannot be separated from its inherent historical connection to white supremacy and white Euro-American expressions of violence. This is why every time Indigenous and Black American survivors see the proliferation and mass production of white Jesus, they see the maintained power and permeance of racism and white supremacy.

With this in mind, it is critical for white readers to understand that the current demand for the removal of white Jesus is not an attempt at rejecting Christianity. Black people are not denouncing the Eastern religion rooted in the Holy Bible. Black people are not even requesting the removal of historical symbols of European Christian piety or reflections of religious expression. Black people are requesting the removal of a symbol not of Christianity or the biblical Christ, but of whiteness, white authority, and white supremacy. They are advocating for the removal of a divine visualization that sanctioned genocide and chattel slavery. They are seeking repentance and rebuke for the sanctioned violence and human rights crimes inflicted on Indigenous and Black bodies under the validating gaze of a blue-eyed Jesus.

This is a controversial and emotional ask for white Americans, because while white Jesus is a symbol of violence and domestic terrorism for Black Americans, for white Americans, it is a symbol of great religious reverence. Morgan writes:

They see their salvation, they see their comfort, they see the face that launched 2,000 years of faith. They see the man they have always known and loved, because they see the face of the soul that spoke the wisdom that they believe, the person who felt and experienced the moral genius that has guided their lives.

To eliminate white Jesus for white Americans is to eliminate not their violent, political, and social expressions but to eliminate their spiritual imaginings and thus their religious experience and expression.

But, if your spiritual imaging and religious experience and expression can only exist with imagery that negates my humanity and promotes my social and physical destruction, is it a visualization your Christianity would even permit you to hold onto? Would Jesus seek to protect a visual expression of Himself that invokes your individual experience of comfort and joy with Him, knowing that this same expression produced an experience of fear, terror, and trauma in another?

Defacing white Jesus

Consider the removal of white Jesus from the perspective of this moment in history. On September 15, 1963, just before 11 a.m. on a bright Sunday morning, Black worshippers in the midst of prayer, fellowship, and spiritual practice were brought to their knees in utter fear and shock. Seeking to find safety from falling debris underneath the pews, members of the 16th Street Baptist Church soon learned that a bomb had exploded under the steps of the church. Five little girls had no clue what was happening. They came to their home church in Birmingham, Alabama, in their prettiest dresses, laughing and talking with one another about the new school year, and excited that today was Youth Day. Their joy was immediately interrupted as the girls were in the basement nearest the explosion. Four girls were killed instantly: 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson, and 11-year-old Denise McNair. Addie’s sister Sarah survived, but was permanently blinded.

Photo: Алена Кожемякина/Adobe Stock

As the dust from the bomb settled and congregants and law enforcement proceeded to examine the damage, everyone noticed the impact done to a particular stained glass window. The senseless attack that claimed the lives of these young girls also produced great damage to the building. Entire windows were smashed out and piles of brick lay everywhere. Interestingly enough, the stained glass window with a rendering of a white Jesus remained intact. The only aspect of the art impacted by the bomb was the face of Jesus, which was completely removed. Some pieces of the debris had managed to deface the white Jesus in the window, while the remainder of the window maintained its hold.

Commenting on the peculiar image, James Baldwin declared:

The absence of the face is something of an achievement since we have been victimized so long by an alabaster Christ… If Christ has no face [then we must give] him a new face. Give him a new consciousness. And make the whole ideal, the whole hope, of Christian love a reality.

As we find ourselves, 57 years removed from this horrific moment of domestic terrorism, reflecting on the permanence of white Jesus and a call for his removal, I implore us to consider the remains of the 16th Street Baptist Church. Maybe God Himself was seeking to deface this unholy graven image decades ago. And maybe this time we should listen.

Claudia is an influencer of thought working to remove racial and religious bigotry through writing and public IG/Twitter: @iamclaudiaallen

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