What race was Jesus of Nazareth, one of the most consequential figures in the history of the world? Nobody can say for certain, but based on recent comments by the head of the Church of England, it is time to revisit whether or not Jesus should be portrayed as a white man.
In an interview with the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby addressed the question of how the western church portrays Jesus’s race. When asked by the interviewer if the way Jesus is represented through imagery, and whether it is time to “reimagine” the physical presentation, the Archbishop was candid.
“Yes, of course it does,” Welby said, noting that in many locations of the Anglican church Jesus was already represented other than as a white man.
“You go into their churches and you don’t see a White Jesus – you see a Black Jesus, or Chinese Jesus, or a Middle Eastern Jesus – which is of course the most accurate. You see a Fijian Jesus – you see Jesus portrayed in as many ways as there are cultures, languages and understandings.”
The Archbishop’s comments come at a time when a debate about systemic racism grips both America and the United Kingdom, and issues of race and class are taking center stage. As protestors target monuments and statutes of historical figures that many deem to perpetuate racist or discriminatory ideas, such as statues of American Confederate leaders, the debate about race is beginning to involve religious figures as well.
The debate over Jesus’s race and ethnicity is nothing new – ever since the beginning of the spread of Christianity, the way in which faith’s leading figure is represented has been a matter of both historical and artistic interest. For many, the image of Jesus as a white-skinned individual with long hair, which resembles the white European population, belies the fact that he was a person of Middle Eastern descent, likely with a complexion that was not nearly as white and European as has been commonly represented throughout history. “Jesus of Nazareth likely had a darker complexion than we [in the West tend to] imagine, not unlike the olive skin common among Middle Easterners today,” wrote social psychologist and theologian Christena Cleveland in Christianity Today in 2016.
Many critics also claim that the Eurocentric representation of Jesus has been used to perpetuate white supremacy and reinforce racist stereotypes that deify whiteness while demonizing Black individuals. The white representation of Jesus is also deemed by many to be an offensive disregard of the possibility that Jesus himself had a Black complexion.
Over recent days, the debate over the race of Jesus has become even more fraught, with political activist Shaun King sparking outrage when he tweeted Monday, “the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down.”
“They are a form of white supremacy,” he said. “Tear them down.” And tear down all the “murals and stained-glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends,” too, King added.
To be fair, King made more nuanced comments elsewhere about the representation of Jesus, but his Tweets were what made headlines and exacerbated the debate into a political firestorm. They were used by some political figures to distract from the very real policy matters that demand debate.
Perhaps by entering the conversation about Jesus’s race, the Archbishop of Canterbury understands that the question should explore faith more than politics, and should demand nuance, not flame-throwing.
“I don’t think that throwing out everything we’ve got in the past is the way to do it but I do think saying: ‘That’s not the Jesus who exists, that’s not who we worship’, it is a reminder of the universality of the God who became fully human,” Welby shared in the BBC interview.
In reality, even the world’s smartest minds will never truly know whether Jesus was Black or white. But one thing is for certain. By opening up a conversation about how the representation of Jesus can be more inclusive to those seeking faith and fortitude, the Archbishop of Canterbury is expressing hope that the conversation about Jesus can shift more to a discussion about what can be built as opposed to a fight about what should be torn down.
That would be an idea worth having faith in, regardless of what Jesus looks like.