Part of a new series called Decolonising Spirituality. This is a journey of exploration I’m embarking upon as a white cis woman, to decolonise my own spirituality and apply this to my life, looking to the teaching of prophets in the BIPOC and LGBTQI+ communities as primary texts. I invite my fellow white spiritual searchers and seekers to join me.
Though I prefer not to ‘belong’ to any specific religious tradition, Christianity is the soil in which my spirituality grew and I have a deep appreciation for much of its teaching and spiritual heritage. It is a part of my history and a source from which I still draw inspiration and wisdom. What follows emanates from that place of love.
In recent days, we’ve seen renewed calls for depictions of Jesus as a white European man to be dismantled.
This isn’t a new discussion – for many years, civil rights leaders and black churches have argued that representations of Jesus – that popular image of a light-skinned, blue-eyed Jesus with tidy hair and neat robes – have become a reflection not of the unique historical locus of the man himself, but of the ethnicity of the imperial countries who adopted this faith – that of white Europeans.
I sense that challenging this representation of Jesus as ethnically white is particularly difficult for many white Christians, even those who broadly express sympathy with the anti-racism project. Perhaps it feels as though it undermines their faith, or even the validity of God herself; like it’s a ‘step too far’ to take the anti-racist project into the churches.
But, dismantling the pedastalling of whiteness in our places of worship is essential, revolutionary work.
A potted history of Christianity’s relationship with colonialism
Christianity formed as a fringe Jewish sect in 1st Century Palestine, under the brutal yoke of the Roman Empire, I might add. In the centuries following Jesus’ death, Christianity began to develop its own unique character, and split off from Judaism.
Then, in 312 AD Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it, to an extent, the state religion. Successive Roman emperors generally followed suit. By becoming the main faith of the Roman Empire, it became part of the colonising toolkit. For the first but by no means last time, peoples were forced to kneel under the yoke not just of an imperial force, but the supremacy of the Christian faith.
Other key moments in history reinforced this relationship. Britain gradually adopted Christianity from the Romans from the 1st century onwards. Then, when Britain was establishing itself as a colonial power in the 11th century, the Pope in Rome encouraged Western European Christians to go into battle to claim the holy land of Jerusalem in the Middle East from the Muslims – leading to the bloody and inglorious wars called the Crusades. Later in the 19th and 20th century, imperial Britain took this faith with them when they colonised parts of Africa. In fact, alongside building roads and schools, the Christian faith was offered as part of the justification for colonising African peoples – to bring the gospel of salvation to peoples lost in the mire of animist and other ‘primitive’ faith systems.
Fast forward again to 1620, and the Pilgrims, fleeing religious persecution themselves from the Church of England, made their historic trip to the Americas. They took their faith with them and through mixed tactics of evangelism, coercion and brutal violence sought to Christianise the Native American peoples they encountered there.
What’s that got to do with white Jesus?
I tell you this long history because it helps to reinforce that rather than proposals to dismantle the white Jesus being ridiculous, or ‘taking things too far’, it’s actually the reverse. The co-opting of the image and teachings of a Middle Eastern ascetic leader, who taught the turning of the other cheek and the dining with sinners and tax collectors by a militaristic nation state, is actually a bizarre quirk of history.
The depiction of a white Jesus as part of the religious heritage of post-colonial powers communicates that Jesus and Christianity are married to the white supremacist patriarchy which claims Christianity as its own. It becomes what the late Rachel Held Evans called ‘one hell of an unholy trinity’ of patriarchy, white supremacy, & violent religious nationalism.
But this is a perverse association. Jesus identified with the oppressed, not the oppressor. He left the flock in search of the one lost sheep. He taught the rich that their way to heaven was through the eye of a needle.
If Jesus was alive today
This means that if Jesus lived today in the flesh, he would identify more with the disenfranchised than he would with the overwhelmingly white establishment. As he did in his biblical ministry, Jesus would spend his timing eating, chatting and walking with the poor; the incarcerated; people of colour; the disabled; with our LGBTQI+ family. This is what Black Liberation theologians mean when they describe Jesus as being black. If reading Jesus as white serves to reinforce the supremacy of white European colonialism, reading him as black demonstrates his close kinship with the cause of the oppressed.
“…the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America in a new light, and thereby empower people who claim to follow him to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice.”James H Cone, forefather of black liberation theology
Some of the most well-known words of Jesus are “greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for [their] friends.”
I believe that, if given the chance, Jesus would have intervened in the death of George Floyd in the most radical way. He would have gently pulled George from under that sinner’s knee, kissed him as a brother, and laid himself down instead. And he would do the same for every single soul murdered by racist police states in America, Britain and beyond.
That is what Jesus’ message looks like in today’s world. Radical; active; involved; messy. Self-sacrificial. Not militaristic, not hierarchical; not wealthy; not exclusively white. Decolonising the image is part of decolonising the messages of freedom found within the teachings of the man called Jesus.
What white Christians can do next
- Decolonise your imagination
Ask yourself – why does the notion of Jesus as black, or trans, or female trouble you? Explore these uncomfortable questions with other white people. Don’t shy away from them. Read the work of James H Cone and follow Ekemini Uwan (@sistatheology) who writes beautifully about decolonising discipleship. Read Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, a seminal novel which chronicles the arrival of colonialism in Nigeria in the late 19th century.
- Support black and minority voices’ calls to dispense with ‘white Jesus’
It is not for white voices or white Christians to lead this conversation – but we must listen, learn, unlearn and energetically and consistently advance it, most especially with our white friends and family. Don’t leave this labour up to black people.
- See it as an opportunity to rediscover Jesus
Reflecting on the way in which Jesus would identify so closely with black people, as those living under the yoke of oppression, breathed new life into my understanding of Jesus and the gospels. It’s another lens through which to view this source of spiritual guidance.