Some Thoughts on White Jesus

Friends Journal, a Quaker publication I follow on Facebook, published an article this weekend asking, “Are there white people in the Bible?” The article is, predictably for Friends Journal, left-leaning and fixated on the politics of the present. For instance, the author, Tim Gee, begins by citing “the Swiss anti-fascist theologian Karl Barth”: although Barth was vocally opposed to fascism, the appellation “anti-fascist” (which historically implies some level of organized, street-level opposition to fascist groups) would not have been applied to him had Antifa and other leftists not popularized “anti-fascism” as a political identity since 2016. Anyway, the question of whether white people appear in the Bible is a response to a Black Lives Matter protestor’s placard (pictured below) that reads, well, here’s the picture:

I’m not sure exactly what this protestor’s point is, except that white people are not as central to history and Christian faith as they imagine themselves to be. Which, fair enough. If you’ve read my post on race and literary value, you may have a clue as to how I’d answer the question, “Are there white people in the Bible?” My short answer is, “Nope! Moving on….”

But perhaps I can offer an expanded, more reflective answer to this question. I’m currently reading Manning Marable’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Malcolm X, which describes how Malcolm rejected Christianity in large part because it was so effectively wielded as a weapon by white people against people of color. The Nation of Islam, to which Malcolm belonged for the bulk of his public career, pretty much conflates white identity and Christian identity. And you don’t need to be an Islamic black nationalist to view Christianity’s apparent whiteness with suspicion. In a now-deleted tweet that caused a lot of controversy last year, activist Shuan King wrote, “Yes, I think the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down. They are a form of white supremacy. Always have been.” In response to King’s provocation, dozens of tweeters posted images of Orthodox icons from Egypt and the Middle East that portray Jesus with white skin; even leftwing journalists such as Elizabeth Bruenig joined in. Most of these tweets have been deleted.

Here’s what Tim Gee adds to this conversation:

Race isn’t only about color; it is a social system about power. In this respect, the Bible shows systems of inequality that are all too familiar. Although it’s true that the Roman army was much more ethnically diverse than White history often chooses to remember, it’s likely that at least some of the Roman occupiers would have been—what we now call—of European descent.

I think there is one person in the Jesus movement who we can be pretty sure was White by something close to our current definition of the term. His name was Cornelius, a Roman soldier of the “Italian regiment,” who to everyone’s surprise asked to join the movement: the second Gentile to do so. No one seemed to have worried when the first non-Jew joined (the Ethiopian eunuch working for the Kingdom of Kush). That is perhaps because that kingdom did not oppress the Hebrew people, and was a historic opponent of Roman imperialism. In contrast, the prospect of an oppressor joining leads to an almighty row, which in different forms continues through the Book of Acts, as Paul takes the movement through the Greco-Roman world. One might imagine the debate in today’s context if a lot of White police officers started joining Black Lives Matter groups.

The controversy in Acts is finally resolved when Peter and James agree that the Greco-Roman gentiles Paul is converting do have a place under certain conditions; afterall, the Spirit had been poured out on all people at Pentecost. But White readers would do well to read this passage with humility. Christianity’s beginnings are in what we’d now call a Black, Indigenous, and People of Color-led movement to which people of European descent were only a later addition. As some must have feared from the start, White Christianity has often acted much more like the Roman Empire than it has like the Kingdom of Heaven. In 2018, the U.S. attorney general even quoted Paul’s letter to the Romans to justify separating migrant children from their families.

Reading about Paul side by side with a book like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility or Layla Saad’s Me and White Supremacy is enlightening. In stark contrast to Peter, James, and John in Jerusalem, Paul is a citizen of the Roman Empire, a form of unearned power and privilege that saves his life several times; provides him better treatment in custody; and, on one occasion, even prompts an apology from the authorities. Reading his letters—to the Galatians for example—we may well interpret some of his less-sensitive comments as flowing from the fragility and injured pride of the privileged.

This all feels like a reach to me. There’s no doubt that modern-day conceptions of race are bound up with socio-political power dynamics. Whites are historically oppressors; blacks are historically oppressed. If the preceding sentence offends you…I’m sorry? It’s just kind of…factual. But that doesn’t mean that every oppressor/oppressed, privileged/unprivileged power dynamic in history (e.g., Romans/Judeans in the first century) is a white/black dynamic. That grossly oversimplifies history.

Asking whether there are white people in the Bible is sort of like asking whether there are Italians in the Bible. You might initially think, “Yes there are! The Romans were Italian.” And it’s true that Rome is located on what we call the Italian peninsula. But Italian identity is a relatively modern identity; it is rooted in social and political movements that occurred long after the time of Jesus. One could argue that “Italian identity” didn’t really exist before post-Napoleonic ideas about nationalism swept Europe in the early nineteenth century, culminating in the revolutions of 1848 and the formation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1871 (it’s complicated). White identity is older than Italian identity, but not much. Again, refer to my post on race and literary value, in which I wrote:

…around the middle of the fifteenth century, the difference between black and white persons—once viewed as a curiosity, a set of peculiar differences noted by explorers, ranging from cultural practices to skin color, but not anything that reflected a fundamental difference in human nature—became essentialized. In other words, Africans went from being people with dark skin to being something fundamentally different, something other, Black, over and against which Europeans became White. These are the origins of white supremacism. These ideas percolated in Western European society as a justification for the economic system of African enslavement.

In his article, Gee admits that “[o]bjectively, it’s true that there are no White people in the Bible.” So there it is. This does not mean that the Bible or Christian iconography have not been used to uphold white supremacy since the emergence of white identity in the Early Modern period. But the Bible, and Christian iconography, are much, much older than white supremacy, and our desire to see ourselves and our specific political struggles in the text of the past sometimes leads us commit infidelity against that text.

In closing, I recommend this excellent article by Anna Swartwood House about how Jesus became white over the centuries. When discussing the emergence of and power disparities between white identity and black identity, it can be tempting to speak in universals. But human experience is much older than the white/black dynamic, and will persist long after the white/black dynamic has faded away. I obviously view the desire to see whiteness in Jesus, the Bible, and the Christian Fathers as highly suspect, but so too do I view the desire to find a genuinely (to quote Gee) “Black, Indigenous, and People of Color-led movement” in the early church as suspect. Better to note that Christianity invariably sides with the powerless over the powerful, with the widow and the orphan and the dispossessed, than to strain too hard to conflate the present with the past.

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