It’s not the best of times to be a statue — or even an icon. Last week Shaun King, a well-known campaigner on racial issues, wrote that icons and statues which depict Jesus as white should be removed. ‘They should all come down,’ King said. These icons are ‘tools of oppression and racist propaganda…all murals and stained glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends should also come down’.
King received an enormous amount of abuse and even death threats — including from a group of retired police officers in Long Beach, California.
Shaun King is an influential figure. He was ranked by TIME magazine as one of the 25 most influential people on the internet — he has more than a million Twitter followers — and was a major player in the Bernie Sanders campaign. He’s also controversial, with critics questioning not only his opinions but also his ethics. I’ve interviewed and corresponded with him on several occasions, and have great respect for much of what he says and does. On this issue, however, sense and sensibility are vital. It would be tragic if a church was attacked or vandalized because of a hyperbolic statement.
The truth is that the dominant depiction of Jesus, Mary and the disciples is indeed profoundly misleading. Jesus was Jewish and Middle-Eastern, and his mother was a teenage Jewish girl. Red hair was not uncommon among Jews in the Galilee area of northern Israel; one theory has it that it comes from the Phoenicians. But the New Testament largely concerns olive-skinned, dark-haired people who would resemble modern Israelis and Palestinians rather than Danes or, more to the point, white evangelicals from the American South.
This matters, because until very recently images of the ‘white’ Jesus fostered the ahistorical and lazy assumption that the Christian story was European in origin. It led to pain and persecution, and eventually to a perverse theology, endorsed by Carl Jung and the Nazis, of an ‘Aryan Christ’. To deny that is grotesque.
The truth is also that for half a century, most Christian churches have worked hard to try to restore the original Jesus, to acknowledge past sins and to build new and vastly improved relationships with those who have been victims of the discrimination Shaun King and others rightly expose and oppose. As an Anglican cleric with a Jewish father I know this to be far more than tokenism. It’s heartfelt and effective, and it has led to a deeper and more authentic Christianity.
Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, struck a more moderate tone when he told the BBC that ‘the way the western church portrays Jesus needs to be thought about again. 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,” is a reminder of the universality of the God who became fully human.’
The whole process must be constructive rather than destructive. In that so much of the Western artistic canon was glued, at least until the Enlightenment, to the European vision of Jesus, to expunge it would be to smash and burn beyond number. Also, non-white cultures and peoples have for generations now produced their own images of Jesus. Some have done so for centuries. It’s only fringe conservative Christians who object to this.
The question is, would imperialists and slavers have proceeded in their grimy work if the God they worshipped looked more like the people they were subjugating and exploiting? Perhaps not, but then evil tends to find justification in all sorts of places. Christianity is blamed for a whole circus of darkness in these fashionably secular times, when in fact it’s usually the followers rather than the creed itself that’s to blame.
If I thought that a rock thrown through a stained glass window or a toppled Madonna would bring world peace and human dignity, I’d pick up a stone or a hammer tomorrow. But it won’t. The Gospel of love, justice, forgiveness would, if lived properly, lead to revolutionary change and might just push us in the right direction.