White Smoke: The White Jesus Smokescreen. What it is. What it does. Why it’s time to clear the air.

Image“…The house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Isaiah 6:4b-5 (NRSV)

Shortly after 7:00pm local time Wednesday (March 13), billows of white smoke emerging from the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel chimney announced to the world that the conclave of Roman Catholic Cardinals had elected a new pope. Jorge Mariano Bergoglio, who will be known as Pope Francis I, is the son of Italian emigrants and a native of Argentina in Latin America. Though ethnically Italian, this Argentine Jesuit priest is the first pope of non-European nationality to be elected in more than a millennium.[1] This milestone occurs amidst a global Roman Catholic Church body that is now comprised of predominately non-white believers from Latin America together with other parts of the Global South, such as Africa and Asia.[2]

The sight of the white smoke that announced a new white pope in white robes standing at the white balcony of the Vatican was a stark reminder that for the world’s largest Christian body – white might is still right. Though the body of Roman Catholic believers has grown darker and more diverse over the past two centuries, with record growth in Latin America, Africa and Asia, the head of the Church—the Vicar, or earthly representative, of Jesus Christ—remains ethnically European and visibly white.

Pope Francis’ homeland—Argentina – is 97% white, the product of systematic colonial-era ethnic discrimination, displacement, disenfranchisement and slaughter of Amerindians[3] and massive 19th and 20th century social and ethnic engineering through European immigration.[4] The vision of Argentina’s founding fathers was to create a country ruled by white European-ethnic elites.[5] What will be the vision of the Roman Catholic Church’s new white “papa” for the future leadership of the worldwide Church’s 1.1 billion members?

White smoke not only heralds the new white Vicar of Jesus Christ for the Roman Catholic Church, but a white smokescreen continues to shroud the identity and mission of Jesus Christ Himself. Cloaked in a robe of white flesh and perched on a pedestal of white power, the White Jesus, worshipped worldwide by most of the 2.1 billion followers of all Christian traditions, continues to rule an ever growing, darkening and diversifying Global Body of believers[6], displacing and distorting the Biblical Jesus and disenfranchising other depictions of the Christ.

Just this week, riding to work on a bus route used predominately by African Americans, Image
I encountered  a tract entitled “One Man Died for All,”  featuring White Jesus. There he was with his idealized European features – perfectly coiffed light brown hair (cut and blow-dried, not long and flowing!), perfectly clipped light brown beard, perfectly pale skin, perfectly narrow nose and lips, and sincere, penetrating light brown eyes framed by two perfectly-shaped light brown eyebrows. He beckoned me, pale hand outstretched, with a Mona-Lisa-like smile gently traced across his thin lips. He emerged from a ghost-like background of past white ancestors progressing in evolutionary fashion from ancient whites clothed in veils to more modern whites clothed in European garb. Surrounding him were throngs of smiling white followers, with a flourish of non-white ethnics from Asia, Africa and Latin America swirled in for color.  (Maybe that’s why he beckoned me – to add a little more color to his entourage!)

The tract asked three questions about White Jesus:

1)       Who is this man?

2)      How does his death help us?

3)      Why is it important that we remember him?

I will offer brief answers to these questions, drawing on the Bible, history and the reflections of several leading scholars and theologians of the 20th-21st centuries.

1)      Who is this man?  Let’s start with who he’s not. The man in the picture- White Jesus – is not the Jesus of the Bible. The four Gospels describe Jesus by what he said and did, not by what he looked like. In fact, there is no physical description of Jesus’ every day human appearance in the entire New Testament.

The Synoptic Gospels describe Jesus on a mountain in a transfigured state in which “his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white,”[7] paralleling Moses’ transfiguration in the Hebrew Bible.[8] The book of Revelation recounts a vision of a glorified Jesus whose “…head and …hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze…”[9]  These are not racial or ethnic descriptions of Jesus’ normal appearance. They are visionary descriptions of Jesus in an altered, glorified state. As with Moses, the brightness of Jesus’ countenance and clothes reflect Divine Light, not racial whiteness or European ethnicity.

Geographically, the Jesus of history lived between West Asia and Northeast Africa, amid brown and black peoples of various ethnicities and language groups. Predominant among these are the semitic languages and the semite peoples.  The term “semitic” is derived from the Biblical Hebrew word  transliterated shem, which means name, reputation, fame, glory.[10] A related semitic root word – samu— is “generally regarded as meaning ‘dusky.’”[11]

Linguistically, semitic designates “a branch or subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages that includes Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Amharic, and such ancient languages as Akkadian and Phoenician.”[12] Ethnically, the semite people include “Arabs, Akkadians, Canaanites, some Ethiopians, and Aramaean tribes including Hebrews.”[13]

Bible history, geography, linguistics and ethnography all point to a dusky-colored Afro-Asiatic Jesus. The transfiguration of this Biblical Jesus into White Jesus has its roots in European and United States history, politics, and global ambitions.

In Europe, White Jesus emerged in the late Middle Ages as European nations entered the era of imperialist expansion, venturing beyond their narrow white borders into the wider world and its darker peoples.[14] [15] In antiquity, Europeans lived as savages while Afro-Asiatic civilizations flourished.[16] In the Bible, Christian faith expanded east to west from its Afro-Asiatic birthplace into the un-Christianized European frontier.[17] For the first thousand years of the faith, Christianity was firmly rooted and centrally seated in the Afro-Asiatic world.[18] But by the Middle Ages, Europeans flipped the script, designating the peoples of Africa, Asia and the Americas savages and “civilizing” them via subjugation, slavery, sexual exploitation and slaughter justified by the White Jesus.[19] [20] [21] From the 15th through the 20th centuries, Europeans re-created Christianity in the image of the white Western world and suffocated Biblical Jesus beneath a white smokescreen of forged ancient documents, fabricated relics, fanciful artwork and fascist racial fantasies depicting White Jesus. [22]

In the United States, from iconoclastic white Puritans to homegrown white Mormons[23], White Jesus has and does embody and ennoble the sacred ideals and secular ambitions of the white worldview:

By wrapping itself with the alleged form of Jesus, whiteness gave itself a holy face … 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 white Jesus promised a white past, a white present, and a future of white glory.[24]

Even African Americans, who defied white rhetoric about the enslaving Jesus and forged faith in the liberating Jesus in the furnace of slavery and racist torment, nevertheless succumbed to the visual mystique of White Jesus, proudly displaying his Nordic image in their homes and churches as the object of their hopes and source of strength amid their struggles for freedom. For many African American Christians, the Master, alas, is still a white man.

White Jesus has proliferated across the global spectrum of Christianity today. His image reigns in United States sanctuaries, cities, towns and urban ghettos, in Latin American cathedrals and favelas, in African presidential palaces, houses of worship and rural villages, in Asian mega-churches , mega-slums and underground cell groups.

The problem with White Jesus is that he is a false messiah, a golden calf, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a powerful delusion. White Jesus is a false messiah [25] because he is not the Real Jesus depicted by the scriptures. White Jesus is an expression of white supremacy- protecting privilege for the white racial elite while exploiting and oppressing the non-white people of the world. White Jesus is a golden calf [26] – a false idol crafted from the treasured values of white European culture that obscures the genuine liberating mission of Christ on behalf of people in bondage. White Jesus is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. [27] Behind the benign smiling face and warm eyes of White Jesus is the devouring spirit of Western imperialism, confiscating lands, plundering peoples, destroying cultures and crushing the souls of colored folk around the world. White Jesus is a powerful delusion, [28] a modern expression of Docetism. Like the ancient docetic heresy, White Jesus denies the authentic enfleshed reality of Jesus- a dusky-colored Afro-Asiatic Jewish man—and replaces him with an illusion – a pale Nordic phantom who never lived, died or rose again except in the ethnocentric imagination of white supremacists and those beguiled by their lies.

Just as the white Vicar of Christ secures the institutional future of the Roman Catholic Church, White Jesus undergirds the future of institutional racism and global white supremacy.  But, inasmuch as White Jesus is human-made and not God-given, he will not reign forever. Now is the time to clear the air, lift the smokescreen, and fade the phantom. Now is the time to see Christ anew, expressed through His largely black and brown Body, emerging like Lazarus from the grave, looking for liberation from the restrictive white grave shrouds which have hidden His many-splendored identity. “Unbind him and let him go!”[29]

2)      How does his death help us? In the Hebrew scriptures, the prophet Isaiah declared “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord…”[30] The death of White Jesus helps all of us to see the Real Jesus more clearly!—the One the Bible tells us about – the One who experienced life from the bottom – born into poverty as part of a marginalized, disenfranchised people group struggling for survival under the oppressive weight of a cruel empire[31]; the One who experienced hunger, thirst, depression, loneliness, betrayal, torture  and the depths of human anguish without being destroyed by them[32]; the One known – not for how he looked, but for how he lived and died and lived again![33] – the One who came to “to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor!”[34]

In Latin America, the death of White Jesus inaugurated the coming of Jesus the Liberator, champion of the poor.[35] In Asia, the death of White Jesus made room for the indigenous incarnation of Minjung Jesus in South Korea, pursuing justice, relief and liberation for the marginalized common folk of society.[36]  In Africa, the death of White Jesus revealed the Ancient African Jesus of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Tewahedo Church, established at the Biblical dawn of the Church era through the witness of the Ethiopian court official of Acts 8 and never ruled by white colonial powers [37] and the Modern African Jesus[38] who overturned South African apartheid and unleashed inculturated worship and explosive church growth across the African continent. In Black America, the death of White Jesus marked the rise of Black Jesus[39], Divine co-sufferer[40] and social justice revolutionary.[41]

“One Man Died for All.” The death of White Jesus shows that the Real Jesus did not come to condemn the world to white supremacy, colonial oppression and corporate greed for the profit of a few white elites, but he came that the world – the WHOLE world – those “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages”[42] could be liberated and lifted from oppression.[43]

3)      Why should we remember him? If White Jesus is so bad, why should we remember him?  Why not just bury that old image and move on with our modern multicultural expressions of Jesus?  We should remember White Jesus as a warning to all of us of the ever-imminent danger of narrowing the mission of Christ to our own kind. We should remember White Jesus as a warning to not deny the enfleshed humanity of the Real Jesus – a dusky-colored Afro-Asiatic Jew who experienced life from the bottom. And we should remember that White Jesus pales in comparison to the full-blooded, Spirit-empowered, insuppressible eternal witness of the authentic Jesus Christ, who continues to make Himself known as champion of the poor, liberator of the oppressed, true light of the nations, God with us, Word made flesh. Amen!

[3] Herzog, Tamar. Defining Nations: Immigrants and Citizens in Early Modern Spain and Spanish America.” New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003.

[5] Spektorowski, Alberto. “Collective Identity and Democratic Construction: The Cases of Argentina and Uruguay,” in Constructing collective identities and shaping public spheres: Latin American paths. Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 1998.

[6] Philip Jenkins. The Next Christendom: the coming of global Christianity. New York: Oxford Univeristy Press, 2011.

[7] Matthew 17:2. See also  Mark 9:3, which omits the description of Jesus’ face and focuses on the whiteness of his clothes: “…dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them”;  and Luke 9:29, which states: “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”

[8] Exodus 34:29-30 “Moses came down from Mount Sinai…with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand… Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.”

[9] Revelation 1:14

[14] Shawn Kelly. Racializing Jesus: Race, ideology and the formation of modern biblical scholarship. New York: Routledge, 2002.

[16] Thomas C. Oden. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African seedbed of Western Christianity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007.

[18] Philip Jenkins. The Lost History of Christianity: the thousand-year golden age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia and how it died. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

[19] Bartolome de las Casas. A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.  USA: ReadaClassic.com, 2009.  This is one of several English translations of this classic treatise by Dominican friar Bartolome de las Casas (1474-1566), who emigrated from Spain to Hispaniola during Spanish expansion into the Americas. The hellishly horrifying scenarios he recounts in his Spanish American context were repeated by other European imperial powers expanding into the Americas and other parts of the world.

[20] http://www.africanholocaust.net/. This website is a voice of witness to the African Holocaust or maafa, another expression of European imperialist expansion in the name of White Jesus.

[21] http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Imperialism_in_Asia.html Accessed 3/15/2013. This Princeton University website documents European imperialism in Asia from the 15th Century.

[22] Colin Kidd. The Forging of Races: race and scripture in the Protestant Atlantic world 1600-2000. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

[24] Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey. The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the saga of race in America. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

[25] Matthew 24:23-24

[26] Exodus 32:1-7

[27]Matthew 7:15

[28] 2 Thessalonians 2:8-12

[29] John 11:44

[30] Isaiah 6:1

[31] Howard Thurman. Jesus and the Disinherited. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1976.

[32] John 16:33, Hebrews 4:15

[33] John 10:17-18, Revelation 1:17-18

[34] Luke 4:18-19

[35] Jon Sobrino. Jesus the Liberator: a historical-theological reading of Jesus of Nazareth. New York: Orbis Books, 1993.

[38] Ogbu Kalu. African Christianity: an African story. Africa World Press, 2007.

[39] James Cone. A Black Theology of Liberation.(Fourtieth Anniversary Ed.)  Markyknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010

[40] Jacquelyn Grant. White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus. Atlanta, GA: American Academy of Religion. 1989

[41] Obery Hendricks. The Politics of Jesus. New York: Three Leaves Press. 2006

[42] Revelation 7:9

[43] John 3:17


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