“Jesus was a white man.”
Megyn Kelly of Fox “News” asserted this as “verifiable fact” in the midst of an asinine conversation about the ethnicity of Santa.
When I heard about it, I posted a mini-rant on Facebook:
Megyn Kelly (of Fox “News”) insists that “Jesus was a white man.” I’ll blog about this when I have more time because it is worth refuting in detail, but Megyn, the Bible is silent about Jesus’ ethnicity (except of course that he was Jewish) because IT DOES NOT MATTER. It’s kind of a wonderful thing we don’t know what Jesus looked like, because everyone can picture him as “like me.”
And Megyn, you’re apparently not the brightest light on the tree, but it should be obvious that the odds of Jesus being “white,” living in the Middle East 2000 years ago and all, are pretty slim. As a Christian, this offends me more than all the Happy Holidays faux “War on Christmas” stuff ever did or will. For a white person to claim Jesus as definitively another white person is idiotic, offensive, and racist.
But “news” shows like Megyn Kelly’s thrive on outrage and the publicity it generates. After a night’s reflection, I thought that rather than add to the shouting match I would try to restrain the snark and post a reasoned response. Let’s see how I did . . .
Look, it doesn’t matter what color skin Jesus had. But it does matter, a great deal in fact, that we don’t know.
One of the wonderful things about the Gospel accounts is that none of them ever give a physical description of Jesus. In fact, other than a prophesy in Isaiah about the Messiah being unattractive (which led to depictions of Jesus with kyphosis and other disabilities in the early church ), nowhere in the Bible is there any hint as to what Jesus looked like. Maybe more surprisingly, there is no existing description or drawing from Jesus’ time. (There used to be descriptions floating around attributed to Pontius Pilate or to a Roman soldier, but they have long been demonstrated to be forgeries produced centuries later.)
I don’t think it’s an accident that God has not been specific about Jesus’ appearance. No one culture or ethnicity can claim Jesus as “theirs” to the exclusion of others.
Like Megyn Kelly tried to do for the white people. Never mind that “white” is an artificially manufactured construct with no real biological meaning.
People who identify as “white” have long tried to claim Jesus as their own in order to justify their privilege. According to Edward Blum, one of the authors (along with Paul Harvey) of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, making Jesus white was one way black slaves were indoctrinated with inferiority. After the Civil War, keeping Jesus white was essential to the Klan’s message of White Supremacy.
It’s no surprise that Fox “News,” with its fear-mongering about undocumented immigrants, would be the source of the white Jesus assertion. Again according to Blum, Americans were fine with a Jesus of color until the late 1800’s when folks became concerned about too many immigrants “changing the face of America too much, changing it racially.” Sounds like some of today’s rhetoric about immigration, doesn’t it? So, “Religious writers and artists who were advocating for immigration restrictions began to depict Jesus with blond hair and blue eyes.”
There is power in claiming Jesus as one of “our” own – the power of racist superiority and xenophobia and oppression.
That type of power is the antithesis of a baby lying in a manger. Whatever color skin Jesus had, that baby was a poor Jew born to an unwed mother in an occupied country. Jesus came into the world in circumstances about as far away from power and privilege as you can get. For a privileged white person like Megyn Kelly to state unequivocally that Jesus is “one of us” is not just offensive, it’s bad theology. It’s also bad history and geography.
Remember, Jesus was a middle-eastern Jew born 2000 years ago. The odds of his not being a person of at least some color are pretty long. In 2002, Popular Mechanics published a reconstruction of what the typical 1st century Jew in Palestine would have looked like:
That’s not what most would call a white guy. He’s more like someone folks who are nervous about flying with “those people” would like to see taken aside at the airport for a strip search. But we don’t know for sure. So there’s nothing wrong with depictions of a “white” Jesus, or an African Jesus, or an Asian Jesus, as long none of them are put forward as the definitive Christ.
I’ll let a wise Presbyterian preacher from the 1880’s have the last word on the subject:
If He were particularised and localised—if, for example, He were made a man with a pale face—then the man of the ebony face would feel that there was a greater distance between Christ and him than between Christ and his white brother.’ Instead, because the Bible refused to describe Jesus in terms of racial features, his gospel could appeal to all. Only in this way could the Church be a place where the ‘Caucasian and Mongolian and African sit together at the Lord’s table, and we all think alike of Jesus, and we all feel that He is alike our brother’. Amen!
And as for Santa . . . he’s based on St. Nicholas who lived in Turkey, so please tell Megyn Kelly he probably wasn’t a white guy, either. Kids who can handle a magical Santa who appears in many places at the same time can handle a Santa who can take on the appearance of any and all children.