Then They Came for Jesus

In the Theater of the Absurd that passes today for Western culture, the issue of complexion is paramount. It now appears that “white” is bad, pale skin a sign of endemic bigotry, race hatred and colonial violence. Iconoclasm has become all the rage, quite literally. Statues and representations that connote the alabaster heresy have become anathema and must be torn down, toppled or replaced by more acceptable versions of cultural appropriateness and politically correct convictions. Cultural, political and religious emblems and symbols that betoken “whiteness” must be rinsed clean of their chromatic aberrations or cast into the wells of oblivion.

The chorus of righteous vituperation against the existence of a “white Jesus” is only the latest instance of such prejudice. No less an arbiter of religious taste than the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has just joined the campaign to scour and sublimate effigies of Jesus long in place in the interests of universal justice. The Daily Mail has a fairly good coverage of his comments that he would be reviewing statues at Canterbury Cathedral, urging the West “to reconsider its prevailing mindset that Jesus was white,” and determining whether all the monuments “should be there.” The statues “need[ ] to be put in context. Some will have to come down.”

According to a spokesperson for Canterbury Cathedral, “All of the Cathedral's items are being reviewed to ensure that any connected with slavery, colonialism or contentious figures from other historic periods are… presented in a way that avoids any sense of aggrandisement.” This would go some way to “acknowledging any associated oppression, exploitation, injustice and suffering connected with these objects.” Such monuments would thus be cleansed of their destructive impact and allow aggrieved and dissenting voices to be heard.

Interestingly, Nelson Mandela’s widow Graca Machel is all for keeping the statues in place, saying “And of course you have to see who are the architects of the past. But I believe even it might be much more positive to keep them because you are going to tell generations to come ‘this is how it started and this is how it should never be’.” With such allies, who needs adversaries.

My wife Janice Fiamengo, formerly a professor of English and Canadian Literature at the University of Ottawa, explains the disingenuousness of Machel’s tainted gift by referring to a story by the Canadian writer Margaret Laurence, titled The Merchant of Heaven. “Laurence wrote disapprovingly of a white missionary in Ghana who rejected a painting by a Ghanaian artist depicting Jesus as black. Following St. Paul in suggesting that the gospel should be spread using the heart language of the people to whom one is ministering, the author depicted the white missionary as racist for rejecting a black Jesus.”

Janice notes the superficiality of Laurence’s -- and by implication, Machel’s -- disclaimer. “If Jesus has indeed been inaccurately depicted as white, was it not an example of the gospel being spread in the heart language of the people?” The heart language is infinitely variable and the heart language of Europe and America expresses itself in the paintings, statues and monuments of its people and heritage. As Janice concludes, “The destruction of art in the name of contemporary anti-white racial animus is a sad precedent.”

I believe the entire controversy is utterly preposterous. We might as well skirmish over the color of Christ’s robe. Was it white, as it is often painted? Heaven forfend! It must have been brown, more in keeping with desert terrain -- and revisionary vehemence. But at the crucifixion, Matthew says it was scarlet and Mark says that Jesus was clothed in purple. The eschatology of garments may pose an insoluble problem for scholars of racial iconography.

Representation is always debatable and protean. Jehovah Witness calendars depict Jesus as light-skinned, blue-eyed and golden-haired. Ethiopian renderings show Jesus as black. The Daily Mail prints a reproduction of a 9th century painting of Jesus from China portraying him as Chinese. The “Word” as representation is conveyed in the heart language of many different places and cultures.

But there are certain facts which cannot honestly be discounted. Jesus was not born in Ethiopia or China but in the Middle East, which makes him in his earthly manifestation as a Galilean Semite a man of Caucasian descent. As for skin colour, this is another question. Born of those living for millennia in the Fertile Crescent, he may have been neither black nor white but cinnamon with a hint of sienna, or perhaps a mix of hazel, sepia and umber. Some may conceive of his native hue as a kind of terra-cotta varnished with a patina of bister. Some might even argue for something between tan and smokey topaz, or perhaps russet with a pinch of taupe. It’s hard to say. I would imagine Jesus as desert sand verging on ecru, though in his more celestial moments, most likely somewhat ashen with a striking tinge of the spectral.

In any event, the entire debate strikes me as uselessly iconolatric, but hey! since white is a combination of all the colours in the spectrum, why not go with that?

Photo credit: Public domain

David Solway’s latest book is Notes from a Derelict Culture, Black House Publishing, 2019, London. A CD of his original songs, Partial to Cain, appeared in 2019.

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