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White Jesus, American Idols, & An Opportunity for Spiritual Renewal
Matt Johnson

Matt Johnson

In addition to writing about faith, leadership, and the church, Matt is also the founder of Spiritually Homeless.

Shaun King has ruffled some faith-based feathers recently with his article calling out White Jesus as a racist expression that needs to be removed. You can read the entire article here (or google many other perspectives on his statements). I’ve seen enough of the blowback from this to understand that the connection King makes to White Jesus is creating quite a significant pushback in the Christian sphere, especially for conservatives and fundamental backgrounds. The pause to evaluate the concept of White Jesus led me to some ongoing evaluation of the cultures and theology of today’s church. Nearly every visual example of Jesus in modern American Christendom is white. I can’t help but wonder what that says about us as believers and about the spoken and unspoken theology of our churches.

As Christians, we are supposed to be becoming like Jesus, but instead, we’ve done a pretty good job of trying to make Jesus look like us.

This isn’t anything new. In fact, the racial origins of Jesus have long been hijacked for political and religious gain. Some have claimed Jesus was Aryan by groups that were specifically anti-Semitic. A common Nazi theology claimed that Jesus was Nordic. Some have argued that Jesus was actually from Northern India and therefore Indian descent. There’s been movements claiming Jesus to be black by ethnicity and nature. The common theme? Making Jesus look like us makes him more palatable and also promotes our own bastardized version of Christianity.

It’s with that in mind that White Jesus begins to come into focus. He’s largely a long-lasting consequence of European Christians depicted during the era of colonization. The basic thought was this –  if we preach to the natives we’re trying to colonize and overtake that Jesus was white and he’s God, then we must be closer to God than the people that look different than him. Makes sense, right? Over time, the commonly accepted European expression of Jesus became white. This same version of Jesus crossed the Atlantic with early settlers and was commonly preached to the indigenous people of the New World. It was preached to the enslaved black men and women. As time progressed it became less overtly abused and more culturally normalized, although no less incorrect or harmful.

Jesus was Jewish. Period. He was an olive or brown-skinned Middle-Eastern man.

There are too many people claiming to be followers of Jesus in our country that are unwilling to acknowledge that Jesus isn’t white. There’s an even greater population that understand that He was historically Jewish, but still hold to a practical theology that sees Him as a White American male. There’s a broken inconsistency to our Americanized fundamental theology – how is it that so many can hold so tightly to a 7-day creation narrative and old testament sexual ethics, but then be nonchalant on their understanding of the origin and race of our Savior? It’s often the same faith perspective that sees the King James Version as the singularly inspired word of God. Even if you don’t land in the fundamental camp, more progressive or liberal theological backgrounds still tend to embrace situational understandings of Jesus’ origin. If seeing Jesus as white makes Him more relatable, what’s the harm?

Here’s the harm. If we cannot even submit ourselves to the basics of the origins and race of Jesus, how can we possibly submit ourselves to His teachings, His Gospel, His commands, His life, or His death?

White Jesus is an idol of the American and Eurocentric Church.

It’s an intentionally skewed representation of the Son of God elevated to be worshipped that reduces His lordship while elevating our authority.

That’s the crux of it. Generationally, culturally, congregationally, and even individually, we have complicitly participated in a distorted religious system that falsely promotes the Savior we claim to worship as a white male. From the European stained glass to the modern kids’ bibles we give our toddlers, White Jesus is the only representation of Jesus most of us have ever seen. Indoctrination, even if unintentionally so, is exactly what’s happening. We have been raised to understand Jesus to be white and when we learn He’s not, it’s such a cognitive disconnect that we simply don’t compute the implications. We can’t fathom the idea that the man we claim to follow as our savior looked more like Osama Bin Laden than Ronald Regan. Let that sink in.

In a cultural moment of bringing down monuments and shrines that represent our broken past, maybe it’s time we as Christians take the time to take down a few idols of our own. Recognizing White Jesus as a religious tool used to promote colonialism and grasp authority is just the tip of the iceberg. Yes, in that sense, it’s absolutely racist. But in a greater sense, White Jesus isn’t just a racist religious prop, he represents the brokenness of American Christianity that is more interested in a God we can control than submitting to a God we can’t.

Could we muster the biblical fortitude to acknowledge Jesus is Jewish? Could we express the Christ-like compassion to understand the pain White Jesus causes our non-white brothers and sisters in Christ? Could we model Christian repentance and confession by turning to the non-believing culture around us and admitting the sinfulness of our past?

Imagine what it would look like for Christians to be biblically honest and humbly proactive enough to voluntarily remove White Jesus from our churches in both image and practice.

 The cultural calls to remove White Jesus aren’t the warning signs of religious persecution, they’re the beautifully presented opportunity for spiritual repentance and renewal. We can choose to double down on our broken theologies and man-made idols, or we can choose to step into this moment and show our world Jesus with clarity, humility, and grace.

Will it hurt to remove him from our churches?

Absolutely – both literally and figuratively, physically and spiritually, it will be a painful process of purging and repentance that tears down our self-centered idol and allows the genuine Jesus to return to his rightful place of leadership and authority. Perhaps now, more than ever, we white Christians need the humility to follow a dark-skinned Middle-Eastern man. He’s literally our only hope.

The question isn’t if it’s the right thing to do. The question is will we finally submit to a Savior that’s not of our own making?


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