“It doesn’t matter if Jesus is white, black, brown, yellow, or blue! It doesn’t affect my faith.”
When Christians dismiss uncomfortable conversations about the history of “Christian” white supremacy it actually angers me. The same Christians get up in arms, hollering “blasphemy!” should anyone suggest something else that they perceive to be untrue about Jesus, but church institutions can export the categorically false image of a fair-skinned Jesus around the world and they will just shrug it off.
“Jesus was a feminist.”
“Jesus was a socialist.”
“Jesus had a wife.”
(Hearer froths at the mouth and convulses on the floor.)
“Jesus was actually a brown-skinned, Middle-Eastern man and the image of white Christ has been used as part of white supremacist propaganda.”
“Erm, why make such a big deal about something that is irrelevant?”
When non-Christians simply dismiss Christianity as the “white man’s religion”, I have to roll my eyes as well. I understand the damage done by the toxic combination of Christianity and white supremacy but exchanging one brand of shallow propaganda for another does the critical mind no favours. My visceral reaction to seeing images of a white Jesus ranges from a sharp scornful laugh to feeling physically sick, depending on the context, but I know that I need to put my emotions aside for just a second, so let me try and look at this objectively.
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(Quick note: I’m not citing any particular sources because this is more of a personal exploration than an academic thesis and I actually want to enjoy writing this! While I have done my reading around, I encourage you to do your own research and feel free to get in touch if you think I’ve gone wrong or missed something somewhere.)
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How Europe Ruined Christianity
Christianity began life as a small Jewish cult that quickly mushroomed out from the nexus of Jerusalem to areas now covered by modern-day Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. It reached Egypt, the north coast of Africa, Greece and Cyprus before spreading towards Ethiopia and further into Western Europe. Tales about this man called Jesus and the religion he started sailed on the lips of tradespeople and travellers within the Roman Empire and beyond. As a knee-jerk reaction to accusations of following a “white man’s religion”, some of us have been guilty of claiming that Christianity hit Black Africa before it reached Western Europe. This leads us to assert smugly that it was a “black man’s religion” before it was a “white man’s religion”, but from reading I’ve done more recently it would seem that Christianity spread out rather diplomatically, reaching as far afield as Britain around the same time in history as it was reaching into the African continent.
One thing is quite clear though, this was a grassroots cult that was seen as a dissenting voice against the wide domination of the Roman Empire, and the Christian faith was primarily the religion of slaves, soldiers and the poor. Within the realms of the Empire, Christians became scapegoats for societal woes and were often easy targets for various governors of different regions. In some places the persecution ramped up from simply taking advantage of a marginalised group, to complete intolerance of a faith system that directly challenged other more widely-held beliefs, especially the divinity of the empire’s rulers.
Over time it appears that persecution began to relent, until eventually in around 312 AD the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of the empire. If you’ve been a Christian for long enough, you’ll have heard this historical fact highlighted as the moment the One True Religion triumphed over the pagan debauchery of Rome, but to be honest this looks like more of a shrewd political move than a Road-To-Damascus-like experience*. While Roman nobles and the elite found it distasteful that the most powerful man in the empire would adopt a niche belief that worshipped an executed Jewish criminal, this would not be the first time that an emperor had converted to a religion for political gain. Constantine wanted a more unified empire to rule, and a religion that asserts its position as the sole arbiter of truth is a handy tool in that vision.
So until that moment, Christianity was this weird mutation of Judaism that worshipped a dead guy from Nazareth and potentially practised cannibalism – they really didn’t get the Holy Communion bread/body, wine/blood thing. Although it started with a bunch of misfit Jews, it spread quickly to other ethnic groups and societies of mostly modest means, and it didn’t appear to be any one group’s religion, “white” or otherwise. It was Constantine that tied Christianity to a socio-political agenda in order to strengthen the Roman Empire along with other reforms he implemented at the time. I guess here is where we get the first glimpse of this bastardised conquering Christianity, and I’m tempted to say that Europe was the first place to ruin the Christian faith…
. . . T O B E C O N T I N U E D . . .
* The Apostle Paul was originally a Jewish religious leader called Saul who was devoted to exterminating the early Christian faith. On his way to Damascus for some more Jesus-follower slaughter he was thrown from his horse after being blinded by a vision of Christ. In that moment he was converted and began his journey as one of Christianity’s most prolific teachers, evangelists and writers of Scripture.