Out of a duty to build bridges with congregants (who vary in their spectrum of belief) as a Pastor, I typically refrain from politically motivated conversations (see why in the following article: When to Remain Silent). However, my only exception is when I believe the political conversation is directed toward a moral or religious issue that requires a response from the likes of someone in my profession, as I am devoted to Christ whom I serve and the people I minister to. Therefore, in response to a recent tweet from Shaun King who believes statues depicting a White Jesus should be torn down, I write the following:
The tearing down of White Jesus statues failed to take into account the variety of cultures depicting Christ in their own image whether it be Black, Asian, Hispanic, or White Jesus. Rarely do I see Middle Eastern Jesus with proper Jewish depiction. Nor do I see a Greek or Turkish Santa Claus, as the original Saint Nicholas is from modern day Turkey. So the issue here is not true advocacy of a historical Jesus, but rather a politically motivated agenda to disrupt a perceived issue that targets one category of people, which in itself is a discriminatory act.
Personally, a White Jesus statue never bothered me despite being Hispanic because I understand that people at times see Christ the way they see themselves—especially since globalization is a modern phenomenon. Up until recently, it was still considered a wild experience to see a foreigner that would vary in physical appearance from what was typical to that culture, and in certain parts of the world, this is still true. Until the advent of modern transportation and the internet, cultures were more homogenous and separated from each other. In order to learn about other cultures, you would have to depend on books and traveler’s stories. We need to be careful not to evaluate a 19th or 20th century culture with our 21st century eyes, let alone a 15th, 14th, or 1st century culture. To think of destroying any icon that represents Christ is just unthinkable to me and speaks more to a divisive, intolerant standard that pays little attention to cultural history.
Egypt Was the Logical Choice
For Jesus’ family, it made more logical sense to go to Egypt. Shaun King doesn’t seem to notice this. According to his tweet, he sees Egypt as the way they chose to blend in versus going to Denmark (a more white population). However, Egypt was a different country outside of Herod’s jurisdiction, yet still relatively close and accessible for Jesus’ family. Other nations, including Denmark, would have been well outside of what would have been perceived as possible for Jesus’ family when considering factors like distance, familiarity, and spoken language. The distance alone would be staggering and any travel north with a baby still left them well into Palestinian and Roman rule, which is why this is just poor and lazy interpretive history. Any parent would know that traveling long distances with a child is difficult, so why not pick Egypt? Nevertheless, who is the final authority on what ought to be torn down or kept standing? Do we target every icon of Christ that does not fit a first century Middle Eastern image? If so, what does that mean for all the other churches out there?
Speaking Truth to a Broken World
Setting aside my Hispanic ethnicity, as my Christian faith is primary, I just want to see Jesus be made known to the world. I believe most Christians feel similarly. Yes, there are bad apples who make it appear otherwise, but the heart of the Christian faith is to breaks down walls and builds bridges into people’s lives–regardless of language or country origin.
The early Christian authors had the wisdom to speak truth to power (see the beginning chapters of Acts), but they also knew how to transform a culture not by simple rebellion but by transformation of the soul. They most often demonstrated their beliefs through pacifism and by the way they took care of each other as well as the world they engaged in. This is why so many Christian men and women through history have defended human freedoms. (Consider reading the works of John Wesley and William Wilberforce.)
Every Christian should recognize that we live in a world marred by sin, and, as a result, this world is broken. It is through the Gospel and God’s Grace that we will and act to create transformation, but this happens best when the culture, through individual witness, is able to allow the Gospel to transform them. That is, cultural change is created by faithfully sharing the only truth capable of restoring a broken individual—the message of the cross and how through Christ we find not only forgiveness but redemption. This same message is daily transforming my life to become closer to the image I was always meant to bare. It convicts me of my own shortcomings and allows me to be a contributing member of society that cheers on unity, peace, justice, self-control, patience, kindness, joy, and tolerance, among other things.
Sure, there are exclusive beliefs that I hold that cause me to not accept everyone’s viewpoint, but every single system of belief could say the same. However, my beliefs give me the room to still tolerate others. This does not mean I always stay silent, but it does mean that I remain willing to listen and strive for unity and peace when possible.
Paul said these words addressing preaching that had been corrupted by bad motives:
“It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16 The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,” —Philippians 1:15-18, New International Version (NIV)
I feel the same way when I see a less than perfect picture of what Christ possibly looked like—including White Jesus. Christ is the God of every tribe, nation, and tongue. Each person represents a piece of God’s image. Never forget that when we as people come together, we better represent the image of God. And so, when we stand divided, we withhold from the world the beautiful diversity of God. Let’s not tear down the image of a man who represents love, hope, peace, justice, forgiveness, and redemption—even if it is a White version.