The white Jesus debate is more complicated than you think

“Every Christian culture has depicted Jesus, Mary, and the apostles as looking like them,” said Catholic New York Times columnist Elizabeth Bruenig, a former contributor to The Week, in response to King’s tweets. She’s right: At 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, the site of the white supremacist bombing in 1963 that killed four young girls, a window installed after the attack shows a crucified Christ rendered in deep brown glass. (16th Street also has windows with a white Jesus. Would King have them torn down?) In the Irish Book of Kells, Jesus is a redhead. Italian Renaissance artists used local people as models for their paintings of Christ. In Ethiopian iconography, Jesus looks Ethiopian. In Haiti, Haitian. In China, Chinese. This, too, is good and should inform our faith, reminding us that Christ is our brother and God seeks to rescue lost sheep in every context, including equally our own and those very different from our own.

White Christians, like the master calligraphers behind the Book of Kells, are not excluded from this privilege of contextualization. But here we come to the second distinction, which is between depictions of a white Jesus for such devotional purposes and depictions of a Jesus whitened to cloak racialized oppression with a lie of divine approval.