(These are remarks given at a rally in Springfield, Ohio on 2/4/17)
There is no physical description of Jesus in the New Testament. Sometimes people point to Revelation 1, but if we take that seriously then Jesus literally has a two-edged sword as a tongue and furnace fires as eyes; I think more people would have written about his appearance if this was the case, don’t you. But they didn’t, and do you know why? Because in Jesus’ time, it did not really matter what you looked like, what mattered was what you said and what you did. That’s why the gospels report what they report: the sayings and deeds of Jesus.
In a way it is lamentable that we Christians did not follow the lead of our maternal faith, Judaism, or our sibling faith, Islam, and not try to capture the image of God in art. History might have been a bit less violent had we Christians been prevented from drawing Jesus. Maybe not. Now, as an avid collector of iconography I rejoice in the richness of religious art; I think we would be missing so much if we did not allow our spirits to express themselves through art. Think about it: every culture that has been touched by the story of Christ has fashioned a Jesus that looks like them. Dark skin, light skin; curly hair like wool or flaxen hair like wheat; wide nose, narrow nose; sallow cheeks, bearded cheeks; emaciated body, muscular body: Jesus has been depicted in just about every way imaginable. We humans have offered a response to the declaration of Genesis: we have created God in our own image.
Taken in isolation, this is not bad. We know from studies that seeing positive representations of someone who looks like you in television, books, films helps in the development of self-esteem and confidence. Seeing a representation of God that matches you, maybe not perfectly, but matches you in significant ways can have profound impact on your spirituality. But what if you are told that God doesn’t look like you? Specifically doesn’t look like you? And you have neighbors who say, God looks like US and therefore, we are better. Many of you do not have to imagine what it is like.
The European dominance within Christianity propelled a version of Jesus that is far removed from the historical person—a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern man most likely around 5’5”, who right now would likely be detained at an airport, was replaced in popular imagination by a fair-skinned, long-haired, blue-eyed, 6′ man. Now, in itself, the vision of a white Jesus is fine, as long as you recognize that it is not historically accurate, and if you accept that every other follower of Christ has the right to fashion an image of Jesus who looks like them.
But it is not okay when you take an imagined Jesus and through violence both physical and spiritual, try to convince the world that you are right. That Jesus does not look like the people you are oppressing in the name of God. Here’s what concerns me as a Christian pastor who is in intentional relationship with my Muslim siblings here in Springfield. We have Christians who claim to be biblical literalists, but they follow a White Jesus who allows them to be hostile to non-Whites. They celebrate Christmas, but somehow miss major elements of the story. In both Matthew and Luke, the hold family is acted upon by unjust governmental forces. In Matthew’s account, the family is in Bethlehem because Caesar is conducting a census; none of the family are Roman citizens, so this census is for the purposes of taxation and the glorification of the Emperor’s ego. Let me repeat that: It was a executive decree that caused great upset in the lives of average persons for reasons that benefitted only a few. Huh. I wonder what it is like to live in a place like that? An insecure, erratic, egotistical leader wreaking havoc in the lives of citizens and noncitizens alike for asinine reasons? Must be hell.
In Luke’s story, the family are fleeing the despotic Herod who kills all of the children under the age of 2 in his kingdom. As often is the case in ancient history, we don’t hear the stories of the families impacted. Of the mothers and fathers who screamed and begged as their children were being slaughtered because of the insecurities of one sad, old, pathetic man who wanted desperately to be liked. He is known as Herod the Great to history, but history is sarcastic. No one called Herod great but those made to by Herod. Herod’s whole life was about making Herod great again.
So regardless of the story you choose for your Christmas, whether you are Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, you are faced with a brown-skinned family on the run from governmental powers, forced to rely upon the goodness and protection of those who were willing to risk themselves to assist.
There should be no reason to even mention race when it comes to helping those in need. But, sadly, this is part of White Supremacy culture. Jesus has been made White, and White Jesus is used to justify indifference or outright hostility to non-Whites. While I agree that God does not have a race, Jesus most certainly did. And it ain’t mine. No matter how you look at it—historically, theologically, ethically—there is no way to support anything but a brown-skinned, refugee Jesus who when he grew up said, “How you treat the least of these among you is how you treat me.” I now speak specifically to the Christians in the crowd: it is up to us to lovingly engage our fellow Christians in conversation and to dispel some of the misinformation out there. It is our duty to learn, pray, educate, and follow-up. We have to be present and we have to be willing to be uncomfortable; this is literally a matter of life and death.
I come to you today as a proud Christian pastor, and a staunch ally and friend to the Muslim community here in Springfield. I don’t live here or vote here, so I appreciate y’all letting me talk, but we are neighbors. These county lines were not drawn by us; these artificial separations can’t keep us from loving one another, from taking care of one another, from understanding that loving your neighbor means knowing your neighbor. To you, Clark County, I say that I am proud to be your neighbor, I am proud to stand here with you in solidarity with our most vulnerable, and to say that Allah means God, so may Allah bless you and may Allah bless the United States of America.