Jesus, Christians believe, is God-with-us. Thus, when someone insists Jesus was “white,” the theological implication is that God is white.
In fact, doesn’t God, in our cultural stereotype, look a lot like Santa? Old white man with a long white beard?
A great illustration of this point happened on Wednesday night when Megyn Kelly declared on her Fox News showthat both Santa Claus and Jesus were white.
Jesus and Santa are enormously powerful images for Americans and it is not surprising, as the U.S. is becoming ever more racially diverse, that there would be a visible contest over whether Jesusand Santa are white.
This is the frontline of our struggles over what it means to be an American and a person of faith today. Racial prejudice has actually increased since the election of Barack Obama, as an AP News Poll taken earlier this fall shows. This is due, I believe, to an increase in racially polarizing rhetoric since President Obama’s election, and it is both culturally and religiously harmful.
Kelly’s comments were elicited by a piece in Slate, “Santa Claus Should Not Be A White Man Any More,” by Alisha Harris. Harris writes movingly about the dominant culture white Santa and its effect on her as a kid.
But Alisha Harris’s childhood experience should be disregarded, according to Kelly, because it is contradictory to dominant cultural and religious norms. “Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change, you know?” she added. “I mean, Jesus was a white man too. He was a historical figure, that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa — I just want the kids watching to know that.”
Santa, of course, is a fictional character based on the 4th century Saint Nikolaos of Myra who lived in what is now Turkey.
Jesus, however, was an historical figure and he was not “white.”
Jesus was a Jew born in ancient Israel. In 2001, for a BBC series called the “Son of God,” the makers of the show “employed modern forensic techniques to create a model of Christ’s face based on the skull of a 1st century Jewish man.” Their Jesus looks nothing like the delicate featured, European-style Jesus of Renaissance painters. And he has dark skin.
But what is especially crucial in this analysis of the role of religion as an anchor for racism is the title of the BBC Series, that is, “Son of God.” When you say the “Son of God,” that is, Jesus, is white, you are implying, theologically speaking, that God iswhite. Racism doesn’t just happen; it is socially and religiously created and maintained, and the image of God as white is crucial to attempts to maintain racial prejudice and division.
That God is too small for this America and has been, actually, for a long time.
Theologian James Cone put it best, when he wrote, in his chapter “God is Black,” for the textbook in theology I edited, Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside, “I also believe that ‘God is mother,’ ‘rice,’ ‘red,’ and a host of other things that give life to those whom society condemns to death.”
James Cone reminds us, as does Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, Pope Francis, often does as well, “the universality of God is found in the particularity of the suffering poor.”
God-with-us is God with the poor, the marginalized, the suffering. Those folks come in all races and ages, but one thing they have in common is that our dominant culture despises and rejects them. But God does not.