“Mom, I thought Jesus had white skin?”
Earlier this month our family visited Sewanee as part of our annual pilgrimage to higher elevation in the summer months. As soon as we stepped foot on the Holy Mountain, friends began asking if we had visited the Chapel of the Apostles to see the new crucifix created by artist Laura James. As the final stop on our whirlwind tour of Sewanee, we finally walked to the chapel to see it.
My husband, son, and I were drawn straight to the crufifix, bypassing the font, the altar, and green mountain views from the surrounding windows. As the three of us gathered round the painted crucifix, our ten-year-old daughter crept up behind us. When the boys left and it was just the two of us, she whispered her question, “Mom, I thought Jesus had white skin?”
My heart dropped and my eyes grew big. Did she really say what I think she said?
Throughout her decade of life, I’ve been so intentional about how I describe and present God. I use female pronouns when talking about the Holy Spirit and no pronouns at all when talking about God the “Father.” When they were younger, I only read from children’s Bibles that depicted Jesus and his disciples as persons of color. When we did come across more European portrayals of Jesus, I paused the movie/story/museum tour to talk about it.
I was shocked that after years of such conversations, she still believed Jesus looked like her.
Her question reminded once again of the stronghold white privilege and white supremacy has on our lives.
We did what we always do, we talked through why she thought Jesus had white skin. In the span of five short minutes, we looked at Jesus while I reminded her that Jesus lived in a part of the world where most people have brown skin. I explained that white Christians in the pews felt better about their unjust behaviors when Jesus looked down upon the cross with a skin tone similar to their own. It’s far more difficult to justify enslaving Black and brown people if you understand that Jesus likely was a person of color himself. And so, white people created Jesus in their own image and it became the status quo.
Admittedly, we don’t read from story Bibles anymore. My daughter doesn’t see illustrations of Jesus when our family participates in the Good Book Club or when she hears lectionary texts read on Sunday mornings. All she can do is envision Jesus in her mind as she listens. Until her question in the Chapel of the Apostles, I assumed she was picturing Jesus with brown skin because of the foundations we laid in her early years. I realize now that she’s instead calling upon Jesus as seen in the stained glass windows of her churches and more likely, simply assuming he looks like her.
As we walked out of the chapel I noticed a line of icons below the balcony, all depicting Jesus as a white man. We paused to look at them and I channelled the Godly Play teachers of her younger years.
I wonder what Black ten-year-olds think when the only Jesus they see in church looks like this?
I wonder if it’s hard for Black children to see Jesus as their savior if he’s always depicted with white skin?
I wonder how the descendants of enslaved people respond to being called to follow and worship a white master?
I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with artists depicting Jesus as their own race. But, I do think there is a serious problem when these are the only images of Jesus presented to us, therefore requiring us to see them as the norm.
My daughter’s question stirred me out of complacency. We’ve had honest conversations about racial justice, white privilege, and white supremacy ever since the fatal events in our neighboring town of Charlottesville five years ago. I’ve kept a steady flow of books written by authors of color in her hands, curated family movie nights based on the racial makeup of the cast, and taken her to Black Lives Matter marches. I’m not even sure our children notice such passive parenting actions because it’s just what they are used to in our household. What I am sure of is that I’ve become that terrible trope of the progressive white woman who thinks she’s done everything right.
We are a white family in a country that prioritizes white lives, and we are white Christians in a Church that has historically done the same. The work is ongoing for us and I am well aware now how direct and explicit I need to be with our children.
How do you think worshipping a Black or brown Jesus would affect your worship experience?
When was the first time you saw a depiction of Jesus that was not white?
M. H. says
I wonder how much your feeling the need to be explicit with your children will really make a difference. I have no doubt that you’ve been a wonderful parent but I think about our influences and how much comes from our peers. Are their peers also other white children or is it more of a mixed community at church? What about at school? I would imagine that it’s a predominately white parish, thus where, perhaps, your daughter is forming some of the concepts by who is around her. Our parents, while wonderful, can instruct us in so many things and ways, and I definitely think it makes a difference, but sometimes I think what we are exposed to without words can make a distinct impression on forming ideas/concepts. Do you all attend other parishes on a regular basis where she would be in the minority (am assuming not based on your position in the church, which could make that challenging from a timing perspective, but…) if so, are you doing this multiple times or just a dunk and go?
I guess I’m mostly thinking of being gentle on yourself with what you’ve tried to do thus far to expose your children to different concepts. It sounds as though you’ve been trying to share different ideas/concepts to them. But I know for myself, that when I’ve been in a different environment that is unfamiliar, and in some ways uncomfortable because it’s unfamiliar, that those have been some of the more defining moments because I was challenged in my approach. It’s different than just being told about something. It’s the experience I think that can bring about seeing something with new eyes. Your daughter was in a different environment when she saw this image of Jesus… not in your home parish and would she have picked up on it then? And if she was in a place of worship surrounded by doing things differently than she was used to (or maybe she’s young enough that the rhythm of “used to” hasn’t quite sunk in yet). More importantly, I think the fact that she was willing and open to discussing it with you is a very powerful thing because, that to me, shares that you’ve provided a nurturing environment to encourage them to discuss things with you. And that is very special and not to be underestimated. Her awareness of something new and your willingness to listen, and discuss is a beautiful, yet powerful thing.
Mary Beth Butler says
Thank you for sharing so honestly, as always. Thank you to Pailet, also. <3
J A Borden says
I think too much is being made of what color Jesus was. We will never know.
I recently read comments about some Native American paintings depicting Jesus and his followers as Indians. The Black priest felt it was odd that the Indians would depict Jesus in this manner.
I think we all envision Jesus in the way we feel most secure sharing our hopes and sins with Him.
I don’t believe that Black children are hurt
by any depiction of our Lord, unless they are raised to feel insecure by those around them.
Are Hispanics insulted by a white Jesus?
My daughter only wanted black dolls, 50 years ago. One was so beautiful that her name was Princess Di.