Is It Time to Remove Images of the White Jesus From Churches?
By Pamela A. Lewis
“So tell me,” began the tastefully dressed, middle-aged woman, to whom I had just been introduced at a church social event, “how does it feel to be a Black person who attends a church where Jesus and all of the figures in the artwork are white?”
The question caught me off guard, which I am sure was the intention. Built in the early 20th century, Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, one of the finest examples of the French Gothic style, was designed by people of European descent, who wanted to erect a church in New York City whose architecture and iconography were European (i.e. “white”). So, from that standpoint, my interrogator was correct.
But the New Testament offers no definitive answer to the question of Jesus’s appearance. Although some of the earliest depictions of Jesus show him with very dark skin and possibly even African, those that comprise much of Western biblical iconography typically represent him as a tall, slender, handsome, bearded, white, blue-eyed young man with either long straight or wavy blond or light-brown hair. And while some American houses of worship have replaced their white images with Black depictions of Jesus, these identifying characteristics have remained largely unchanged.
Where the Gospel was silent, however, a document called the “Publius Lentulus Letter,” appeared on the medieval scene to fill in the gap. Written sometime between the 10th and 14th centuries, the fraudulent epistle was at first believed to have come from a governor of Judea, Publius, a contemporary of Christ. Publius, who probably never existed, wrote to a Roman official of a “man of great power,” called Jesus Christ, who is described in the letter as having “hair the color of the ripe hazel nut,” that is “wavy and curled” below the ears, “parted in two on the top of the head, after the pattern of the Nazarenes,” and a face that is “embellished by a slightly ruddy complexion.”
The Lentulus Letter had a long run with widespread publication in Europe and, eventually, in the New World, and was taken seriously as an eyewitness account. European artists, such as Dirk Bouts, used the letter’s description as a model on which to base Christ’s face and overall physical aspect.
In observance of Old Testament prohibitions against creating and worshiping “graven images,” Puritans and many New World colonists eschewed any depictions of Christ. They preferred to experience him as a being of light, and rejected the bogus letter. Indigenous peoples saw him as red, bloodied and beaten; and even enslaved African Americans saw him as a figure who had “auspicious rays” that “shine,” as described by 18th-century African-American poet Phillis Wheatley.
Its inauthenticity notwithstanding, Civil War and post-Civil War white supremacists kept the Lentulus Letter alive, seeing its very specific, European physical descriptions of Christ as a means of transforming him into an emblem of racial power. Christ’s “whiteness” became a psychological certainty to such degree that, as observed by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, co-authors of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (2012), it “could be felt without thought and presumed without proof.”
This transition to a white Christ accelerates in the mid- to late-19th century through the emergence of such figures as Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormons, who claimed to have had visions of a “white, blue-eyed Christ.” By the end of the 19th century, a white Christ was the accepted representation, propelled and confirmed by mass-produced images which were sent throughout the nation and became grafted onto the American psyche (particularly of children), establishing the truth about Christ, whose color implied the “beauty of his person and the symmetry of form and feature” (Blum and Harvey). However, the deep and jarring contradiction between Christ as a figure of love and compassion and as a cultural icon of white power was not lost on Native and African Americans.
As white Christ imagery progressed into the 20th century, its subject moved onto the silver screen and achieved movie star status in films such as D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (where, in the final scene, the triumphant KKK finally dwell in the “Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace.” Christ, whose ghostly form is superimposed over this group, blesses them, but also validates their triumph), King of Kings, and The Greatest Story Ever Told, in which Christ was portrayed by Jeffrey Hunter and the late Swedish actor Max von Sydow, respectively.
Those who came of age during the 1960s will recall that if one was in an African-American home (especially of the middle class) and looked at the living room or dining room wall one could almost be sure to have seen three portraits: one of Jesus, one of President John F. Kennedy, and one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Very likely, too, the image of Jesus was placed between Kennedy’s and King’s, who, like the Savior, were “martyred.” Most likely, the portrait of Jesus would have been a reproduction of the painting Head of Christ, by Warner E. Sallman, which the religious painter and illustrator executed in 1941. While the Sallman image was not on my family home’s wall, in my room there was one showing Christ praying in the garden of Gethsemane, a much smaller reproduction of the original by artist Heinrich Hofmann, which belongs to The Riverside Church in New York City. (I still have that image, a gift from my late mother, on my bedroom wall.)
The Sallman Christ “exploded into national and world consciousness like no other piece of American art,” as authors Blum and Harvey described the work’s effect when it first appeared. The photographic realism of the blue-eyed savior, with his chiseled “Nordic” features, and long shoulder-length straight hair, set a new and powerful iconographic standard for what Christ should look like. Head of Christ was a marketing goldmine, and various organizations, missionaries, and churches of all denominations and racial groups embraced the image, which would be reproduced and circulated on prayer cards. Soldiers carried the image with them during WWII, and it graced the walls of police stations, libraries, courtrooms, and schools. This was not the medieval or Renaissance Christ found in old European churches and cathedrals, but a distinctly “American” one.
A criticism of Sallman’s Christ and of all white Christs emerged during the civil rights movement, where statements such as “Black Is Beautiful” asserted Black pride and expressed a rejection of Eurocentric beauty standards.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the national and global protests that ensued, that criticism and rejection have been renewed. The outrage that was originally directed at police brutality and the persistence of racism, turned to statues and monuments of Confederate figures, seen by many protesters as insulting symbolic vestiges of white supremacy. They have not only demanded that such statues be removed from public spaces, but have in several instances defaced or pulled down some of those objects themselves.
And now church iconography, particularly that represents Christ as European, has come under fire. Writer and activist Shaun King recently called for the destruction of statues that represent a white Jesus, along with “his white mother and their white friends.” In King’s view, these depictions constitute “racist propaganda” and “a gross form of white supremacy.” When he made his statement, King shared an image of a much darker-skinned and dark-eyed man (who looked like someone who would come from the area where Jesus was born) that had accompanied an article in a 2002 issue of the magazine Popular Mechanics about scholars who had “reconstructed” the face of Jesus based on archaeological research. According to King, white supremacists would find this very non-Nordic Jesus intolerable.
The Rev. Bryan Massingale, a professor of theology at Fordham University, has argued that the belief that European aesthetics, music, theology, and persons, are the standard, normative, and universal models, is still pervasive. This is not an accident, but rather a form of idolatry where God can be imaged only in European form and in European objects and products.
While Massingale stops short of proposing the uncompromising iconoclasm of Shaun King, he forcefully challenges the Church and her faithful to engage in an iconoclasm of their minds, to abandon the idolatrous worship of what he calls the “false god” that can only be European, and to tear down the Eurocentric images of Jesus and of all holy figures that still have a place in our psyches. This is the more difficult task, as it obliges us to first confront and to confess to ourselves that we still hold these beliefs in racial superiority, and to eventually repent of them.
For various reasons, the removal or replacement of church iconography may be more sensitive than removing Confederate or other statues deemed as racist. Church artwork is intimately tied to faith, worship, and the church’s heritage; and it is also a form of decoration that adorns what congregants see as their other “home.” Clergy, vestries, and parishioners will need to work together to decide what objects should stay and which should go. It will be expensive. Churches must also determine whether their objects were significant donations made by former or deceased members and are still important to their history.
The option of adding, rather than removing, iconography should also be considered. This can present an opportunity for a church to commission (if financially feasible) new artwork that is more respectful of diversity and historically accurate. The problem does not lie with Jesus depicted as white, per se, any more than with his depiction as Black, Asian, Indigenous, or as any other race or ethnicity. Rather, the problem is that white supremacy has determined that Jesus can only be white, in such manner that he can not also be Black, Asian, or Indigenous. The oppressive rigidity of the white supremacist’s horizon makes him incapable of imagining, much less accepting, the possibility of Christ’s being other than white. Contemporary artists who are creating racially and ethnically diverse iconography, communicate a more powerful — and more accurate — theological understanding of Christ’s nature, which is his universality. That universality reflects all peoples and transcends the arbitrary, human-made boundaries of race and ethnicity.
Diverse images of the godhead would underscore the idea of imago Dei, that we resemble God in spirit, as well as in all our physical manifestations. A church may discern that removal of its depictions of Jesus as white may be the most appropriate way for it to purge itself of white supremacy. While I support such a decision, I would argue that supplementing existing iconography with racially diverse depictions of Jesus (and of the saints) would serve to illustrate the ideal of racial and ethnic coexistence, which is in keeping with God’s vision of and intention for his creation.
Some churches may decide to remove images altogether. Whatever the decision is, it should be arrived at through a process of assessing the overall iconographic program, one that involves all stakeholders whose various points of view are included and respectfully heard.
So, is it time to remove images of the “white Jesus, his white mother, and all his white friends”? Yes, if a church community decides to do that, then by all means they should. At the very least, it is time that churches begin discussing this. As this country acknowledges the important roles that people of color have played in national, global, and religious history, it will come to know what historians and archeologists had discovered: Jesus was in all likelihood a person of color, and that non-white bodies can embody holiness. But above all, Christ is the Logos and the Truth, in whom all races and hues are one.
Pamela A. Lewis is a member of Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York City. She writes on topics of faith.