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The Race Factor: What Color Was Jesus?

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by Joey Matthews
Special to the NNPA from the Houston Forward Times

Tis the season for depictions of baby Jesus and other biblical figures in movies and plays, on cards and in churches.

In response to a Richmond Free Press query, several Richmond, Va.-area faith leaders said it’s time to convey the truth — that pictures of a White Jesus with long flowing locks adorning the sanctuaries of many churches are not accurate. Nor is the portrayal, as in many Christmas plays and re-enactments, of a White baby Jesus surrounded by a Caucasian Mary and Joseph and White travelers from afar coming to worship him in Bethlehem.

Further, those faith leaders said, it’s time for Hollywood to get its act together as well. They point to the latest Hollywood movie, “Exodus,” featuring a cast of mostly White actors, including Christian Bales as Moses, in which people of color are relegated to lesser roles such as servants of the pharaoh.

“The use of mostly Caucasians for the movie ‘Exodus,’ and as the historical Jesus, is historically incorrect and a fabricated myth,” said Dr. Michael A. Sanders, pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church on South Side Richmond. “The Bible and authentic biblical scholarship have proven so.

“From a public policy perspective,” he added, “It justifies unequal and unfair treatment for certain people, especially African-American men. This pervasive attitude and practice has prompted a national protest to show that ‘Black men matter too!’ ”

The Rev. Phoebe A. Roaf, rector at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church on North Side, stated, “People relate to images that are familiar to them, either because they look like them or they have always seen things presented in a certain light. It’s an emotional choice and subconscious for many people.

“Many of the famous depictions of Christ come from European painters in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, who painted Christ to look like that period of time,” she added. “Anyone who has been to the Middle East knows that Semitic people are darker and have curly hair, so I am most comfortable with images of Christ that look Semitic.”

She noted, however, that Christmas provides the opportunity to focus on the significance of Jesus’ birth, not so much on the color of his skin.

The Rev. Delores L. McQuinn, associate minister at New Bridge Baptist Church in Highland Springs and a state delegate representing Richmond, shared the view that “Exodus” only mirrors the majority of Hollywood biblical films that historically have reflected a pro-white slant.

“Mostly white casts — and in some instances all White casts — are typical for Hollywood’s mode of operation,” she said. “Many people have expressed that it appears to be a deliberate effort on behalf of Hollywood to not shine positive light on people of color.”

She said those misrepresentations have rallied the black church to “celebrate our culture, educate our people, commemorate our contributions and convey the message that we matter to God, and He will continue to use us.”

She said she expects to see more accurate images and portrayals of Jesus and other figures as public awareness grows and calls increase for historical truths to be told.

Larry Bland, a Richmond gospel music icon, said he is perplexed that some churches with black congregations portray Jesus as Caucasian.

“With the vast amount of information we now have that substantiates Jesus’ skin color being other than white, how black churches can continue to perpetuate this incorrect image is beyond my comprehension,” he said.

He reasoned: “Why waste time trying to describe what Jesus looks like. Clearly, those of us of faith — black, white, red, yellow, brown — believe that we are made in his image. And so, if there were a picture of him, it would have to be all-inclusive, whatever image that would be. Why waste time trying to create a picture that is, obviously, way beyond our comprehension.”

Dr. Lance D. Watson, senior pastor at St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Henrico County, sounded a bah humbug note to those who depict biblical characters in European-centric fashion.

“Historically, both Jesus and Moses share the commonality of being born into cultures shaped by African heritage and history. Yet both figures are often recast in the image of Western Europeans,” he stated. “This is historically inaccurate and all of us, regardless of our ethnicity and culture, should be concerned that history is accurately reported and conveyed to future generations. To distort it for whatever reasons does not change it.”

Dr. Charles Shannon, president of Faith Leaders Moving Forward, who pastors Mount Level Baptist Church in Amelia County, seconded that point.

“Ancient depictions of Jesus greatly differ from today’s figures, actors in Hollywood and those used in many churches despite the race of the congregation,” he said.” Careful study of the historical Jesus described in the book of Revelation 1:14-15 — and archaeological and temperate zone data readily available via Google search — could not be clearer that Jesus was a black man.

“For both Blacks and Whites, things are slow to change to reflect a true description of Jesus — and other Biblical figures — based on history and reality versus today’s biased depictions done to suit whatever purpose and profit motivations,” he stated. “As a society, we have come a long way and have a long, long, long, way to go.”

The Rev. F. Todd Gray, pastor at Fifth Street Baptist Church on North Side Richmond, said he’s not surprised by the overwhelmingly White bent of Hollywood films such as “Exodus.”

“It is as old as Charlton Heston as Moses, Liz Taylor as Cleopatra and as recently as Ewan McGregor as Jesus in ‘Last Days in the Desert,’” he said. “It is important to try to be more historically and ethnically accurate, but it is more important that our people see themselves reflected as participants in the human and divine drama.

“Right now, we have much more pressing issues than Hollywood’s casting,” he added.

The Rev. David J. Stanfill of Holy Rosary Catholic Church in the East End said, as a white pastor of an African-American Roman Catholic parish, he tries to best represent those he serves.

“Almost all of our artwork at the parish is done from the black perspective, which I feel is very unique and special. Our baby Jesus is black. Our crucifix was hand carved in Africa,” he said.

The Rev. Shay Auerbach, pastor at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on South Side, serves a predominately Latino congregation. “Actually, we have to remember the white baby Jesus itself is an accommodation,” he stated. “Historically, Jesus would have been Palestinian, probably not blonde and blue-eyed.

“When Christianity got to Europe, it was natural for them to want a Jesus that looked like them. Of course, through colonialism, that white Jesus was taken to the Americas, Asia, and Africa,” he said.

He concluded, For Christmas celebrations among Latinos today, baby Jesus has a variety of skin tones “ranging from White to Black.”

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