Dear White Christian America: Jesus Wasn't a White Surfer Dude
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The History Channel miniseries "The Bible" is one of the most popular TV shows in recent memory. "The greatest story ever told" seems to have much life left in it.
During an age of economic uncertainty (and even more so among Christian Dominionist evangelicals who believe Barack Obama is the anti-Christ) it makes sense that a retreat to a popularized version of the underpinnings of Christian faith, tailor-made for cable TV, has proven to be popular.
"The Bible" will likely draw more viewers following the controversy generated by a recent episode that offered up a vision of “Satan” whose facial features are almost identical to those of President Barack Obama.
The right-wing echo chamber is resonating with affirmation and joy at this discovery: the Christian Dominionists on the Right instinctively knew that the election of Barack Obama, the United States’ first black president, beckoned the “End Times.” (McCain’s campaign even offered up an ad in 2008 suggesting this very fact.) Now, the History Channel has validated their version of reality.
"The Bible" is not a "true" or "accurate" depiction of events. Like other TV shows and films, the final product is the result of the many decisions made by producers, actors, directors, writers, and editors. However, that does not mean that we should avoid asking some basic questions about the accuracy of the miniseries. For some, what follows is an uncomfortable truth.
The historical figure known as Jesus of Nazareth was not "white. He was not European. Based on the scholarly consensus, the historical Jesus would be a Middle Eastern Jew of medium, if not dark, complexion. He was certainly dark enough to have spent time in the Middle East and elsewhere, and not to have had his skin tone commented upon or noted.
This Jesus would be hounded and harassed by the TSA, looked at as a de facto "suspicious" person in post-9/11 America, and be racially profiled by the national security state. The historical Jesus would likely be subject to stop-and-frisk policies by the New York police and others. If it were too late at night, and the historical Jesus was trying to get a cab--especially if he were not attired "professionally"--he would be left standing curbside because brown folks in their 20s and 30s who look like him are presumed to be criminals.
Despite the "common sense" depiction of Jesus in the (white) American popular imagination, the historical Jesus Christ is not a white surfer dude with blue eyes, long flowing hair, and tanned and toned skin.
When I was an undergraduate and forced to take a series of religious studies classes as part of a core requirement, I was exposed first-hand to how volatile such a basic observation can be to some Christians and others who identify with that faith tradition. Our professor was discussing how the Bible is a historical text that has been edited and changed to reveal the prevailing political and social norms of a given time. I asked a question about the Civil Rights Movement and how black folks tried to use the text for purposes of political inspiration and motivation in the face of great adversity.
This transitioned to a followup question where I asked, "What color was Jesus?" Having just seen the movie, Malcolm X, I was curious as to the professor's response. He looked around and plainly said that Jesus Christ was not white or European. He would likely be a medium-complected Jew with brown or darker skin.
Check and mate: thus my followup, "Could one reasonably say that Jesus the historical figure was black?"