Recently, Mr. Shaun King encouraged those who espouse his Black Lives Matters movement to add another category of statues to their list for demolition: those which portray Jesus as white. The rationale for this? Jesus was born in Bethlehem and blended in as an immigrant in Egypt. Therefore, statues which portray Jesus as white are a form of white supremacy. I’d like to formally reply to Mr. King, arguing that such a project fails to understand who Jesus is and what He stands for, and equally fails to understand the meaning of human life in general, and its great potential.
Mr. King has a good instinct in wishing to understand Jesus in his historical roots: Jesus was an Israelite, born into the tribe of Judah, and the inheritor of the great covenants of the Old Testament. To his great forebear Abraham, God had promised that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3) and “by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves” (Gen 22:18) [emphasis mine]. From the beginning of Genesis, God intended to draw all people to himself, regardless of ethnicity; he chose one people so that through them, all people might come into relationship with him. Moving along in salvation history, we find this universal outreach foretold in the Mosaic and Davidic covenants; God clearly sets Israel apart for the purpose of drawing all people to himself. Christians believe that all of the covenants were fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who directed his Church to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19) [emphasis mine], bringing to full circle the original promise made to Abraham, that “by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves” (Gen 22:18) [emphasis mine]. That promise to Abraham finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ and the Church He founded.
The upshot of this rather hurried biblical commentary is to emphasize that ALL people are called to relationship with the living God. He is just as much the God of the Semitic peoples as He is God of Asian people, black people and, yes, those who are white. This is why throughout history, each culture that has embraced Christianity has lovingly bestowed on Christ its own features; far from an attempt to ‘wrest’ Jesus from his roots and impose on him one’s own characteristics, such statues and works of art have rather been that culture’s way of expressing the truth that all people belong to the Lord.
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. is a testament to this. Its numerous chapels are dedicated to the Virgin Mary under every title imaginable, and each chapel depicts her with the features and characteristics of the nation that sponsored it. A Vietnamese Virgin smiles down on pilgrims who visit the chapel of Our Lady of La Vang; a Polish Virgin gazes on those who enter the chapel of Our Lady of Czestochowa; and, literally, a black Madonna greets those pilgrims who enter the Our Lady, Mother of Africa chapel. The message is clear: she is the Mother of ALL, and so takes on the features of ALL.
Further to the point, in 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared in person to the indigenous Mexican Juan Diego, and miraculously left an imprint of her image on his tilma. This very tilma is preserved intact, almost 500 years later, in the Basilica dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, and experts who have examined it state that the young woman depicted there has features of Mexican indigenous people from one angle, and European features from another. Beyond the fact that achieving this feat is beyond the skill of the most talented painters, it speaks further to the Virgin’s own personal insistence that she is one with the two peoples who were occupying the land she had come to visit. She, a young Jewish girl from Nazareth, has authentic Indigenous and European features in her apparition to Juan Diego in Guadalupe! This seems to be heaven’s own stamp of approval on the instinct each culture has had in attributing its features to her Son. As the Savior and Lord of ALL, He too takes on the features of ALL.
In sum, then, statues portraying Jesus Christ as white are not testaments to the belief that whites are superior to any other race; they rather are a testament to the love and gratitude that white people bear Jesus Christ for saving them, too. In taking on the features of a culture, Jesus becomes the model for that culture, the exemplar and guide. Jesus Christ portrayed as white, therefore, stands as a call to every white person to imitate him, to follow him, to live as he lived, to think as he thought, to do as he did.
Which brings me to my next main point.
To call for the general demolition of all statues portraying Jesus as white would be, in effect, to destroy a powerful call to conscience for any white who is tempted to thoughts of racial superiority, and arguably, would even be to destroy the very foundations which have made it possible for culture to progress to the very language of equality and justice for all in the first place. Jesus did not teach his followers to employ destruction, open hostility and the refusal to constructively dialogue as means to combat sin. He rather taught forgiveness (cf. Mt 18:21-35), mercy (cf. Mt 5:21-26, 38-48) and radical love for him (cf Mt 10:37-42) as the path to salvation.
It has become unpopular and unfashionable, to put it mildly, to even mention the word ‘sin’ in our day and age, but this is actually the most accurate term for the behavior that has been rightly decried as condoning and stoking racial inequality. And when we call it for what it is, we suddenly find that it is not just a racial problem; it is a human problem. It is a problem of the human heart, the human will and the human intellect. It has manifestations not only in the way the members of different races might treat one another, but also manifestations in the way some kill the unborn, in the way some abuse one another sexually, in the way some abuse others through treachery and deceit, in the way some abuse others through extortion and dishonest gain. Just as God desires all to be in relationship to him, and set this effort in motion through Abraham, he also knows that all of us, without exception, have disordered hearts, wills and intellects and so therefore need Him to heal us. And the path to healing is not found in compounding hate with more hate, in wanton destruction, in incendiary rhetoric. The path to healing was traced for us first by the very example of Jesus himself in embracing the cross for our salvation: and it is now up to each one of us, personally, to decide to walk that same path in union with him, or not.
This now leads to my third and final point.
The world – and history – is not composed of a strict divide between “good guys” and “bad guys.” We all carry within us attraction and desire for that which is true, good and beautiful, and we all also succumb to temptations that distort our vision and sell us lies and trinkets as a fair exchange for authentic happiness. Our forebears in the course of history were not perfect; that is not a debatable point. However, neither were they thoroughly rotten and beyond hope. Just as in any individual, given life, there are moments of light and moments of darkness, moments of struggle and discernment, moments of conversion and rejection of our errors, so with those who have gone before us, and have, through their own efforts and struggles, bequeathed to us our present world and culture. Attempting to erase them from existence will not lead to healing. For they are present inextricably in our laws, structures, language, cultural thought patterns, and yes, even physical features. We are who we are today because of those who have gone before us, and while we carry the effects of their shortcomings and failures, we also have benefited from, and indeed have ourselves been forged by, their triumphs and labors to respond to the call of grace.
Our forebears were reacting to the problems and wrongs of their own day, and doing their level best to build something new by way of response and correction. In the course of this building were they perfect? No. But the lesson they left us remains valid for our own time: it is in building, in creating, in constructing that we respond to the needs of our time, not in demolishing and tearing down. This latter behavior only leaves more holes, more wounds, more wreckage, and only causes more suffering.
There is a lesson we can learn from all those to whom statues have been erected: we would heal as a society by searching for and then improving on that lesson, not by focusing on their mistakes. When has this ever been constructive, even personally? I can live perpetually in a cross-eyed sort of inner vision, continually contemplating my sins and weaknesses – I can do this, but if I do, I will implode and shrivel up, sinking into a black hole of despair. Or I could gaze on a statue of Jesus Christ, regardless of his features, and I could contemplate that for Him, I am worth saving, I am worth the overwhelming love He poured out for me when He went to the cross for my sin. This focal point of my vision gives hope and urges me to offer a response to such love. And this response must have concrete manifestations in the world around me. It must lead me to build, to construct and create what only I uniquely can with my personal talents, abilities, personality quirks and physical features. I will not have left something perfect for posterity, but I will have left something that they can then themselves improve on, and continue to build on.
And so the choice lies before all of us at this moment in history: we will also leave our mark in trying to help build, and so unite as a human family, or will we only contribute more suffering, more pain and more misery? Will we focus on our common human nature that we share not just across ethnic differences but also across the great sweep of time, or will we reduce our lives merely to the surface color of our skin? Mr. Shaun King, use your great talents of rhetoric, leadership and motivation to BUILD. Perhaps build a statue of Jesus Christ… and perhaps go a step further, and build such a statue with your very life. This will leave an enduring legacy, one that will outlast any statue of stone or marble.