I was struck, and struck hard, when listening to Radio 4’s Start the Week, by both Chine McDonald and Jeet Thayil’s reference to the Head of Christ, by Warner Sallman. By their accounts, this picture of Jesus as a white man was everywhere among the Christian communities in which they were brought up, Nigerian and Indian respectively. As they talked about its effect on them, I realised that I had also seen that image, but only as far as I can recall in the homes of parishioners of African Caribbean heritage. I cannot remember once seeing it in a white Anglican home. Similar images abound of course in stained glass windows and much other Christian imagery. But not in the home, hanging over our dining tables, or taking prime space in our front rooms, alongside the family pictures.
That, I think, is what ‘whiteness’ is all about, especially in a British context. The absence of Sallman’s picture from (my) white experience is a powerful metaphor for the difficulty many white people have in seeing what is so obvious to our GMH (global majority heritage) brothers and sisters. White people don’t need to look at an image of Jesus as a white man to think of him as such. In fact we need not to do so. Seeing Sallman’s picture would be dangerous – it might bring to consciousness the assumptions of ethnic primacy which operate at an unconscious level, embedded in our culture. Most white Christians, most of the time, are able quite honestly to disavow any racist intention in their conscious thoughts. But the frame of their experience, and of the black experience, are both formed by the idea that Sallman’s picture expresses: Jesus looks a whole lot more like white people than those of any other ethnicity.
I don’t think Sallman’s picture is great art, but I have no problem with him depicting Jesus as someone of his own ethnic background. The mystery of the incarnation is that in Christ God adopted human form, for the sake of all humanity. Depicting Christ as ‘someone like me’ is only part of Christian spirituality, but it is an authentic part when held in balance with a broader understanding. I once had a set of pictures of Jesus showing him as Inuit, and African, and Japanese, and many other ethnicities, and those different pictures expanded my own spiritual understanding of Christ. So there shouldn’t be a problem showing Jesus as a white man.
The problem – and it’s a huge problem – is that that image also carries with it the weight of hegemonic whiteness. It tells me not just that Jesus is like me, but also that he’s not like those who have a different skin colour or appearance. It makes it easy to accept a world in which leaders (religious and otherwise) look a lot more like the white Jesus than people of any other ethnicity. Like it or not, it reinforces the false message of white superiority. Some white people find that reality hard to accept; my answer is that we would have to have very good reason to reject the testimony of our GMH fellow believers. Whiteness has deprived people of many GMH origins of the sense that Jesus was really, truly, like them.
So how do I, a white Christian, get out of this bind? Not by denying that Jesus is like me – that would also be denying an important dimension of God’s saving act in the incarnation. It’s not the Christian way to balance that act of deprivation with another deprivation in the opposite direction. That is not the way that leads to a renewed Christian identity which celebrates all as equally made and loved by God. The perpetuation of hegemonic whiteness needs to be overcome by conscious, deliberate repentance and also by hopeful celebration. There must be repentance, because I need to turn around and go another way – and so does the whole Church – in repentance for benefitting, knowingly or not, from a sinful structure which has unjustly privileged those like me. But there must also be celebration, because repentance is ultimately joyful, a journey closer to the love of God. The celebration must be of the whole, full picture of Jesus as one of us, a Middle Eastern man who was also the Son of God embracing the whole of humanity.
The Church of England’s Anti-Racism Task Force has set out for the CofE some practical steps to take. It’s really important that things are done; it’s equally important that the things we do are signs of a change in culture. Only when the disparities of ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ are gone will we all be truly free to be who God made us. Maybe one of the signs of heaven is that we no longer need to say for ourselves ‘God looks like me’, but all find an even deeper joy in saying to one another ‘God looks like you’.