Whiteness and Jesus

Over the last couple weeks I’ve been reading The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race In America. Without going into too much detail, the book traces the development of Jesus as white in the United States and the contested place of His whiteness. Broadly speaking, when the Puritans came here, they eschewed images, including pictures of Jesus. And in the early days, when Jesus appeared to people, He appeared as light, not as racialized.[fn1]

Little by little, Jesus began to be more embodied in the American imagination; His embodiment emerged roughly (though not entirely) with technology that allow the mass production of pictures and pamphlets. And embodied Jesus began to be depicted as racially white.

Especially after the Civil War and into the first half of the 20th century, His whiteness was often (not always, but often) pressed into the service of white supremacy. Jesus was white because white was better, white was purer, white was worthier.

Again, this outline is very surface-level; the book provides a lot more detail and nuance. But overall, it represents the book’s outline (at least through the Civil Rights movement and the creation of Black Liberation Theology, which is where I currently am in the book).

As a Mormon, the book—and the arc of history it describes—is particularly troubling: it points to Mormonism’s role in creating and perpetuating a white Jesus. Our role was nationally significant; Mormon depictions of Jesus didn’t notably influence others in their perpetuation of a white Jesus. But our art did emphasize His whiteness:

In 1969, John Scott painted his Jesus Christ Visits the Americas. It was an instant hit and features Jesus with blond hair and fair skin. He shows his wounded hands to Anglo-looking Native Americans, who bow, weep, and marvel at his power. The women wear skirts and dresses that come straight from the 1960s, while the men display their muscular physiques. This presentation of the white Jesus and his relationship to white Native Americans became so popular that Mormon leadership had it featured in The Book of Mormon they put in hotel room dresser drawers (254).

Now here’s the thing: we don’t pretend that our artistic depictions of Jesus are actual photograph-like representations of His appearance. In fact, our most popular painting of Jesus—Del Parson’s 1983 painting Christ in Red Robe—has uncanny similarities to the Warner Sallman’s immensely popular 1841 painting Head of Christ.[fn2]

***

My first semester back from my mission, I took the return missionary Portuguese class. In that class, among other things, we read Ariano Suassuna’s play Auto da Compadecida, a play that follows the (mis)adventures of João Grilo, a poor trickster character. Lots of stuff happens and, since I haven’t read the whole thing in more than 20 years, I don’t remember most of them.[fn3]

I do distinctly remember, though, the point where João encounters Jesus. What follows is my (inartful, but roughly accurate) translation of that part:

João Grilo: Jesus?

Manuel: Yes.

JG: But wait, you’re Jesus?

M: I am.

JG: That Jesus that they called Christ?

M: Called, no, that was Christ. I am, why?

JG: Because … I don’t mean disrespect, but I thought you were a lot less burned [my note: “burned” here implies dark skin; Manuel/Jesus is Black].

Bishop: Shut up, brat [note: probably “brat” isn’t the best word, but, while I went literal in the last one, I decided to try to capture the connotation here].

M: Shut up yourself. [Proceeds to berate the Bishop for his hypocrisy and generally bad behavior]

JG: Very nice. You only speak a little, but you speak well. Your skin color could be better, but you speak powerfully.

M: Thank you, João, but now it’s your turn. You’re full of racial prejudice. I came like this today on purpose, because I knew this would elicit a reaction. How shameful! I Jesus, I was born white, I wanted to be born Jewish, how could I have been born Black?

To me, Black or white, it doesn’t matter. You think I’m an American with racial prejudices?

***

About four months ago, the First Presidency informed the church that, to “testify … of our central belief in Jesus Christ,” art in they foyers of all church buildings had to feature Jesus. But not just any art that featured Jesus: church buildings are allowed to choose from a collection of 22 painting reproductions.

All of the paintings church buildings can choose from feature a white European Jesus. In fact, other than one Black boy in one painting, everybody in each of the paintings is a white European.

This is a real, significant problem. And note that I don’t want to overstate the bad intent behind it: I don’t believe for a second that Church leaders chose these paintings out of racist intent. They have almost certainly grown up their whole lives with a mental image of Jesus as a white man. They’re largely products of a culture that includes Del Parson and Warner Sallman and Cecil DeMille’s The King of Kings and all of the other representations and portrayals of Jesus as white.

But here’s the thing: none of those paintings purport to be accurate representations of Jesus. We may not know what He looked like, but we certainly know that He wasn’t European. He wasn’t white as we’ve come to define white. So any paintings we choose to decorate our buildings are meant at best to symbolically represent Him.

To the extent that we’re only willing to represent Him as a white Scandinavian, then, we’re perpetuating a myth of white supremacy, albeit without intending to do so. We’re sending the message that since we don’t know what He looks like, only white skin is good enough to represent our Savior.

It doesn’t have to be that way. If we’re going to have pictures of Jesus in our foyers, let’s have representations of Jesus as Black. We should have representations of Jesus as Asian. As Latino. As Native American. Etc.

Portraying Jesus as exclusively white does real harm. It is confounding and offputting to many who are not white, while it reinforces the superiority of whiteness both to those of us who are white and to believers who are not.

I’ll note that, as an attorney, I recognize the practical issues that (at least in part) likely caused church leaders to choose the 22 pictures they chose. I suspect that the Church owns the right to use those paintings and that it doesn’t have to pay to license the rights to the paintings. For what it’s worth, if that’s true, it’s a circular problem: we reinforce the whiteness of Jesus because, in the past, we created Jesus as white. It’s a self-reinforcing problem

And it’s one we can escape. The paintings we have didn’t emerge from nowhere. In the 1980s, we commissioned Del Parsons to paint Jesus. Today, in 2020, we have a number of talented artists, including artists of color who create religious art with people of color. The Church could absolutely commission new depictions of Jesus, specifically to add to the Gospel Art Library and to the foyers of our buildings.[fn4] The varied depictions of Jesus that emerged would not right the racial wrongs that the Church—and the society in which it is embedded—have participated in. But it would go a long way toward making our Christ-centered foyers more inclusive and inviting to all members and all people.


[fn1] This initial description of Jesus-as-light resonates with early Mormonism: in his First Vision, Joseph Smith saw a column of light with two Personages whose “brightness and glory” defied description. Sixteen years later, when Jesus appeared to Joseph in the Kirtland temple, He was still essentially light:

His were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of Jehovah;

[fn2] In fact, even the Mormon urban legends surrounding the Del Parsons painting are derivative of stories about the Sallman painting. Maybe you’ve heard the story about the little girl who saw the painting and said something to the effect of, “That’s the man who saved me after the car accident”? (I did once, growing up, during someone’s talk.) The Color of Christ relates that “When first seeing it, one two-year-old exclaimed, “That’s Jesus,” and others remarked, “That’s Him” or “There He is” (209).

[fn3] A subtitled version of the 2000 movie is available on Vimeo.

[fn4] Frankly, I’d go a step further and remove portrayals of a white Jesus from the list of approved foyer art. Why? A couple reasons. First, because members are familiar with it, I suspect that for at least a generation they would largely choose the white Jesus art they’re familiar with. Second, and relatedly, we can all close our eyes and see white Jesus. There’s value in being forced to confront Jesus as different from what we’re used to, if only to remind us that the paintings we grew up with are not, in fact, photographs. (The Color of Christ says that “[o]ftentimes, writers referred to [Sallman’s Head of Christ] as a ‘photograph,’ and one elderly woman claimed that is was ‘an exact likeness of our Lord Jesus Christ'” (209.)

Comments

  1. During the recent hullabaloo over confederate statues I decided if we kept the commandment found in Exodus 20:4 “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” we could have avoided the hullabaloo. The same could be said, if we had never created pictures of Jesus. Islam has the right idea. They avoid images altogether in their mosques.

  2. Nailed it. Ouch.

  3. People look at me funny when I call them pictures of Jesus of Gondor. We don’t really have pictures of Jesus of Nazareth.

    I didn’t come up with it, but it works for me.

  4. Well, there is this, for what it’s worth:
    “Alexander Neibaur, a convert [whose parents were Jewish] who gathered with the Saints in Nauvoo, described in his journal what Joseph told him during a dinner conversation. Brother Neibaur wrote that the Prophet said he had been ‘struck’ by a passage on prayer in the Bible and so went into the woods to pray. After his tongue cleaved temporarily to the roof of his mouth, he saw a fire which gradually drew nearer to him. He ‘saw a personage in the fire, light complexion, blue eyes. …’” https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/ensign/1986/01/confirming-witnesses-of-the-first-vision?lang=eng
    I don’t know of any other account that has Joseph describing “light complexion, blue eyes,” but it does seem odd that a convert of Jewish background who had close connections to Joseph (teaching him both German and Hebrew) would make up those details.
    Some have claimed that Palestinian Jews had a wide range of skin color and included some with blue eyes. I don’t know the basis for that claim, but I do know modern Jews whose complexion is as “white” as my Scandinavian immigrant ancestors.
    If we’re going to have representations of Jesus, I’d prefer that we had a wide variety of such representations. I have no commitment to a white, blue-eyed Jesus, but also none to a dark, brown-eyed Jesus. I prefer the view of President Harold B. Lee who once said, seemingly contrary to Neibaur’s report:
    “It has always been significant to me that, despite the greatness of the master teacher, Jesus the Christ (recognized now by even those who would not believe in his mission as the literal Son of God), there have been left to us no sculptured models or accurate descriptions of the Savior.
    “. . . It has seemed clearly evident to me that it was so because it was not desired that Jesus be worshiped as an idol in stone or brass, but that the profound teachings that he has left us be the center and core of that which should convince anyone of the divinity of his mission” (“Plain and Precious Things,” Ensign, August 1972).

  5. Wondering, I’m not convinced that we need to take Neibaur’s journal entry seriously. Even if Joseph did say something to that effect, it was 24 years after his First Vision; he had plenty of time to describe Jesus physically and chose not to. Neibaur’s account isn’t canonized and isn’t binding on us.

    I don’t know who the “some” are who have claimed Palestinian Jews had blue eyes and a wide range of skin color. But in their book, Blum and Harvey describe the basis of the “Nordic Jesus”:

    For Grant, Nordic supremacy was spiritual as well as material. “Mental, spiritual and moral traits are closely associated with the physical distinctions among the different European races,” Grant explained, and this meant that Jesus must have been Nordic and thus not Jewish. Grant grounded his proof in how biblical Jews responded to Christ: They “apparently regarded Christ as, in some indefinite way, non-Jewish” (163).

    That’s probably not the intellectual or spiritual lineage we want to claim. But let’s assume that Jesus did appear to JS as a blue-eyed person; all that would demonstrate is that, like Jesus-Manuel of the play, He is capable of appearing however He chooses.

    Like you, though, my point is that we need to have an array of representations of Jesus. It’s not like we’re going to get the photographic representation of what He looked like, because we have no record of what He looked like. Every painting is just symbolic and representative and, by broadening the representations, we reduce the assumption that Jesus must have been white and, as a result, white must be better.

  6. Sam. I agree. But some do take Neibaur seriously. I wouldn’t be surprised if that group includes some in senior councils of the Church. Though in about 1951 an artist was instructed by SLC to paint the Father and Son out of a large first vision painting that hung in my hometown chapel, allegedly because no one knew what they looked like.

    It took me a few minutes to identify who “Grant” was. Then I was briefly amused that he was a leading progressive activist. Per Wikipedia: “Madison Grant (November 19, 1865 – May 30, 1937) was an American lawyer, writer, and zoologist known primarily for his work as a eugenicist and conservationist and as one of the leading thinkers and activists of the Progressive Era. As a eugenicist, Grant was the author of The Passing of the Great Race (1916), a work espousing scientific racism, and played an active role in crafting strong immigration restriction and anti-miscegenation laws in the United States.”

    Expanding the variety of representations of Jesus might help change some attitudes. It may have played some role in my former Gospel Doctrine class I commonly used power point presentations including a wide variety of art, I included middle-eastern, native american, oriental, and african representations of Jesus. With a wide age range and a wide range of political and religious thought and a small range of ethnic backgrounds in the class, I expected but never heard an objection to such representations (only to Minerva Teichert’s painting of “nordic” Jesus rescuing a black lamb). I wish we could have more of that, but I’m not expecting it to happen in my lifetime. Maybe someday.

  7. I love Argentine LDS artist Jorge Cocco Santangelo’s “sacrocubismo” renditions of Christ (https://jorgecocco.com/). Viewing Jesus in cubist, semi abstract forms allows me to FEEL Christ, rather than wonder if it is an accurate depiction of God among us. Thanks for bringing this topic into greater awareness, Sam. I feel this church building art policy can’t and won’t last! https://jorgecocco.com/

  8. “This is a real, significant problem. And note that I don’t want to overstate the bad intent behind it: I don’t believe for a second that Church leaders chose these paintings out of racist intent.”

    I can understand why you might be reticent in implying “bad intent”, since everything printed on the internet is “out there”, but the fact is that this a classic example of systemic racism, which makes the 2020 movement a bit different from the 1960’s. One source defines it: “systemic racism is a distinctly structural phenomenon, meaning the practices and behaviors that perpetuate racism within a system are baked into the system itself”. The results of this is that you and I and most of the readers who are sure that we are not racist are now looking at things like Jesus Christ Visits the Americas with new eyes. In both the country and the Church, generations upon generations have perpetuated prejudice and white elitism to the point where we don’t even recognize it when it’s staring us in the face.

  9. Antonio Parr says:

    I am not a fan of Parson’s Jesus because (a) portraiture suggests that Jesus of Nazareth had the luxury of time to pose for a painting; and (b) there is nothing in the expression of the model used for that painting that touches me one bit.

    Further, unless a painting of Jesus shows Him about his Father’s business, eg, healing, comforting, teaching, etc., then a painting of Jesus is, to me, just a painting of some model. (One point of clarification: I am typically moved by the rare painting of Jesus that capture in His eyes the compassion and pain of a man well acquainted with sorrow and grief.).

    Paintings or sculptures intending to portray Jesus as a man resembling a modern-day Arabic or Jewish man seem about right to me. If that makes Him too white for some or too dark for others, then we all may have to deal with it, because such depictions are probably the best we can do when envisioning the appearance of a Jewish man from Bethlehem born 2000 years ago.

  10. Aussie Mormon says:

    There’s nothing stopping meetinghouses from having artwork not on the authorised list in areas that aren’t the entrance or foyer (i.e. classrooms and corridors).
    Even then, based on the way the guidelines are written, the authorised list only comes into play if you need to remove artwork, so if you have a non-white Jesus artwork already, there should be no need to move it.

  11. rickpowers, thanks. That’s an important point. Though I don’t think that Church leaders chose the paintings—or that the painters painted the paintings—with racist intent, that doesn’t mean there’s not racism. Racism isn’t just something done by people wearing white robes and hoods. As we think about racism—personally or systemically—there’s value in asking, “Is it I? And then being open to the answer.

  12. “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.”

    That’s probably the most important depiction of Jesus we need. I’d much prefer a series of portraits showing -that- Jesus, with someone depicted or the visual image conveying that the viewer is the one providing the service. That’s more of the essence of our religion than deifying and worshiping an image of Christ. That verse is, after all, speaking of the Latter-days.

    Curious though, if -that- Jesus were depicted as non-white would you still see racism in it?

  13. Let’s admit something (shoutout to Sute above): If we were to display a black Jesus in one of our meetinghouses, there would be outrage. People would say, correctly, “we don’t know what he looked like, so how can we allow this.” And they would add, correctly, “whoever approved this art has an agenda”.

    The funny thing is, the two quotes above apply to our current art. No, we don’t know what He looked like. And yes, there is an agenda behind the decision to make him appear white / European.

  14. Are we actually having this discussion? Does anybody wonder why educated people no longer join the Church?

  15. A truly excellent talk on youtube is entitled “History of Race in America”, presented by Jeffery Robinson, Deputy Legal Director and Director of the Trone Center for Justice and Equality. He carefully documents the history of blacks in America that is not taught in schools and helps us understand the need to address racial prejudice. I would confess to having moist eyes at various points in the presentation, but I’m far too manly for anything like that to have occurred.

    And, as for Jesus: he was of Semitic (middle-east Asian) lineage – from a people who lived 400 years in Africa before settling in a land on the Eastern Mediterranean coast. He most likely had beautiful olive-brown skin, dark-brown curly/wavy hair (which he probably did not wear long (1 Cor 11:14), and – according to Isaiah – would not have had a particular attractiveness that would have stood out. (The rumor that he was a blonde-hair, blue-eyed, surfer dude with Scandinavian roots is undergoing further research).

  16. Rick, right. But does that mean he couldn’t appear to some as a blonde, blue-eyed surfer dude, if he chose to? Or that rendering service to the least of the blonde, blue-eyed surfer dudes is not rendering service to Christ? :)

  17. A fresco painted by the Italian Renaissance master Piero della Francesca in the 1460s depicts Christ rising from the tomb. It was painted high on an interior wall of the Palazzo della Residenza in the town of Sansepolcro, Tuscany, Italy. Describing the face of Christ in that fresco, novelist Wallace Stegner writes “That gloomy stricken face [of Christ] was not the face of a god reclaiming his suspended immortality, but the face of a man who until a moment ago had been thoroughly and horribly dead, and still had the smell of death in his clothes and the terror of death in his mind. If resurrection had taken place, it had not yet been comprehended.” Will the Art in our hallways spark Gospel insights? We hope!

  18. I haven’t read this book, but wonder if it explores the American history with the now besmirched Archko volume, which purported to have collected contemporary reports of Jesus including several physical descriptions. In it, Jesus and his mother Mary were described as having lighter olive skin, golden or highlighted straightish hair and either blue, green, or lighter brown eyes. I’m just pointing this out because the earnest and even scientifically-minded 19c Christian would have thought themselves fortunate to have obtained this type of information as they assembled the best evidence at the time for thoughtfully researched historical reflection.

    Today, we think we’re pretty special because we can read National Geographic’s forensic recreation of Jesus’ face (which looks nothing like even the earliest art of Jesus), or analyze DNA traits from the region, or zip across the internet to slam the stupidity of yesteryear.

    Thinking back to research processes of even 30 years ago, let alone 200 years ago, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to use such a broad brush to paint such big blind spots in the 19th and early 20th c church. Yes, the inexcusable footprint of racism can be clearly seen in the source documents and resultant conclusions. But, let’s acknowledge that there were some who sincerely questioned, conducted the best research they could with the crappy resources they had, and were willing to challenge their assumptions. Our idea of Jesus is not just a mirror and an ink blot test, it’s a seeker’s map tracing a long and exhausting journey.

  19. I’m surprised the White Gods belief hadn’t come up yet. With people like the conquistadors and Thor Heyerdahl going around claiming that a white god had visited insert-non-white-civilization-here, if we squint and pretend Jesus was white, we suddenly have evidence of His visit to non-white-civilization-here. I certainly heard such things enough in seminary, and from tour guides in Mexico/Guatemala wanting bigger tips from their CoJCoLDS patrons.

  20. excellent piece Scott. Amen and Amen.

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    There have been some very diverse images of Jesus created through the Church’s International Art Competitions. The Church could do a lot worse than using some of those…

  22. Riverton Paul says:

    Thank you for the article. The whiteness of Jesus, unfortunately, also seems to be one of too many instances of confirmation bias within the Church. For example, the literal interpretations attributed to the various white and delightsome or white and fair references in the Book of Mormon, despite the fact that Lehi, Nephi and the other indigenous populations they encountered were to my understanding not literally white-skinned Europeans.

  23. Eric, I was hoping you meant the Church of Gondar, not Gondor. I love Ethiopian primitive iconography. And the Christ portrayed in these icons are darker skinned. We wouldn’t have to worship them, just admire their religiosity and simplicity.

    As for the art in foyers, I would prefer something less illustrative and more interpretive, something closer to fine art. Maybe something by El Greco or Rembrandt. Or something more modern by van Gogh or Calder. Modern Mormon artists (not illustrators) would also be great.

    Decisions on what art is acceptable needs more input from members. Otherwise you end up with decisions like the one made on foyer art. We definitely need more diverse portrayals of Christ. Half of the church membership will soon live south of the equator.

  24. McBeth, I’m surprised that hasn’t come up yet too. That’s a very pervasive tradition in Central and South America, one that we threw into missionary discussions in my 1980s mission in South America. A little cringe worthy now, but not as much as showing the man’s search for happiness film, complete with a white family dining on a scrumptious, lavish Thanksgiving feast.

  25. Wonderful post. Art matters. Representation in art matters. Jesus needs to be different colors.
    .
    .
    .
    .
    Also the lack of brown, black, and eastern Jesus strikes a personal chord for me. Because it reminds me that there is no Jesus in our Mormon art that looks like me. There is no female Jesus. There is no pictures at church of God come down to earth as a mortal woman. There is no figure or majesty, compassion, grace, humility, and godliness embodied in the figure of a woman in our foyers or temples.

  26. Stephen Hardy says:

    When we, as euro-descended folk, make Jesus white, then we are creating God in our image. Sort of the opposite of what we hope is true.

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