Help or Harm: The Image of Jesus

From reflections/thoughts almost a year ago

I grew up with Sunday school coloring book and back of bible illustration white Jesus. His hair was either brown and flowing or blonde and bright like the sun. His light light arms were always stretched out, perhaps just moments away from stroking the perfectly symmetrical mustache connecting to a beard he adorned. His fit was always white, or off-white, with a primary colored sash. His nose bridge always narrow and his cheekbones consistently high.

His index and middle finger usually chucking up what I used to assume was an early form of a peace sign, A.D. His eyes dark brown or crystalline blue. His lips a rosy pink with the corners of his mouth almost curved into a blank but all knowing smile. This was my first image of Jesus. An image I cannot strip from my mind even today.

I was raised in a predominantly Caribbean, Bahamian, Black American Evangelical Covenant church in Miami, Florida — somewhat of a perfect oxymoron.

A church with blue tinted stain glass windows depicting angels and cherubims, lambs, and harps. I would peer from the pew seats, just tall enough to see over, as ushers ran to cover weeping women in white cloth, as prayers swelled at the alter, as water was tapped dry from a tissue out of the box when a nerve was hit and a chord was struck. I recall watching unquestioning and silent. Wondering why Jesus made people cry, and shake, and fall down. Wondering how he was in the drums, and in the fingers and in the tapping foot of the piano player, whilst also “living in me”. Wondering what it meant for the Spirit to show up, when he had not been seen walking through the door or scooting into an aisle, or walking past the offering plate, but still was in attendance.

But it was simple for me to accept Jesus because his message was all I knew.

I didn’t doubt his miracles, his death, or resurrection until I began to wonder how that image of white Jesus, father to all, could love Black, fatherless me.

I recall seeing images of Jesus with darker skin, thicker hair, and dark eyes. I would go to my Godparents’ house and study the pictures of brown-skinned Jesus — some with high cheek bones, some with low, some with dimples, or a beard, or with almond shaped eyes and an expression that was always either somber in every picture or brilliantly gleaming and the similarly brown-skinned angels with their varied russet and bronze skin tones, were draped around him, miniature portraits of their own. I can remember staring at that face that held what looked like either deep regret or joy, both confused and amazed, wondering how there could be two versions of the same person. Which one was he? Is it still silly to debate?

It feels as if I’m still debating it since I’ve found it hard to pray recently. Each time I attempt to, I imagine my prayer as a teeny tiny email in the gigantic Office 365 inbox of the creator (which then makes me wonder if God actually thinks O365 is more efficient than Gmail). I picture dozens of larger emails popping in from around the world. Emails with more important requests, and I envision God dragging my teeny tiny email into a “Read Later” folder. I usually break myself from the thought and try again, only to trip over my own words because for some reason, I’m nervous to talk to God. I don’t know what formalities to use, what jargon is acceptable — can I be colloquial? How much? What’s offensive? What’s silly to ask? What’s self explanatory? I break from the game of a thousand questions and try to quiet my thoughts. But I’m distracted again when all I see is this white guy with a white beard, who I assume has better things to do, looking down at me, impatiently wondering what it is I want. This cold image of a Euro-centric God reminds me that He and I are different, elicits me to question the truth of fatherhood in his relation to me and causes me to question him as a parent and how he could ever understand any of it.

Following all of that I just say a quick prayer, something unoriginal and half-hearted, something you say to a friend who doesn’t understand you anymore and vice versa but you don’t want to be impolite so you say something, anything. I never thought that in this point of life, of being a Christian person, that I would question the basis of my connection to Christ. Stumped and defeated over the simplest thing as His alleged image, but I am.

We didn’t have pictures of Jesus in my house.

We didn’t have rosaries or those plaques with a picture of footsteps in the sand. In my house, God was all things. He was moving and still. He was everybody, somebody, but no one to be compared to. To my 10 year old self that made absolutely no sense. Twelve years later it makes a bit more sense than it did before, but still trips me up from time to time.

The image of “White Jesus” has caused so many riffs, problems, so much uneasiness and worry in me that I’ve decided to start de-robing it from my mind. Allowing myself to see God but his adjectives and not by physical features.

I’m taking the initial steps to “getting there”. A youth pastor friend of mine tells me that she talks to the church staff about removing images of redundant white Jesus in hopes to expand the student’s views of the Messiah, so I smile at the hope that other people are getting there too.

The image of White Jesus clouds and inspires the images of role models, authorities, and “upstanding citizens”. So much power in a picture, in an assumed look, in an idea.

If the long haired, pale skinned Jesus harms or helps, I am unsure. As of now, I think it accomplishes both.

Avid fiction reader and movie goer.

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