I’m Dreaming of a White Jesus
Perhaps you have seen the video – Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly responds to a Slate column in which Aisha Harris writes about the cognitive dissonance she experienced as a child, when the images of Santa in her home were black, but all the Santas out there in the world were white. Harris proposes a new imaging of Santa that children of all races and ethnicities could get with – a penguin. Now, we know that when people begin to mess with “tradition,” folks begin to lose their collective minds.
Kelly goes on a rant and brings others in to chime in and support her outrage. Just because it makes you uncomfortable, she says, you can’t mess with tradition. Kids, Santa is white. And by the way, Jesus is too. It’s a historical fact. It’s verifiable.
Problem # 1 – the social construction of race as we know it today, and as we know it in the U.S. context (the context from which Kelly speaks) did not exist in Jesus’ time. Yes, there were other social identities by which people understood themselves and others, but race as a concept simply did not exist.
Problem #2 – the social construction of race that eventually developed was done so to support a hierarchy with whiteness at the top. So the assumption that God and Jesus are white is a common one, because if being white is the highest value of humanity then of course Jesus (and God) are white. As outrageous as Kelly’s statement may seem for some of us (it’s a historical fact – it’s verifiable) it is not her personal construction. She and millions of others have been raised with this image of Jesus:
and this one
Problem #3 – Anachronistic racial constructions notwithstanding, Jesus was a Palestinian Jew.
Images are important. What we see influences how we see. How we see influences how we act – and I am speaking of the collective we, the societal we. Policies are created to uphold and support collective understandings of who is worthy of what kind of treatment. One only needs to pay attention to stories about crime and punishment to illustrate this. For instance, the so called Affluenza Defense, is successfully keeping a 16 year old white Texan out of jail even though he killed 4 people while driving drunk.
Contrast this with the case of Glenn Broadnax, an African American man from New York. Broadnax, reported to be mentally ill, was shot at by police. The police missed the unarmed man, but ended up shooting two women. Broadnax was subsequently charged with assault, and if convicted, faces up to 25 years in jail.
Christian ethicist Traci West argues that one of the persistent cultural norms in the United States that needs to be closely examined and challenged is what she calls “a commitment to the superiority of white people and their cultural contributions, traditions and history” (West, Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter, Westminster John Knox Press, 2006, p 112).
West suggests this ‘commitment’ to white supremacy not only shows up in public policy, but in Christian worship. She argues that the Christian gospel has been used in support of white superiority. However, religious practices can (and do) challenge cultural norms, such as the assumption of a “white” Jesus. It is interesting that Kelly (and others) say we can’t change tradition because it makes someone uncomfortable, because it seems to be the entire rationale for not imagining anything other than a white Jesus (and Santa).
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