Conversations Matter • Depicting Jesus: Imaging God

Our guest today is Rev. Dr. Wayne E. Croft, Sr., D.Min., Ph.D., Pastor, St. Paul’s Baptist Church of West Chester, PA and Jeremiah A. Wright, Sr., Associate Professor of Homiletics and Liturgics in African American Studies, United Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia.

In her 2018 presidential address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Dr. Korie L. Edwards asserted that “religious ideas motivate action.” If religious ideas move people to act, how does art and pictures on church walls—images that show a savior, patriarchs, and matriarchs foreign to one’s racial-ethnic identity and heritage—connect to and call attendees to respond?

Wayne E. Croft

In the Black Baptist church that I was raised and nurtured in, I knew only of a white, blond hair, and blue-eyed Jesus, whose followers were also white. It was not until the 1980’s when a new genre of music known as “hip-hop” began to evolve and Black pride was on the rise in a new and different way speaking to a generation of emerging young adults that I was exposed to a dark-skinned Jesus. Prior to this, an episode from the sitcom, Good Times, challenged me and led me to reevaluate my assumptions about the ethnic representation of God, Jesus, and other biblical figures. I questioned my assumptions and concluded that Jesus, and many of his followers were people of color. Today, when I see white Jesus, I see a culture bound image reflecting oppression and white supremacy. The historical Jesus, the man who was executed by the Roman State in the first century, was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jew.

Wayne E. Croft

Beyond my early childhood experiences, my seminary experience, which exposed me to Black Theology, had a profound influence on my former assumptions. In chapel on February 20, 1995 at the then Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (now Palmer), I heard the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. deliver the Frank B. Mitchell Lecture. I will never forget Dr. Wright challenging us, seminary students on our perceptions of God, Christ, and biblical characters. Dr. Wright with passion told us not to begin in 1619 when searching to understand our heritage but to go back to Africa where the Garden of Eden is located and then to the New Testament. He then began to talk about Jesus as a dark-skinned man, a Palestinian Jew, who looked extremely like those of ebony hue. He raised critical questions about Western civilization’s depiction of Jesus. Dr. Wright particularized Jesus as a liberator, one who was at home with the “have-nots,” who was himself oppressed, who worked among the poor and lynched on a tree like my ancestors, etc.

When Dr. Wright concluded his lecture not only could I no longer see Jesus through the lens of Western civilization, for the first time I was able to see and relate to Jesus and other biblical characters. Their story was my story. Hearing the contextualization of Jesus during Dr. Wright’s lecture heightened my knowledge and increased my understanding of Jesus which in turn brought about a radical reevaluation of my early depiction of biblical characters.

Wayne E. Croft

Today, seminary students appear to be far more receptive to discussions on race, culture and ethnicity in the bible than those of former generations. In my classroom most, if not all, students view the bible and biblical characters through a multi-cultural lens with the recognition that people of color dominate that lens. The church may have somewhat a different story. When I arrived at my present pastorate, in one of the corridors there was a standard picture of white Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  I asked the person whom, I was told, placed the picture there, “why did you feel the need to hang a picture of a white Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane rather than a Black Jesus?”

Her response was, “I didn’t know there were any pictures of a Black Jesus.” Immediately, without any condescension she said, “Pastor if you can locate a picture of a Black Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, by all means, replace the one presently on the wall.” I believe some people have not been challenged on the representation of God, Jesus, and biblical figures. I would venture to say that today, those whom I am blessed to serve as pastor, view the bible as being filled with people of color. However, I also believe that there remains an older generation that has not embraced cultural pride and ethnicity in the bible. Thus, they feel strange, when they see Jesus and other biblical characters depicted as people of color.

Wayne E. Croft

When a marginalized and oppressed race is devalued, denigrated, treated inhumanely and is perceived as less than those of the dominant culture, and accompanied by a dominant discourse that omits cultural context, it becomes difficult to see one’s self in scripture other than as a servant and or sinner. The negative messages and harsh treatment towards a race both shapes and contributes to their assumptions. People of color are mentally exiled from anything good and of substance and the dominate culture is illusively affixed to self-aggrandized misconceptions.

In my opinion, biblical images contribute significantly to people’s assumptions and the shaping of those assumptions. Before children can read, they see images. An image of white Jesus was at one time ubiquitous among Black Christians. The white Jesus that has been portrayed throughout the centuries is a European invention embedded in one’s mind. It became the only possible representation of Jesus, who also represents God. By negating Jesus’ identity as a dark-skinned, oppressed minority, slaveholders were better able to justify the master-slave hierarchy.

They displayed portraits of a white Jesus to get enslaved Africans to submit to them and the institution of slavery. The idea was, if enslaved Africans saw a white Jesus with power, with the color of their slave masters the enslaved would submit to their slave masters because the slave master bore Jesus’ skin color. Since this Jesus represented whiteness, purity, and European superiority, a more Israeli-looking Jesus would not have worked in the same way. Europeans used this false depiction of Jesus to manipulate not only another race of people, this depiction also reinforced their own deceptive beliefs of their superiority. This, unfortunately, has shaped and contributed to false assumptions.

Wayne E. Croft

Assumptions are powerful when they are inculcated into one’s value system and way of being in the world. They can do one or two things. They can help one appreciate and respect another race. On the other hand, assumptions can cause a race of people to envy and/or despise the other race. This is what appears to have happened in America. There was an ever present a sense of envy and fear. To rid themselves of such internalized fears that reinforces a sense of grandeur, Europeans assumed power by depicting Jesus in the image of a white American Protestant. Thus, to rid humanity of misperceptions it becomes imperative for humankind to see each other as made in the image of God and equals.