On White Jesus during Holy Week

Almost a decade ago, I wrote a column about White Jesus, and specifically Black people’s worship of white Jesus. I talked about how jarring it was for me, a 17-year-old walking into Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta for the first time and seeing a giant white Jesus hanging behind the pulpit. Daddy King’s church (I’ve since learned it was Mrs. Alberta Williams King’s daddy’s church first), the home of the Civil Rights Movement. Worshipping White Jesus. I couldn’t wrap my brain around it.

If you look closely, you can see that White Jesus is alive and well in the church of Daddy King and Raphael Warnock.

I went on to liken White Jesus in Daddy King’s (Mr. Williams’) church to Black people’s worship of whiteness more broadly, but specifically in the stock we put into white “experts,” and even more specifically white experts on Blackness. A decade ago, I questioned how the most cited scholar on HBCU culture and governance was a white woman at an Ivy League institution who had neither attended nor ever worked at a Black college. Today, perhaps fittingly, I sit aghast at the Twitter chatter this week about a white woman authoring a book on “trap feminist” theology.

Lord Jesus, please start the rapture, because I’m tired…

The main thesis a decade ago was that White Jesus was fine — even important and necessary — for white people, but that Black people needed for themselves a Jesus who looks like them to worship and adore. It was essentially the same thesis Thurgood Marshall presented with the babydolls to show the impact of Jim Crow and segregation on the psyches of young Black children.

But a decade later, two things have happened. First, I moved to Texas and encountered a Christianity that was so far from anything that remotely resembled what I know to be Christianity that I couldn’t process it. It was an oppressive, not liberating doctrine. Used to keep Black people in their place and underscore the moral superiority of white people. It was a Christianity I’d read about — the same one that is the foundation of the present-day Republican party — but not one I’d ever seen up close. Even in brief, distant encounters, it left my spirit unsettled. I went off looking for something to make sense of how the same Bible could be interpreted so vastly differently (and anyway, couldn’t people read the Bible for themselves? How did folks get so far into these interpretations? Because most of that stuff y’all be saying is in there ain’t in there, but I digress).

I landed on James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power, which was originally published in 1969 and draws parallels between the Black Power movement and the teachings of Christ. And his main premise was that White Jesus can’t exist, because Jesus would have always identified with the most oppressed, most persecuted people, and in America in 1969 — and 2022 — that was Black people.

He wrote:

“It is a sad fact that the white church’s involvement in slavery and racism in America simply cannot be overstated. It not only failed to preach the kerygmatic word but maliciously contributed to the doctrine of white supremacy. … Racism has been a part of the Church so long that it is virtually impossible for even the ‘good’ members to recognize the bigotry perpetuated by the Church.”

The book gave words to all of the things I was feeling, and helped me reconcile the different versions of Christianity. (He also called out the Black church for descending into a perpetuation of respectability politics doctrine, focusing on attacking all forms of pleasure, rather than the real systems of oppression as intended by Christ himself. Cone said the descent started as a means of survival — white churches would give money to Black churches they felt weren’t too radical — and later became proximate to what I’ve called out as a worshipping of and desire to be proximate to whiteness.)

Y’all remember when JJ painted Black Jesus, and Florida protested, but the whole family had a string of good luck as long as Black Jesus was around?

The second thing that happened was I recently took a solo trip to Portugal. In Lisbon, there is a replica of the famed Christ the Redeemer statue that welcomes visitors to Rio de Janeiro (the latter of which was erected on the centennial celebration of Brazil’s liberation from Portuguese colonization). As I sailed past the statue, I couldn’t help thinking: If Portugal started colonization and the modern-day slave trade, then White Jesus and Portuguese Jesus are the same, right? Everywhere I went for a week, I couldn’t stop thinking about the role (white) Christianity had played throughout history in the atrocities committed against Black and Brown people. People the colonizers saw as savages needing to be civilized, which was really just an excuse to pillage their lands for natural resources — because after all, it was Black and Brown people who introduced spices and bathing customs, invented mathematics and architecture and the most accurate calendar the world has ever seen and originated countless other marks of “civilized society.”

Last week, I read about a white church in Illinois that had given up whiteness for Lent, which really just translated to giving up white music during the worship service and centering the music of Black and Indigenous groups. And I thought, what a waste. If they had used this season of repentance and reflection to really examine the ways they have either perpetuated or benefited from violence against Black people, if they had chosen just one policy cause to take up for 40 days and one social cause to raise money for, not only could they have made a real difference in their community, they would have sowed seeds of change in their hearts.

But that would have been too much like right. People are not really ready to grapple with concepts of privilege or antiracism. I know this from the work I do, trying to get schools at all levels to make just incremental changes for the benefit of Black and Brown students. They just want to check a box that makes them feel good for trying.

My original thesis was that the Bible specifically didn’t tell us his race (people in North Africa, the lands of the Bible, come in all sorts of colors and flavors), and that we were all free to craft a Jesus in our minds who looked like us, but that for Black people and specifically my Black children, I wanted a Jesus — and experts and ideas of moral superiority and greatness and genius — who looks like us.

Cone’s thesis is that not only does everyone’s Jesus have to be Black, but the “White liberal preference for a raceless Christ serves only to make official and orthodox the centuries-old portrayal of Christ as white [because] the ‘raceless’ American Christ has light skin, wavy brown hair, and sometimes — wonder of wonders — blue eyes. … Christ is black, baby, with all of the features that are so detestable to white society.”

“Christ is black, baby, with all of the features that are so detestable to white society.”

Anyway, if you follow me on social media, you’ve perhaps heard me joke that my Jesus, in my head, looks like Marvin Gaye on the cover of the “Here, My Dear” album, but about 6'2,” 220 lbs. (My daughter argues that Jesus can NOT be fine, but what I look like worshipping an unattractive Jesus?! Her daddy says that maybe Jesus’ “final form” is 6'2,” 220 lbs, but regular every day Jesus is probably more like 5'10,” 185. They both need to mind their business.)

In my mind, Jesus looks just like this. But a little bigger.

Y’all do what you want with your Jesus in your heads. But one thing’s for certain, two things’ for sure: I am not sitting here on this Saturday between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday waiting on no White Jesus to get up out of the grave to save me. Because the White Jesus I’ve encountered wouldn’t have died for me. Actually, he might have tried to kill me.

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Autumn A. Arnett

Autumn A. Arnett

Autumn A. Arnett is an advocate for education equity, an HBCU alumna, Founder of A Black Child Can (aBlackChildCan.org). Connect with her via www.a2arnett.com.