There are admittedly no physical descriptions of Jesus in the Gospels. Traditions about his appearance, including the beard, arose more than a century after his death. But there is no doubt that he was a Jew from what we now know as the Middle East. The white, European Jesus of Western imagination is a fiction produced by those who could not imagine human perfection in any other form. “Whites simply couldn’t conceive of owing their salvation to a representative of what they considered an inferior race,” Robert P. Jones, chief executive of PRRI and the author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity emailed me. “And a nonwhite Jesus would render impossible the intimate relationalism necessary for the evangelical paradigm to function: no proper white Christian would let a brown man come into their hearts or submit themselves to be a disciple of a swarthy Semite.”
The embrace of a Scandinavian Jesus is not just foolish but part of a broader historical amnesia. Jesus not only looked like a Middle Eastern Jew; this identity also made him part of an oppressed, dispossessed group. A sense of Jewish powerlessness was the social context for his ministry, and his teaching reflected it.
Jesus offered little advice to the privileged, except to humble themselves and give their wealth away. He had much to say about the inherent value of the poor, the meek and the mourning. This message was one reason he suffered a brutal, unjust, suffocating death at the hands of public authorities. And many of his followers eventually died for resisting the edicts of emperors.
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