Growing-up I had an image of Jesus; I’m talking about a literal picture that graced our family room, my Catholic school hallways, and the homes of most of the Christians I knew.
With angular features, blue eyes, and flowing golden hair, this Jesus was attractive, dignified—and decidedly white.
And it was this depiction of Christ that quietly shaped my faith and my understanding of the world in ways I’m only now just beginning to understand and slowly learning to jettison. This is the subtle racism so many white Christians are born into and the one that runs silently in the background of our spiritual operating systems.
Often we’re completely unaware of it, but when the Jesus you see in your head looks like you it’s almost impossible not to view yourself and others with a distorted lens; one where you are more in the image of God than another, more possessing of dignity, more deserving of respect, more worthy of love.
While I would never have taken ownership of any overt bigotry as a young man, (and certainly would have violently rejected the label of racist), looking back I’ve been able to see how my whitewashed portrait of Jesus told me a false story about God and about people of color. It made me more fearful and less compassionate.
I’m beginning to realize the invisible barrier it has often been to me more clearly seeing and being moved by the inequality around me. Sure, I’d say that God so loved the world and could recite that Jesus died for all people, but subconsciously believing that I was what God looked like insulated me from the suffering outside my window when it proved too frightening or inconvenient.
And the saddest thing is how many people there are like me, who should know better. In these days of such pain and division and grieving, the silence of so much of the white Christian Church here has been conspicuous and damning, especially from limelight-chasing Evangelical pastors and preachers who always seem burdened to comment on every real and manufactured tragedy. They’re normally never at a loss for words.
And the defiant refusal of so many white Christians I know to even utter the phrase “Black Lives Matter” or to recognize the disparity of experience across color lines or to name the violence against black men by police, even armed with crystal clear video evidence, tells me that they still unknowingly worship and serve a very White Jesus and still probably see God as ultimately in their image.
And this is rendering too much of the white American Church a quiet, complicit spectator right now, when it should be fully engaged on the front lines of the messy work of peace and justice. It should be confronting its own. It should be facing itself.
I’ve never believed in the flimsy narrative of our country as a “Christian nation”, but from its very inception power and privilege have been in the hands of religious people with a white Christ. These folks have written the story of faith and race in this country—and it isn’t pretty. It needs to be rewritten in realtime right now and this is the critical work to which we are called, and the work I want to be part of.
The more I seek to be a pastor to all people and the more I try to fully reflect the character of Jesus, the more I’m convinced that I have to reject and discard this image of a Caucasian Christ, not because I’m ashamed of my whiteness but because I don’t want to make an idol of it.
America is here in this place of violence and acrimony and disconnect, largely because white people of faith have failed to accurately recognize and fight for the God in their brothers and sisters of color, and it’s a flat-out sin worthy of our full repentance. We cannot be silent in these days or we will be proving our allegiance is not to God but to our own likeness and self-preservation.
I spent this past weekend in Atlanta, and as I walked a busy and diverse Midtown neighborhood with helicopters hovering overhead from BLM protests across town, I tried to notice each individual person as they passed by—to really see them. As I did I imagined that the particular pigment in their skin was the very color of Christ; looking intently to see the Divinity specifically revealed in them.
It made the ordinary ground all around me more holy and it gave me a reverence for people that I haven’t been aware of before. Yet with these revelations I grieved the billions of times I chose not to see this way, all the times I overlooked Jesus in my midst, all the ways I unknowingly saw or treated other people as less-than because of the color of their skin.
Church, until we can clearly picture the God reflected in all of humanity equally, we will continue to purposefully or unintentionally devalue those who look or talk or believe differently than we do. We will continue to tolerate or nurture the very racism that still so afflicts our nation.
I am determined to living the rest of my life as a Christian humbled by the presence of Christ in those around me. As a white Christian who wants to be part of a more redemptive season in America’s history, I’m saying goodbye to White Jesus so that I can fully find him in the eyes of all my neighbors.
His black life matters.