Beyond Black Jesus: Seeking the Universal Depth of Early Christianity

The black image of Jesus Christ is not new. AME Bishop Henry McNeal Turner declared that “God is a Negro” not long after the Civil War. The fathers of black liberation theology such as James Cone and Giraud Willmore led many preachers to cast away the popular Nordic/European paintings of Christ and paint brown skinned men with afros as our savior in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. There was no shortage of books about blacks in the Bible in the Afrocentrism on black college campuses in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. The plethora of internet information and speed of social media has helped more individuals and organizations spread histories and images to support a variety of doctrines on the subject. I, like many other bloggers, have written on the subject more than once.

From the Antiochian Heritage Museum, Bolivar PA

We must not use a black Jesus as an excuse for spiritual complacency. One reason for us to be watchful of this problem is that we serve a God who is no respecter of persons (Colossians 3:11, 25). The Greco-Roman world and early Christianity had icons of Jesus Christ in all ethnic groups. A Celtic monk would venerate a dark image of Jesus just as quickly as a Nubian deacon could a pale one. This is not to say that races weren’t noticed. However, in the first 1,000 years of the faith, one’s religion was one’s race. A person was either Christain, Jew, or Pagan. Ethnicity divided by skin color didn’t occur until the age of exploration and the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Belonging to the Lord’s family is not a matter even of bloodline as He taught in Mark 3:35, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, my sister, and my mother.” The color of the people depicted in icons can inspire us to live holy as we see holiness looking like us. Also, the icon of people can also help us embrace other believers as we see holiness written in the face of those different than us.

Unfortunately, the iconoclastic (anti-icon) mentality of Protestantism gave Satan the ability to use religious images as a means of division rather than unity. Colonial Virginia’s 1705 Act Concerning Servants and Slaves made it clear that Africans were to be considered the inferior ethnicity and the European the superior. Thus, any image of black holiness would be unacceptable in the country. African Americans embraced this ideal so much that when Ebony magazine printed a black Jesus on its March 1969 cover, many people threatened to cancel their subscriptions. Greeks, Russians, and other Orthodox Christian immigrants were looked upon with some suspicion as they had some dark-complexioned images of Christ, Mary, and saints among their many images of holy people. These churches rarely evangelized to African Americans (or anyone else) as they struggled with maintaining cultural identities while carving out a place in general society. More and more of these images are coming to light to a people who have been (and still are) marginalized against. My concern is that too many of us are taking the images without embracing the faith, or at least the universal ideal that they were painted with.

Ethiopian Nativity Icon

Please realize that Christianity is older than this nation and the faith established here is not the original. The worship of Jesus and the Holy Trinity began in 33 AD on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Along with the olive-toned people of the Middle East, the Lord revealed Himself to black Africans (Acts 8:26-39) and pale Europeans (Acts 10). The first community of believers who were called Christians were Cyrenians, Greeks, and Jews (Acts 11:19-26). Get an icon or two of Christ that looks like you. But don’t stop at the picture or use it as a prop the way that white supremacist has done (and still do). Study and practice the ancient Christian faith that brings people of all lands and languages together in holiness (Revelation 7:9-17).

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One thought on “Beyond Black Jesus: Seeking the Universal Depth of Early Christianity

  1. Thanks for your blog and pictures associated with it. It makes sense and is fun to see the various icons that are out there.

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