“The Ethiops say that their gods are flat-nosed and black,
While the Thracians say that theirs have blue eyes and red hair.
Yet if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw,
And could sculpt like men, then the horses would draw their gods
Like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape
Bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own.”
― Xenophanes, Greek Philosopher
By Bubba Krishnamurti
As if you needed to further politicize religion. For God’s sake.
For our species to know so little about a man who has defined much of human existence is a historical comedy of grand proportions. Here is what we do know: Jesus’ alleged place of birth is in modern day Palestine and he was a Hebrew. There is no corpse to examine and, coincidentally, this fact is the cornerstone to the religion he spawned. There is simply a scarcity of substantive historical details about the man known as Jesus. There are a growing number of scholars within historical academia that debate as to whether the man we refer to as Jesus of Nazareth ever actually existed. Though the words and symbology of Christ have had immeasurable impact on human history, there simply is not enough evidence for his existence to confirm his personage. The only extra-scriptural reference to Christ within proximity to the claimed times of his life is by historian Josephus. Christian historians often cite Josephus as a stunning confirmation yet decidedly forget to mention that Josephus was born in the year 55; well after the death of Christ. In fact, many biblical scholars believe that Jesus is a composite of several messianic figures from the era.
Then why is Shaun King calling for the removal of statues of a man we know little about who may have not existed at all? After a nationwide wave of toppling statues of historical figures deemed offensive, Shaun King called for the removal of all depictions of Jesus that depicted him as ‘white.’ Though the word ‘white’ is an abstraction with arguable specifics, for the purposes of this article, we will consider ‘white’ and Northern European as analogous.
This whole charade could be easily dismissed as another shock-jock type ploy by Shaun King to get content to go viral. With our nation going through its own unique Cultural Revolution, there seems to be a need to constantly up the ante in regard to removing vestiges of the past. The removal of Confederate monuments is a far cry from what we are talking about. Most confederate statues are hardly 60 years old and were built in the 50’s as an ugly response to the burgeoning civil rights struggle. Religious art is something entirely different. Depictions of deities not only serve practical and operative aspects of a faith, but also provide us with a proverbial thread which connects us to our history and humanity as a whole. Moreover, King’s characterization of white Christ depictions as originating in white supremacy is as preposterous as it is misinformed.
First and foremost, Shaun King’s concept of light hair and blue eyes as a sole fixture of Europeans is rooted in the preposterous racial theory he claims to fight against. King’s sentiments delude people into believing that blue eyes or light hair are exclusively European traits. Light hair and blue eyes are commonly found in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria — birthplace of Jesus and many biblical tales. From Uzbekistan to Iran to the Mongol Steppe, one can find light hair and blue eyes. Ascribing some superior value to these traits could be what many leftists describe as ‘internalized white supremacy.’ The concept of fixed hair and eye coloration to a particular ‘race’ is reminiscent of antiquated racial theories like eugenics and phrenology.
But apart from the idea that Europeans ‘own’ light skin, hair, and eyes, King’s assertions ignore the whole of human history and how we have self-styled and anthropomorphized our divinity throughout time. Religions always adapt in accordance to existing cultures in which they develop. They conform to the existing customs and traditions of whatever land they inhabit. For example, when the Coptic Egyptian church became the dominant religion of Egypt in late antiquity, the Copts adapted the hymns once sung in the courts of the Pharaohs, which previously praised Horus and Isis, to hymns about the lives of Jesus and Mary. In fact, the Copts proudly proclaim this feature of their religion and rightfully appreciate the ancient civilization from which they came.
White people did not invent the need to make God in our own image. Long before Jesus, spiritual traditions throughout the globe were ‘localising’ their chosen deities. Anyone who has made a cursory glance at the theological record knows there were christ-like figures preceding Jesus of Nazareth such as Tammuz, Adonis, Attis, Sol Invictus, Horus and Osiris. All of these figures are in essence dying and resurrecting “Man-God” saviours — solar deities that embody birth and renewal. The most well known of these figures is Mithra. The Mithraic tradition upholds all of the classic tenets of the sun-god archetype: born to a virgin, later fulfilled a cycle of birth and renewal, and even, according to some, a December 25th birthday (which is actually a celebration of the winter solstice). Mithra, like Jesus, was represented distinctly depending on who was making the depiction and had linguistic variants of the same name. Mithras to the Romans, Mihr and Mithra in ancient Persia, and Miiro in Kushan Bactria. There also remained animosities between the founders of Mithraism and its later adherents. The Romans artificially tried a period of ‘Persianisation’ of their own Mithraic worship in an effort to achieve ‘authenticity.’ This desire to forge connection with what was the perceived antiquity, wisdom and religiosity of ancient Persia influenced many fundamental elements of Roman Mithraic worship. This was later mirrored again by the Romans as they sought to adapt Christianity to their own existing pagan traditions. Later, Roman Christianty would seek substantive ties with the origins of their religion. Some would argue the Crusades were part and parcel of this effort.
As long as Christian iconography has existed, different cultures have depicted the Messiah as native to the local ethnography. The Egyptian Copts, Eastern Orthodox, Armenian, Abyssinian, and Western Catholic Churches instinctively all represented Christ with features common to their respective communities. Churches and monasteries in the Levant depicted Jesus as a semite; neither white nor black.
Christiantity, as known in the U.S. and across the world today, is essentially a European spiritual tradition. Despite origins in Palestine, the nature of the religion resembles more of its appropriators than its provenance. This is not a far cry from the nature of Buddhism throughout Asia. Though originating on the Indian subcontinent, Buddhist history and the vast majority of its adherents lie outside of India in China, Cambodia, South Korea, Japan, and Tibet. The depictions of Buddha vary in each of these countries.
Islam spread quickly after its advent in the 6th century. Eventually, Islamic empires crossed from India to Spain and with them came Muslim bans on iconography. Yet even with rigid proscriptions on depicting humans in art, the faithful of many regions could not put down their culturally ingrained need to externalize the divine in art. And so went the natural variations in representations of the messenger of God; Muhammad (PBUH). Muslims in the far east depicted the prophet with eyes and nose similar to local inhabitants. Persian Muslims showed him with fairer skin than that of an Arab. To this day, Muhammad (PBUH) and his companions are depicted in Iranian iconography in an artistic style reminiscent of their Zoroastrian predecessors.
How all of this is interwoven with Shaun King’s antics may seem complex but it is really simple. Depictions of Jesus as white did not originate as an attempt to subjugate African slaves in the Americas. Even in the European world at the time of discovery of the New World, depictions of Jesus varied per region. Northern Europeans showed Jesus to have light hair and blue eyes whereas Mediterranean Christian nations depicted him with darker hair, eyes, and skin. During the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, about 6% of slaves made their way to what is now the U.S. The overwhelming majority went to South America and the Caribbean. Variance in the depictions of Christ by the Spaniards who largely settled South America naturally vary with those presented by Western and Northern Europeans.
Further, there is no evidence that the demons who bought and sold humans needed to use race to reconcile their slaves’ captivity. They did not even need to distort scripture to their ends. Depictions of a white Jesus were neither necessary nor commonplace enough to be a major impetus to justifying slavery. Though scriptural references were surely used to justify enslavement, there was no need of an ethno-specific Jesus to institute those horrors. Both the Old and New Testaments were used as a bludgeon against a captive African population whether in North, Central, or South America. If Shaun King seeks to vilify, it would make more sense to blame Christianity as a whole as opposed to a few representations of Jesus as a white man. My guess is that the wholesale dismantling of Christianity does not play well on Twitter yet. The religion is of course popular in African-American communities and a demand to take down religious icons is not a crowd pleaser. The dismantling of Christianity would be far less popular than the proposed removal of statues. Shaun King is seeking easy targets with non-historical yet hysterical arguments. He believes that symbols somehow empowered Derek Chauvin to murder George Floyd and he needs to respond with further symbology. What a horrible feedback loop to get caught in where a nation must constantly feed a symbol-hungry throng of polemicists on social media. Welcome to America 2020.