This entry was inspired by some questions a Muslim brother asked me about conversion, Christianity, race, and my views of a white God:
As a Christian, I had a hard time absorbing that whole race division issue. I didn’t understand how could KKK be good Christians and hate us so much. How could someone be a good Christian and fight the Civil Rights movement? Interesting thing in history is that the Catholic Church condones interracial marriage. And had it not been for the virulent opposition of the Irish American community, the Catholic Church would have played a greater part in the Civil Rights movement.
Muslims do have divisions, but we have important rituals and texts that combat racial, ethnic, and cultural divisions. This is why the Hajj scene in the Malcolm X movie was so powerful. Through this universal ritual all Muslims are brought together and class divisions are eradicated. Even in prayer, you can go to any mosque and perform prayer without understanding the language of the local community members.
Another thing that drew me to Islam was the Prophet’s (SAW) last sermon. He addressed racial equality, relationships between men and women, all sort of important issues that affect us today. This is during the 7th century, predating any racial equality movement by 1400 years. The closest we get to that in the Bible is the story about the Good Samaritan, but that is a sectarian difference not really ethnic or racial.
When I was a little little girl. My sister and I used to try out different churches. At one church, the people told us that when after we die and go to heaven God would burn off all skin and we’d be white like everyone else. Of course this was horrifying, up till then I didn’t know that anything was wrong with our brown skin. I didn’t really even know the difference between black and white. I thought my mom was white because she was lighter than everyone else around us.
Years later, I remember going to a Mormon church with my mom. They showed us pictures of Jesus and God visiting, I think, Joseph Brown. Jesus was totally Aryan (with a beard though)and God was just an older version with white hair and a white beard. That picture just creeped me out. They told us that there was a war between God and Satan and that there were angels who stayed with god and some angels sided with Satan. Then there were the fence-sitting angels who could not choose. According to the story, God cursed these angels and they became black people. So this explained slavery and the condition of Africans. Of course, I was totally horrified to hear such a thing.
Then, we get to more mainstream depictions. The pictures always bothered me, worshipping a white God. I read lots of illustrated bibles. And I never saw any black people, unless we were talking about Noah cursing Ham.
As an African American, the story of the Jews and four hundred years of slavery in Egypt had a special resonance. I wrestled with this notion of a chosen people and the pictures of a European Jesus (who was God). Maybe this is all reflected in the appearance of Black Jesus paintings. Funny thing is, my dad had long straight hair when I was a kid. He kind of looked like the picture of Black Jesus. Sometimes women would see him on the street, sometimes as jokes, sometimes real (according to my mother’s account) calling out “Jesus!” I am trying to find that picture, because that would be pretty cool.
In early church iconography Jesus did look Middle Eastern, especially in Greek and Russian orthodox churches. During the Renaissance, the Italians decided to paint scenes using local models, so thus the pictures of Mary, Jesus and the Saints looked like Northern Italians. This allowed for people to relate to them. If you look at nativity scenes, they look like Italian villages because many of the artists did not know what Bethlehem looked like.
There is a controversial movie set in modern where Jesus is an African. Many people are in an uproar. Not to offend Christians, but the image of a white God has been used to dominate non-Europeans and justify white supremacy. This has been an unfortunate consequence that has developed out of Europeans doing the same thing that the African producers are doing–making an image of the Messiah in a way that is culturally accessible to the local population. I think it is is worthwhile, but if we make it universal then it becomes oppressive. So, if we want to make a Native American nativity scene, East Asian, South Asian, Aboriginal, African, even Mixed Race nativity would be totally awesome. Why not? Palestine is at the cross roads of three different continents.