Jesus Doesn’t Look Like You

By Bob Hiller

This past week, I came across an article from Christianity Today entitled “Why Jesus’ Skin Color Matters.” In it, author Christena Cleveland argues that the Western church has done a great disservice to the church by presenting Jesus as a white male. She argues that Jesus, as a first century Jew, would not have been a member of the powerful, white Roman class. Instead, he was a dark, olive-skinned member of a social minority. The belief that Jesus was white has led the Western church to demean members of other racial groups. In order to carry out Jesus’ mission properly, we must push against this white-washed Jesus as a member of the social majority and view him as a member of the social minority. In this way, we will begin to treat each other as equals in the church. She closes provocatively, “[T]hose who still perceive a white Christ must ask whether they can and will worship a dark-skinned Jesus.”

There is much to be commended in this article. I thought of Stephen Prothero’s book, The American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, in which Prothero masterfully points out how every possible group of Americans has enlisted Jesus into its given social caste. If you want to prove you are right, just make Jesus look like you and you’ll win! Americans, argues Prothero, are masters at making Jesus in their own image. Cleveland’s article is a helpful reminder of what happens when idolatrous views of Jesus overtake the Jesus we find in scripture.

However, as important and true as Cleveland’s point that we should not view Jesus as a powerful, European white male is, I fear she falls into the same trap. Opening her article, she recounts an interaction with a student who asked her how she and the black community feel about Jesus being white. Says, Cleveland, “Jesus is not white. The Jesus of history likely looked more like me, a black woman, than you, a white woman.”

Now, I get her point. Jesus was a member of minority group. But, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the Jesus of history looked neither like a black or a white woman. Jesus was a first century Jew. Whatever they looked like, that’s what Jesus looked like. And, in fact, to claim that Jesus looked like a black woman is just as dangerous as saying that Jesus was a white European dude. Though it may have different social implications, theologically it is the same problem.

Jesus in the Wilderness

The only Jesus we know is the Jesus given to us in the gospels. They spend precious little time talking about what he looks like. Hundreds of years before the incarnation, Isaiah told us he wouldn’t be someone we would gaze upon all that fondly. In fact, the most elaborate physical descriptions we get of Jesus seem to be the ones of him being beaten and bloodied by Roman soldiers, nailed to a tree and bleeding out of his side, and showing the resurrected holes in his hands to Thomas. What does Jesus look like in the New Testament? He looks crucified and risen.

Cleveland is right to say we should look more closely at the historical Jesus. And, by this I don’t mean that Jesus seminar nonsense. I mean the historical records of who Jesus was. If we want to strip away our self-important idolatrous views of Christ, we need not re-examine our theology so much as we need to simply read the Bible. NOTE: I did not say read INTO the Bible, because that’s where all this mess begins. But, let the eyewitnesses and those closest to the situation tell us the truth.

In another article I read this week, Who Was Ty Cobb? The History We Know That’s Wrong, journalist Charles Leersham offers a marvelous example of how we can rescue a person of history from the shackles of our imaginations. Ty Cobb was arguably one of the greatest baseball players of all time and one of the most notorious villains in all of sports. Cobb is known for his temper, drunkenness, and vile attitude towards fans, dirty play, and racism. He is supposed to have killed some men. However, after doing some significant research for a book about Cobb, Leersham found that most of these claims are unfounded. Cobb was thin-skinned and short tempered to be sure, but accusations of racism, dirty play, and ill-treatment of fans are sensationalized. Cobb actually came from a long line of abolitionists, was a huge Willie Mays fan, was never accused of spiking by other players, and wrote five-page letters to young fans. Leersham found all this out by doing something that was once common: ignoring the hype, checking with the eyewitness accounts, and consulting those sources closest to the situation. In other words, Leersham did actual historical research. In this way, Leersham will be able to give us a more honest and accurate look at Ty Cobb.

ty cobb

OK, strange detour, but Leersham gives us a great example of how we are to understand anyone in history, let alone Jesus. What we find with Jesus when we examine the eyewitness testimonies (the gospels) is not just a man who was poor and in solidarity with the poor but one who refused to take up the political causes of the marginalized Jewish people. Instead of joining a protest march, He rode a donkey to die on a cross. He looks most like us when he, who knew no sin, became sin and died in our place. We find a man on a mission to die for sinners: poor and rich sinners, white male sinners, black female sinners, and every kind of sinner. No, it is better: he came to die for every sinner.

Cleveland’s analysis ultimately falls short because it is missing the cross. As noble as her cause is, she still falls into the trap of enlisting Jesus into it. Depicting Jesus as anything other than the crucified and risen son of Jewish Mary is to use Jesus for our own ends, that is, to make him into our image. That is blasphemy even if our cause is good and noble. Good and noble blasphemy is still blasphemy. A Jesus who fights for our causes but doesn’t die for our sins ends up saving no one, but he sure is a great poster boy for our team!

What do you think Jesus looked like? It doesn’t really matter. The only Jesus that matters is the one who died and rose for you. He’s not much to look at. Following him won’t promote your cause. You cause will be wounded by the cross he hands you. He will be the death of you. But, hey, that’s the only Jesus who actually brings life to the sinful Jew and Greek, slave, free, male, and female! Thank God he decided to become one of us!