The Black Jesus


Today I visited a funeral parlor in downtown Baltimore. A few days ago one of my co-worker’s lost his 23 year old son in a drive-by shooting. This was just another tragedy in a fairly long litany of violence that has affected the people of the school where I work. Almost all of our students and many of my co-workers live in the inner city of Baltimore so there are very few of us that don’t know someone personally who has died by gunfire.

The viewing was in the afternoon and I took off a little early from work to pay my respects. Although we were not close, I liked and respected the father, who was still recuperating from a serious surgery. Having a son in his early twenties myself, I can easily imagine what he was going through. When I got to the funeral home I was directed to the chapel, where the body of the young man lay in an open casket. He was dressed in a formal business suit and his beard made him look older than his age. His picture, propped up by the registration book, showed a good looking and happy young man.

I did not know the particulars, but I knew that shootings like this were common in the city. People are always saying that you had to be insane to live downtown, you should move out, especially if you have kids. (What’s really insane are the outrageous real estate prices throughout Maryland, making that option nearly impossible for many of the city’s residents.)

My friend was not at the funeral, having gone home to catch some rest. I sat in a pew by myself, in the chapel, with about a dozen people that I had never met before. I assumed that most of them were family of the deceased. I was the only white person there. Feeling awkward ( I am terrible at meeting new people) I figured that this was as about as good a time as any to do some quiet praying. I thanked God that these people seemed to know Jesus because in my experience he was was able to help carry us through these sorts of trials.

I looked up above the boy’s casket and fixed my eyes on the statue of Jesus  hanging from the ceiling, without a cross and his  arms outstretched, as I have seen him posed in dozens of other churches. I was surprised to see that this time Jesus was a black man.

I’d heard of this little fringe controversy for some time now; Some people (almost always white) take exception to Jesus being portrayed as a dark skinned African. To them this was a type of historical revision that bordered upon the sacrilegious. It’s not so much a problem that he is portrayed as a black  that they find offensive; they wouldn’t be any happier if he was seen as a Chinaman, a Mexican or a Red Indian. They just feel that we should stick to church tradition – which means continuing to portray Jesus as a Northern European. He most certainly never is depicted with the Semitic features one would expect of a Palestinian Jew. In fact, I think most Christians have put it out of their minds that he really was a Jew.


painting by Walter Sallman (1940)

So for years and perhaps centuries, Jesus’ face has been that of a handsome, light complected and blondish young man. My memories as a young Catholic are of all our statues and crucifixes in my home, school and church following this model. Over my bed, the peaceful and contented face of this man (who could easily have been one of my German ancestors) gazed solemnly down upon me every night as I said my prayers. (This painting, by Walter Sallman is posted on this page. Some of you may recognize it as well.)

Later, this inaccuracy took on absurd dimensions and we find Jesus portrayed on stage and screen by the likes of Jeffrey Hunter, Chris Sarandon, Ted Neely, William Defoe and Max von Sydow. Not a Semite (or Semite looking) face in the bunch.

So what’s the problem with Christians of African descent seeing the risen Jesus, who lives among them and within them, as being physically like them? Or for people of any ethnicity to find it easier to relate to Jesus the man if he is more sympathetic to their culture and their lives when portrayed as one of them. Certainly that is one lesson of the Gospels, that Jesus shares our joys and sufferings. I would think that it might be difficult for people who had been oppressed for years, either as slaves, or colonial subjects, to accept an icon that so closely resembles their oppressors.

There is the risk of making Christ into our own image, a risk that the church has run afoul of for centuries. We must never forget that Jesus the man was a Jew; living in a Jewish land, with Jewish family and friends, and practicing a Jewish religion. With that in mind, the African-American faith traditions have done a much better job of remembering the Jewishness of their black Jesus than the Caucasian-American church has done with their white one. Being the slaves and the oppressed of the dominant American culture for so long helped them identify closely with God’s chosen people, the perennial underdogs of history, the Israelites.

Artistically speaking, it is probably more accurate to portray Jesus as a black man rather than as what most Western  Christians have become accustomed.

  1. #1 by THE ANTI CHRIST on December 20, 2010 - 5:00 pm

    “HOW TRUE ARE YOUR FAITH IN JESUS CHRIST” BY COREY L.P.……me and my sister had a disagreement about faith, witch we have in Jesus. well when i was ask about my faith in Jesus i said yes i do believe in the so called Jesus as a man who walk the very earth as we walk and a man who may had Strong belief in his god and religion or may even be prophet. and my sister said to me! in these words ( YOU MEAN TO TELL ME THAT YOU DON’T BELIEVE JESUS IS THE ONE AND ONLY SON OF GOD ) and i said in these words ( YES I DO BELIEVE IN THE SO CALLED JESUS AS THE SON OF GOD. BUT NOT THE ONE AND ONLY SON OF GOD!… BUT THE SON OF GOD AS OF MY SELF AND AS OF EVERY OTHER MAN WHO’S WALK THIS PLANET PASS, PRESENT AND FUTURE NOTHING MORE AND NOTHING LESS PERIOD ) and then she Begin to judge me and say i need to go to church and gain true faith in Jesus like a good christen suppose to. and know that he died for our sins. and understand only Jesus work miracle and only he [ JESUS ] can save us. so have faith my little brother. so i said o.k. sister, but let me test you faith! and i said to her in these words…( WHAT IF YOU WAKE UP AND JESUS IS STANDING IN YOUR BEDROOM CALLING YOUR NAME WHAT WOULD YOU DO? STAY AND CHAT OR RUN OUT THE HOUSE TO A NEIGHBOR HOUSE AND CALL THE POLICE AND SAY “THERE IS A STRANGER IN MY HOUSE” …OR YOU ON A FISHING DOCK FISHING AND YOU SEE JESUS WALKING ON TOP OF WATER COMING TOWARD YOU CALLING YOUR NAME WHAT WOULD YOU DO? “STAY AND WELCOME HIM OR RUN LIKE HELL BECAUSE YOU ARE AFRAID AND CANT BELIEVE IN WHAT YOU ARE SEEING”…OR YOU ON THE 10TH FLOOR BALCONY OF APARTMENT BUILDING AND YOU SEE JESUS STANDING IN MID AIR TELLING YOU TO WALK ON AIR AND COME TO HIM. WHAT WOULD YOU DO?…”JUMP YOUR DUMB ASS OVER AND TRY TO WALK ON AIR OR WOULD YOU BE IN SHOCK AND RUN BACK INSIDE AND LOCK THE DOOR AND CHECK YOUR MEDICATION”…so the moral of this story is. WHO! REALLY HAVE TRUE FAITH IN JESUS CHRIST!… I KNOW I DON’T. NOT LIKE THAT ANYWAY….

  2. #2 by matthew arntson on March 5, 2011 - 10:20 am

    I believe that Jesus was and is a perfect blend of all
    colors. But if it bothers me in my heart that Jesus is a black man
    then he should be a black man.

    • #3 by Christian Beyer on March 5, 2011 - 11:22 am

      Wow. What a fantastic insight. Through all this debate, how
      could we miss that?

  3. #4 by Tee on May 9, 2011 - 1:41 am

    Why does it matter what color Jesus is..His blood runs the same color as ours..He is the Alpha and the Omega…So, black,white or whatever color he may be it really does not matter . He is still Jesus..If you really want to know what color he is get your life together so you can see and be with him when he comes to gather his true and faithful believers…

  4. #5 by Kandii on May 17, 2011 - 3:32 am

    So True @Tee,
    No one should judge whether or not if he has darker skin or ligther skin, we should all respect that God is looking down on all of us and watching us write all of this, he is watching us fight over Jesus’s skin colour.
    how dare you. how dare you all.
    Respect to Tee. ^-^

    • #6 by Christian Beyer on May 17, 2011 - 6:06 am

      I think you miss the point Kandi (at least my point) I could not care less if a minority sees Jesus as black, red or yellow. But there are serious problems when a white, post colonial domination society and its Church partners portray him as white, especially when the Gospel speaks against such a society. Shame on us for tolerating it.

      I seriously doubt that Jesus is ” up there” somewhere looking down on this little conversation. If Jesus is anywhere he should be in our hearts.

  5. #7 by Laura on June 9, 2011 - 9:38 pm

    We tend to embrace what we find familiar. Portraits of Jesus, including our modern-day celuloid canvas, film; tend to reflect the audience to which they were/are presented in order to make the image more acceptable. I find it funny, ironic funny not ha ha funny, that if Jesus wanted to board a plane in the U.S.A, He would probably be pulled out of line and be the subject of a full body search. In appearance, He would have more in common with those we tend to fear as terroists than our middle class white next door neighbor Fred. In a Bible context, Jesus was born to a Jewish mother of Palestinian decent. literary accounts describe him as “unremarkable” in appearance. He blended in with His neighbors, friends and relatives (who were all middle-eastern). As to Him being dipicted as being black- well 2,000 years ago ones ethnicity was purer, that is travel was limited and due to social, geographical and religious reasons people tended to not go outside their own race when it came to marriage etc. Chances are He was a whole lot darker than most would imagine. All this to say, Jesus might very well have been “black”, certainly at least a nice chesnut brown color. I’m OK with that, historically it’s more accurate than a milk-skinned white dude.

    • #8 by Christian Beyer on June 10, 2011 - 6:35 am

      “Milk skinned white dude”. Yes, a darker Jesus is much preferable. In fact, now a days, I find the white Jesus representations to be almost offensive. Like the Disney version of American history so many on the political Right embrace, it is designed to brush some inconvenient truths under the table.

  6. #9 by Termis on October 19, 2011 - 10:19 pm

    In Ethiopia and Eritrea, (where the Abysynian, and previously Cushite empires were) and where the people have been followers of Christ since the beginning of the Church, Jesus is depicted as a black man in their 1000 year+ traditional art, and their religious arts. Less we forget the coptic christians of Egypt, and other arabian countries all depict Jesus in their own way. So I thank you so much for being bold enough to confront the main-stream caucasian church’s tendency to push the false “white” image of Jesus. It’s the 20th century, surely by now everyone should depict him in a more acurate manner.

  7. #10 by cb on December 13, 2011 - 9:32 pm

    Phenomenal that, in 2011, you would even have to post something like this. Your intelligent post is full of givens for anyone with any kind of education. Of course, the historic Jesus would have had middle eastern, Semitic features, perhaps even African, and, of course, it is understandable how all peoples make their God into someone to whom they can relate.

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