Now Metaxas has stirred controversy with a tweet contending (or assuming) that Jesus was White. His claim was made in reaction to news that the United Methodist Church is partnering with Robin DiAngelo, the author of “White Fragility,” to produce a video series on “Deconstructing White Privilege.” Metaxas’s response read in full: “Jesus was white. Did he have ‘white privilege’ even though he was entirely without sin? Is the United Methodist Church covering that? I think it could be important.”
Metaxas has subsequently attempted to place his claim about Jesus’ ethnicity into context. But there is no context in which this statement makes historical or theological sense. In attempting to debunk the idea of white privilege, Metaxas employed a traditional affirmation of white supremacy.
There are admittedly no physical descriptions of Jesus in the Gospels. Traditions about his appearance, including the beard, arose more than a century after his death. But there is no doubt that he was a Jew from what we now know as the Middle East. The white, European Jesus of Western imagination is a fiction produced by those who could not imagine human perfection in any other form. “Whites simply couldn’t conceive of owing their salvation to a representative of what they considered an inferior race,” Robert P. Jones, chief executive of PRRI and the author of “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity” emailed me. “And a nonwhite Jesus would render impossible the intimate relationalism necessary for the evangelical paradigm to function: no proper white Christian would let a brown man come into their hearts or submit themselves to be a disciple of a swarthy Semite.”
The embrace of a Scandinavian Jesus is not just foolish but part of a broader historical amnesia. Jesus not only looked like a Middle Eastern Jew; this identity also made him part of an oppressed, dispossessed group. A sense of Jewish powerlessness was the social context for his ministry, and his teaching reflected it.
Jesus offered little advice to the privileged, except to humble themselves and give their wealth away. He had much to say about the inherent value of the poor, the meek and the mourning. This message was one reason he suffered a brutal, unjust, suffocating death at the hands of public authorities. And many of his followers eventually died for resisting the edicts of emperors.
The Christian message has always been more easily and fully understood by those who lack social privilege — by those who see the face of a nonwhite Jesus.
Abolitionist Frederick Douglass provides an example. After his own conversion to Christianity, he quickly encountered the deep hypocrisy of Christians who justified white supremacy. Against Douglass’s expectation, Christian conversion tended to make slave-owners less humane. Because their version of faith justified and normalized slavery, their oppression and cruelty became more extreme.
“The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus,” Douglass wrote. “The man who robs me of my earnings at the end of each week meets me as a class-leader on Sunday morning.” Douglass understood that the relationship between apostasy and slavery was not only individual but also structural. “The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit,” he continued, “and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity.”
Even though Douglass often found “the Christianity of this land” depressing, he maintained great respect for “the Christianity of Christ,” which he regarded as a revolutionary doctrine of freedom and equality. The same Christ, he said, who “poured out his blood on Calvary, cared for my rights — cared for me equally with any white master.” At the heart of the true gospel was “the glorious principle, of love to God and love to man; which makes its followers do unto others as they themselves would be done by.”
It is the great temptation of Christians in every time to shape their faith to fit their interests and predispositions rather than reshaping themselves to fit the gospel. This is what happened when Christians justified slavery, blessed the violent reimposition of white rule after the Civil War and sanctified segregation.
Now scandalous injustice has forced the examination of white supremacy in our lives and institutions. The Christianity of Christ has much to offer. Among White evangelicals, it needs better representatives than we have recently seen.