The Imperialistic Implications of whitewashing religion
In my house, at the end of a long hallway, is a small statue of Jesus tacked up on the wall. Jesus is placed high on the dark purple wall, providing the imagery of him “watching over” my family and our home. This particular statue depicts Jesus during the crucifixion: His hands and feet are nailed to the cross, his head hangs limp and is adorned with the ubiquitous crown of thorns and his ribcage showcases a bright red gash where the soldiers drove a spear into his side.
This statue of Jesus has maintained its place on that wall ever since I was a little girl. It’s a sign of my family’s strong devotion to Catholicism as well as a painful reminder of the Spanish colonization of the Philippines. Not only has the Jesus in my home stood to remind me of my faith, but is now becoming a tragic symbol of the ways Spanish colonizers and Christian missionaries effectively converted the Filipino people to Catholicism.
The Jesus in my house is, unmistakably and unequivocally, white — with his skin coated in pale beige and his shoulder-length hair painted chestnut brown. This white European Jesus doesn’t just exist within the confines of my home, but rather is the dominant depiction of Jesus in Christian iconography around the world.
The face of a white-skinned, blue-eyed Jesus isn’t plastered all over stain glass windows, t-shirts and posters because of its accuracy, but is rather the result of a European reimagining and revisioning of Christianity.
Depictions of Jesus began to proliferate during the Middle Ages, when artists created images of him as a white man. This decision to recreate Jesus’ image — despite historical configurations showing Jesus as a man of color with Jewish and Middle Eastern features — was born out of a hostility to portray Jesus as the member of a marginalized group, even though he was Jewish. During the Middle Ages, Jewish people often faced discrimination from Romans, Greeks and other non-Jewish groups. The decision to depict a white Jesus was thereby more palatable to audiences, as his whiteness erased Jesus’ inherent radicalism and opposition to the wealthy elites.
These artistic portrayals of white Jesus further exploded in the fifth century following Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion Christianity and the subsequent spread of Christianity throughout the empire. As the power of the church grew worldwide, so did the image of Jesus as a white man, becoming an essential element of Christian and religious iconography that persists to this day.
The myth of white Jesus is not simply just an artistic creation, but has turned into a falsehood with historically dangerous and immoral implications. That statue of white Jesus in my house, for instance, is one of the many tragic and painful examples of the effects of European colonization. The fact that my Filipino family, as well as eighty-six percent of the Philippines, is Roman Catholic speaks to the lasting ways Christianity aided in the violent spread of colonialism throughout the Third World.
For the sake of control and colonization, white European colonizers took advantage of white Jesus to justify their territorial and human conquests. Selling the argument that colonization was a means of “civilizing” the natives in the colonies — who were predominantly black and brown people — was legitimized by the teachings of Christianity. This argument turned colonization into a moral and religious endeavor instead of its truly exploitative, power-hungry violence.
Colonizers also extrapolated heavily from the Bible, as they took the frequent references to “light” to symbolize purity and “dark” to represent sin or evil. And while the Bible never uses these terms in a racial manner — not even to describe Jesus’ physical appearance — European colonists related the moral purity of lightness to whiteness, and the sin of darkness to blackness. In such, their minds rationalized that the brown people of the Philippines, southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa lived sinful lives, and could only be saved by white people acting beneath the guise of religion.
The depiction of Jesus as a white man may seem innocuous enough, but using this specific characterization to justify the oppression and subjugation of other people based on skin color turns the spirituality and the faith of religion into a tool for the powerful. In this way, religion becomes inaccessible, even unrecognizable, to the millions of people who look nothing like White Jesus.
The whitewashing of Jesus has influenced a number of racial and ethnic groups to create their own version of Jesus. For instance, images of a black Jesus have proliferated in black popular culture. Images of a Korean-looking Jesus have also been created for Korean Christians as well.
While Black Jesus and Korean Jesus are also not accurate representations of Jesus, neither is White Jesus. And while White Jesus has been wielded as a tool to fuel slavery, colonization and other forms of oppression, the purposes of a Black Jesus and Korean Jesus are solely for Black Christians and Korean Christians. In this way, remaking the image of Jesus in another ethnicity allows believers of that same group to see themselves in their faith and form a deeper connection to Christianity.
The prominence of White Jesus is a sign of Christianity’s troubled history and entanglements with oppressive, white supremacist structures. It makes me look at that statue of White Jesus in the hallway with frustration and confusion — how is it that I have become so indoctrinated into this religion, to the extent that it has made up a large part of my moral foundation, that was not even my religion to choose in the first place. My family, yes, is devoutly Catholic, but I know we did not choose this faith, nor did we choose to follow a White Jesus. It was, rather, thrust upon us, used to justify our subjugation, our incivility, our barbarity.
And yet, despite the popularity of and iconographic domination of White Jesus, there’s a part of me and a part of my family, that still clings to Catholicism. It is not that we are praying to a white God or a White Jesus to hear our prayers — on the contrary, the God that exists in our minds may actually look nothing like the White Jesus tacked to our hallway. He could be racially ambiguous. Or he could be brown-skinned and brown-eyed like us. I know mine is.
Celisa Calacal is a fourth year Journalism Major who ghost wrote the bible, they can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.