You can see the cover for yourself. There on the front of Rolling Stone is Kanye West, which is no surprise since he is a hip hop/rap superstar, but he is wearing a crown of thorns and spattered blood. According to news reports the Catholic Church has branded Kanye West as a “moron” after this ‘stunt’, and other religious leaders have been quick to condemn this act as sacrilege. In the same issue he poses as Muhammed Ali as well. West, you may remember, is the person who had a mega-hit with his rap/hip hop song “Jesus Walks”.

Not surprisingly the press has jumped all over this story, and the comments have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Kanye West is without question an interesting chap. He has, for example, a painting of the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of his dining room in his home, and at times he seems to want to be viewed as a Christian person. Certainly, he does not shy away from controversy.

Leaving aside West’s or Rolling Stone’s motives for a moment, one of the questions we should ask about this is— Does the outrage about this have anything to do with the fact that many people find a black image of Jesus troubling? Before you too quickly dismiss this notion, consider that we also now have a film entitled “Son of Man” from South Africa, which is making its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. In it Jesus is depicted as appearing on earth as an African revolutionary fighting apartheid, racism and the like. People in America have found that idea troubling as well.

The issues I want to probe are twofold: 1) the problem that we all see Jesus from our own anachronistic point of view; 2) why is it that a black image of Jesus troubles some white American Christians so much, when they were certainly not much troubled when various white folk have portrayed Jesus in film and on TV, since Jesus certainly wasn’t white (despite the best efforts of some to argue for an Aryan Jesus).

Let me start with a quotation from a wonderful and stunningly beautiful Christmas song, on the James Taylor Christmas CD he did for Hallmark. It is entitled “Some Children See Him”

“Some children see him lily white
The baby Jesus born this night,
Some children see him lily white,
With tresses soft and fair.

Some children see him bronzed and brown
The Lord of heaven to earth come down,
Some children see him bronzed and brown
With dark and heavy hair.

“Some children see him almond eyed
The Savior whom we kneel beside
Some children see him almond eyed,
With skin of golden hue.

“Some children see him dark as they
Sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray
Some children see him dark as they
And oh, they love him too.

“The children in each different place
Will see the baby Jesus’ face
Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace
And filled with holy light.

“Oh lay aside each earthly thing
And with thy heart as offering
Come worship now the infant king
Tis love that’s born tonight.”

Lyric by Whila Hutson and Alfred Burt (Hollis Music Inc. BMI).

This song reminds us poignantly that we all have a natural tendency to see Jesus in our own image, rather than seeking to see ourselves in his image. If you simply look at the history of Christian art you will see Jesus being indigenized for every culture— dressed in Italian style, looking like an Englishman, portrayed as Oriental, looking like an African and so on. This is only natural. We all desperately want Jesus to be one of us, to be approachable, to be someone we can identify with. In the case of Kanye West, who does see himself as something of a prophetic figure, I think the more charitable interpretation of what he has done, since he also posed as Ali, is that these are persons West would like to emulate, would like to be like. And that, in the end is a good thing. But lets probe these two issues a little further.

Just for the record, Jesus was indeed dark skinned. Probably not as dark as those who come from sub_Saharan Africa, but nonetheless very brown indeed with dark hair, and dark eyes. How do we know this? Its not hard to figure out from archaeological work, the digging up of graves and ossuaries. In this respect he would have been like others in that region who lived in a sun-baked land where it does not rain between May and October. He would also not likely have been more than 5 feet 5-7″ tall. If you go to Israel today, you will discover that most of the natives who have lived there for generations are also of similar hue, whether they are Palestinians or Jews or something else. So clearly the blond haired, blue eyed fair skinned Jesus with an impeccable Oxbridge accent is not the real Jesus. One of the better aspects of Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of Chrst” was Jesus actually spoke Aramaic– a language almost none of the audience could understand.

And here we are getting at the root of the matter. A Jesus who does not look like us, doesn’t talk like us, doesn’t dress like us, and lives according to a different culture is alien to us. He is very hard to identify with. Instead of changing ourselves into an image more like his which requires hard work and not a little imagination, it is so much easier to mentally change him into the image of ourselves. And this domestication of Jesus if taken to an extreme (for instance with the Aryan Jesus concept) becomes in fact idolatry— the attempt to recreate God in our own image. But for most of us, it never goes that far. We just desperately want Jesus to be approachable, someone we could actually imagine emulating.

I would like to suggest that the outrage at Kanye West’s act, which was of course meant to be provocative, may indeed have surfaced the obvious fact once again that racism is indeed still an issue and indeed a besetting sin in our culture, no matter how much we would like to stick our head in the sand and say it is not. I do not say that all or most of the reaction was caused by racism, but those who were affronted simply because West is black do have issues to deal with. For those who take seriously Gal. 3.28 which says that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, no male and female” cannot ignore knee-jerk racist reactions to things. The church needs to look hard at itself and ask questions like— “Why is the eleven o’ clock worship hour the most segregated hour of the week in America even in 2006?”

I was preaching last November at a church outside the suburbs of Philadelphia to a truly multi-racial congregation (it was about 50% white, 30% black and 20% India Indian), and it struck me how very different this church was from most of those I preach in throughout the country. The ones I am invited to tend to have congregations that are either almost entirely white or almost entirely black. The reason this church was not that way was in part because it was a Pentecostal Church, and churches like that which are Spirit-drenched and full of enthusiasm and exuberant praise and preaching tend to attract all kinds of persons, right across racial lines. The Holy Spirit is dangerous. When the Spirit is allowed free reign, the Spirit tends to break down cultural and racial barriers.

So perhaps we can take the Kanye West tempest in a teapot episode as a teaching moment. Perhaps we could ask ourselves why multi-cultural images of Jesus disturb us, if they do. Perhaps we could ask— Shouldn’t we be getting on with trying to conform ourselves to Christ’s moral image, not conform him to our physical one?

As Fredrick Buechner once said “He had a face” but it was not a face defined by the color of his skin. It was defined by the content of his character and his mission. It is not an accident that the NT nowhere describes the physical appearance of Jesus. The Gospel writers clearly did not believe that “image is everything”. They believed rather that being in God’s image, and being reformed in Christ’s im
age is what its all about. Think on these things.

More from Beliefnet and our partners