KAMPALA, UGANDA – My first image of God hung in my bedroom and watched over my childhood. You’ve probably seen the painting, known as Head of Christ, countless times yourself.
There’s our Lord with His long, sandy hair, trimmed beard and piercing blue eyes. He’s handsome but, to a kid, still sporting a kind of hippie look that was ahead of its time. After all, the iconic a print by Warner Sallman, who was Jesus’ photographer as far as I knew, dates back to 1940.
It comes to mind because here at the Ugandan university where I live, a boy in my two-year-old daughter’s Sunday school recently drew Jesus as, no surprise, a black man: somewhat like in the story of the little boy who decided to draw God.
“You can’t draw God. Nobody knows what God looks like,” his teacher said like only an adult could.
“They will when I’m finished,” he answered.
Yes, a child’s take on life can be like a light, poking holes in the dusty things we think we know.
But really, Jesus was black. Or at least more black than white.
Now I have no agenda on this. I don’t wear Malcolm X T-shirts or hip-hop pants lower than my underwear. I’m native European and straightlaced. In grade school I was called “Whitey,” and would easily be voted the kid least likely to ever move to Africa.
So I realize a black Jesus is unsettling for those of us in creation’s lighter hue. We have a western image of a milky-skinned, effeminate Christ that comes from renaissance art and, more so, Hollywood. Jesus may have had olive skin. Maybe brown. But black? Nope. That just won’t sell as a gift item in most Bible bookstores.
But why are some of us so quick to make God in our own image, and slow to let others do the same? If Jesus was black as night with funky hair, might that even disturb some of us, like say, the Pharisees were offended when Jesus didn’t match their messianic notions?
History and logic can easily support a black Jesus. His family, remember, fled to nearby Africa. Skin tones likely didn’t change at the border. And, in his apocalyptic vision, the apostle John wrote that Christ had “hair like wool.”
What we know for certain is the Word became flesh. So does it actually matter if it was red or yellow, black or white?
No. Jesus wasn’t hung up on appearance. Between His resurrection and ascension, the calendar days we’re now in, sometimes His look was so different that even friends didn’t recognize Him.
And yes, it does matter. Truth matters. A fair historic image should be part of the spiritual journeys of thinking Christians wanting credibility in their culture.
People matter, too. Africa has about 400 million Christians, a fast-growing global body deserving understanding. Allowing for a black Jesus is a test of equality. Can Africans find healing in a white Jesus any more than anyone can find anything worthwhile in the flawed image of a meek and mild Lord?
It’s also interesting that in response to Christianity being perceived as a white man’s religion, Islam has historically been trumpeted as the true faith of blacks.
It’s one more example of how myths shape our world, if truth doesn’t. And that doesn’t serve anyone on either side of the ocean for long.
It was my father who hung that well-known portrait in my bedroom so long ago. I’m thankful he did. But I’m thankful there’s also a time to grow up into a bigger world.