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Searching for a Jesus Who Looks More Like Me


Close your eyes and imagine that Jesus is in front of you.

Is the man kneeling in prayer in the Garden at Gethsemane Chinese? Is the man sitting at the table of the Last Supper Navajo? Is the man dragging his cross toward Golgotha Nigerian? Or is the crucified figure a woman?

Likely as not, the image that presents itself to most Americans is of a lithe, bearded man with shoulder-length, chestnut-colored hair. And whether he is a dashboard Jesus or the nearly 100-foot tall Cristo Redentor, arms outstretched atop a mountain rising over Rio de Janeiro, he is likely to be male — and white.

This confounded me as a young child — the image of a white Christ (in my case, blond and blue-eyed) — printed on the hand-held fans cooling the black congregants of my grandmother’s church in Los Angeles.

Even at that age, with only a peripheral awareness of the brutal attacks on civil rights marchers in Birmingham, Ala., and the bombing of the 16th St. Baptist church there that killed four little girls, the youngest not much older than I — even in my innocence, worshiping someone who didn’t look like us seemed incongruous.

As it turns out, at about that time, “God” as depicted in the form of Jesus Christ was beginning to look more and more like me. Only I didn’t know it.

By the middle of the 20th century, the global center of Christianity had begun shifting away from Europe to Africa, Asia and Latin America. “Christianity around the world was becoming less white, and pictures of Jesus hanging in churches from Jordan to Japan to Jamaica were looking more like the people, instead of the standard white portraits from Europe or North America,” said Todd Johnson, co-director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass.

Thomas Hastings, the executive director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven, Conn., said, “They did their own version of Christianity, to put it simply.”

Dr. Hastings, who taught for decades in Japan, recalled how the Rev. Tamura Naoumi, an American-educated Japanese pastor in the early 20th century, sought to change the Western-based Sunday school images of Jesus to those reflecting his culture and that of his students. Mr. Tamura employed local artists to illustrate his books.

“The images of Jesus are Japanese images,” Dr. Hastings said. “The images of his disciples are Japanese images. The images of the Old Testament prophets are Japanese images.”

Dr. Hastings acknowledges that some of the missionaries didn’t like what Mr. Tamura was up to.

“But today,” he added, “all Japanese churches would relate to Japanese images of Jesus.”

There is also a long tradition of adapted local appearances and iconography to the Christian message in the West. “Early Christian artists appropriated images of the long haired pagan gods like Zeus to symbolize the power of Jesus,” said Joan E. Taylor, a professor who studies early Christianity and Judaism at King’s College London, and the author of “What Did Jesus Look Like?” The artists, she added, were referring to “other gods the people of that era would know.”

“Even with that, over the centuries in the West there have been changing fashions in the way Christ was represented that are as variable as hem lines,” she added.

So Jesus, a Jewish man from the Middle East, probably didn’t look like the Nordic Messiah portrayed on the church fans of my childhood. But should it make any difference?

“Multiethnic representations of religious symbols of all kinds are important to everybody, but particularly in our communities, ”said Dinorah Nieves, a sociologist and author in Los Angeles. “It’s important for us to see melanin and sacredness as connected and not opposites.”

However, Ingrid Reneau Walls, a missionary who teaches literature and theology in Akropong-Akuapem, Ghana, points out that among many Caribbean and American black people, even if pictures of a blond-haired Jesus hung at home or in church, “The worship was inevitably distinctly African derived.”

“The way we moved, envisioned, reached for and cried out to Christ, was not to a Christ who was white, for such a Christ would not have necessary comprehended our groans, moans and shouts, ” Dr. Walls said.

As Easter approached this year and the persistence of the coronavirus created a mushrooming feeling of apprehension, I felt the urge to go on a pilgrimage in search of more authentic renderings of Christ — ones reflective of race, but also of gender and sexual orientation. With the help of scholars , I selected 12 images from around the world that are “true” in the way they translate local idioms and sensibilities into the universal ethos Christianity strives to represent.

In ‘‘The Dead Body,’’ the Indonesian painter Wisnu Sasongko, born in 1975, said he wasn’t aiming for historical accuracy — he rarely depicts biblical events or Christ literally. “I imagine him based on my personal experience,” Mr. Sasongko said — an amalgam of everyday people he sees and images from other artists, Western and not.

The artist “restricts his palette to somber colors,” said Victoria Emily Jones, who blogs about Christianity and the arts at ArtandTheology.org. “Jesus’s lips, discolored from lack of oxygen, blend in with his black facial hair. The strongly vertical orientation is striking. Instead of seeing Christ’s body laid out horizontally on a slab or in a coffin, as in most Entombment paintings,” she said, “we see this tightly cropped frontal pose. It’s confrontational.”

This is Jesus and Judas as we have never seen them — extraordinarily buff, dressed to show off their weight lifting physiques. The men’s arms seem to almost touch. The drawing is by Richard Bruce Nugent (1906—1987), an African-American writer, painter, illustrator and bohemian of the Harlem Renaissance whose stream-of-consciousness poem, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” was an ode to bisexuality and interracial sexual attraction.

Stamatina Gregory, the director of curatorial programs at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, says the drawing suggests a cruising scene. “We always think of the Jesus-Judas encounter as only one of betrayal,” Ms. Gregory said. “What Nugent is proposing is essentially the unthinkable — that such an encounter might be sexual, and that the deepest betrayal could only have come from someone who was the closest person to the Christ figure in the world.”

Modest paintings not much bigger than a letter-sized sheet of paper — like this of the Last Supper — are ubiquitous throughout Ethiopia.

Neal Sobania, a professor emeritus of African History and Visual Culture at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., said there is a small industry of painters there who make biblical settings — like this Last Supper tableaus — for the tourist market. In addition to the facial features of Jesus and the apostles, another element marking this as Ethiopian is the mesob — the basket dining surface — and the local custom of taking food with the right hand.

In 1984, when this sculpture of Christ as a nude crucified woman, by the British sculptor, Edwina Sandys, was exhibited at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, Walter D. Dennis, a bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, criticized its presence as “theologically and historically indefensible.” The work was taken down within days.

Even a decade earlier, when her 250-pound sculpture was first shown, Ms. Sandys (pronounced “sands”) — a granddaughter of Winston Churchill — witnessed extreme reactions, pro and con. “Women’s Lib was in the air,” Ms. Sandys said, quickly adding that’s not why she made the sculpture. “I like changing things around, turning things upside down,” she said. In 2016, Ms. Sandys, who lives in New York, donated the work to the Cathedral — which happily accepted it.

Greg Weatherby, an Australian of Aboriginal descent, depicts Jesus and his followers as Mimi, spirit beings with elongated bodies who taught the Aboriginal peoples practical life skills and gave them culture. “Jesus is crucified in front of Uluru (Ayers Rock), a place of mystery and magic for Aboriginal peoples,” Ms. Jones, the art blogger, said.

“By absorbing Jesus’s death into Aboriginal myth, Weatherby suggests that it, too, has sacred significance and is for his people,” Ms. Jones said. “Weatherby places it even farther back in time than the First Century, into the Dreamtime, which constitutes the deepest reality and strongest identity marker for Australia’s Indigenous people.”

In the mid-1930s, students at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago voted a black and white sketch titled “Son of Man,” by the illustrator Warner Sallman, the most accurate portrayal of Jesus. Kriebel & Bates, a publisher of religious material in Indianapolis, bought the rights to the image and, in 1940, the copyright to Sallman’s color painting, “Head of Christ.” An industry was born.

“Wallet-sized versions were distributed to soldiers and sailors during World War II,” said Mr. Johnson, of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. “It made its way to church bulletins, calendars, posters, bookmarks — literally hundreds of millions of them.”

Emmanuel Garibay is a social realist painter from the Philippines who expresses the struggles of the common man. “Many of his Christ paintings sharply critique the Catholic Church, with its legacy of colonialism and other abuses of power,” said Ms. Jones. This one, however, is on a lighter note. Although Christ is crowned with barbed wire rather than thorns, he is casually wearing a white tank top, and holding a cup in one hand; his other is held in a sign of blessing. “This is a thoroughly contemporary Christ, a Christ of the people,” Ms. Jones said. “He looks tired yet approachable. He’s here doing life with us.”

The Chinese painter James He Qi (pronounced “huh chef”) depicts the gospel story of Jesus and his disciples suddenly caught in a storm. As the waves rise, the disciples turn fearfully to Jesus. With outstretched arms, he stills the winds and the water. As in Mark 4:39, “He arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, Be still.”

“He Qi is influenced by the simple and beautiful artwork of the people in rural China,” said Mr. Hastings, quoting from the website of the Overseas Ministries Study Center. “With bold colors, embellished shapes and thick brush strokes, he blends Chinese folk art and the iconography of the Western Middle Ages and Modern Art.”

In the gospel-based description of the Transfiguration, a radiant Christ is flanked by Moses and Elijah, who represent the law of God and the law of the prophets.

In this version, created by the Yoruba sculptor Lamidi Olonade Fakeye (1928-2009), Jesus stands between a priest of Osanyin, the god of healing, and a priest of Shango, the god of thunder and lightning. “The meaning is that Jesus came to fulfill — not condemn or destroy — the Yoruba traditional religion,” said Nicholas Bridger, author of “Africanizing Christian Art.”

This bold, soulful depiction of Jesus is by Sofia Minson, a painter of Swedish, Irish, English and Maori descent living in New Zealand. It shows him as a Maori man with full-face moko (traditional tattoo) and a huia bird, once native to New Zealand but now extinct, as a neck ornament. On her website, Ms. Minson says her goal was “to sense the fluidity and exchange of faith, wairua (spirit), culture, art and religion between people through the ages.”

While Christian artists typically depict Jesus’s suffering, in Indian art he is often seen as peaceful. Dr. P. Solomon Raj, an artist and theologian, shows Jesus “as teacher, sitting on a lotus flower much like the Buddha, the lotus being a symbol of purity,” Ms. Jones said. He raises his right hand in a gesture of reassurance and blessing “whose Sanskrit name literally means ‘Do not fear’ — something Jesus said many times.”

Djanira da Motta e Silva (1914 — 1979) was a self-taught Brazilian artist who worked in several mediums. Rodrigo Moura, chief curator at El Museo del Barrio in New York, said this 1955 painting, with its solid colors, symmetry and flat perspective, fits in stylistically with her work. But while she often documented working people — farmers, basket weavers — here the subject showed a black Christ.

The painting was controversial among church officials and in the press, Mr. Moura said: “After all, the image of Jesus Christ was (and still is), traditionally that of a white man.”

Christ is tied to a post and whipped in the public square in Salvador. Djanira suggests that violence was so common in colonial time that the faceless passers-by are indifferent to it, Mr. Moura said.

“The post bears the coat of arms of Imperial Brazil, the symbol of the European colonization,” he added. “Churches surround the scene, signifying the clergy’s complicity about violence inflicted on black residents.”


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