I read a quote by an Asian writer who confessed his preference for white writers over writers of colour because, having had the luxury of time and resources to think about the meaning of life in a universe they had “matured” to seeing as as empty and purposeless, they focused on the human condition in general and existence in the abstract far better than writers of colour.
Black writers, he observed, wrote too often on suffering – because they were more familiar with it than more abstract topics. Their works were rarely disembodied. They were in the trenches of human being, in the mud where black people are still exposed to greater levels of physical danger. Their minds could not afford to soar with those of white writers who had few such worries and could explore the safe and bloodless everything and nothing.
This is similar to a podcast in which Lebogang Mashile spoke about a white gentleman who preferred her work when it discussed suffering in the abstract but not in the black female concrete body. The cerebral, the non-local, the nondescript, he liked; the abruptly bodied and historical, not so much.
The Asian writer was critiqued by a black commentator for his unconscious absorption of the narrative of whiteness as normality, niche supremacy and the human mind fully realized.
Since reading and hearing these thoughts, I have been dissecting Jesus with much sharper apparatus than I used in my most testing crises (of faith?). I have since figured that there are two Jesuses I feel the need to speak of.
The first is White Jesus, who, despite never having existed, is the most popular artistic subject in human history. If the fastest way to gain control over someone’s will and mind is convincing her that God looks like you and not her, then the whiteness of White Jesus has been a necessary component of every crusader’s and colonialist’s Christology since, I dare say, Constantine. Now, some souls have taken very personally my tendency to name a colour – or rather, the whiteness which has often been presented as the colourless, the norm, the uncoloured human experience – but I didn’t do that: white supremacy did. I’m just taking it at its word when it assumes the normality of whiteness. Please don’t shoot the messenger.
The creation of White Jesus serves to normalize and centralize the straight white male experience while hiding that this has been done from those who are straight, white or male. The more of these three things one is, the less likely one is to know what’s happened and the more offended he will be if you try to make him see that God Incarnate himself has been recruited into the business of making the world safer for him but not others.
White Jesus was created out of a deep insecurity that could not be masked by a thousand worldly achievements. Insecurity is marked by the need to be right. When being right is an end in itself, one’s ideology becomes rigid and that rigidity becomes its own blind spot, erasing any competing interpretation of the same set of facts and scriptures. This is why church history is a tragicomedy of errors punctuated by brief, fleeting moments of beauty and brilliance. It’s also why #TheChurchIsNotListening.
Where we are determines the kind of God that will appear to us. This has less to do with what’s happening “out there” or whether there even is a God than with the lens we’ve developed to interpret life. The realest theophany still has to be critiqued. Was that bush really burning, or was the sun setting behind it just so? No matter. Literal suffering can only be met by a tangible, incarnate God – an Immanuel, a God-With-Us – who rescues from captivity, bondage and slavery. He speaks truth to the Powers-That-Be, often losing his life in the process. His resurrection is the vindication of the underdog and the liberation struggle his death catalyzed. Ideological suffering can only be relieved by a God who props up politics and government. This God looks exactly like the Powers-That-Be because he backs them, and not the little guy getting crucified by them. This God’s resurrection is his fulfilling The Terminator’s last words – “I’ll be back” – and no mistake about it: he is out to terminate someone.
The absence of suffering can either start the search for a transcendent rescuer, a divine saviour (the embodied, incarnate Brown Jesus of tangible bodily suffering) or it can kill the search (atheism) – or it can spark the search for God with the goal, in some instances, of propping up existing privilege and superiority over and the expense of those who do experience bodily suffering. In a word, White Jesus died for the bodily sins of Brown Sinners, the greatest of their sins being the having of bodies, and you get on his side by voting Republican.
Because his inventors needed him to prop up their privilege and ideology more than to come bodily to save them, the creators of White Jesus interpret his words not through his incarnation – his appearance among and identification with the disenfranchised – but through the abstracted, legalistic privilege of the Pharisees. Instead of seeing him as critiquing and being killed by the system for critiquing it, the inventors of White Jesus deny the system existed (because it looks just like them and the Powers-That-Be), preach that he preached against the sins of the embodied, and was resurrected to lord it over the now dead bodies of brown Jesuses and brown people. Oh, and White Jesus did not have a sexuality (well what else could “without sin” possibly mean, dear?) or if he had a sexual nature, held it back for 33 years, being the bloodless God he was.
In other words, White Jesus didn’t go to prostitutes and other outcasts to be with them: he went to them to preach at them. This is a complete reversal of the first-century witness, of course. The historical gospels say Jesus partied with “sinners” to the point that critics described him as a wine-bibber, glutton, demon-possessed, bastard half-breed Samaritan who cast out demons by the power of Beelzebub (aka “the spreader of sodomy upon the earth”). The historical gospels also show Jesus preaching hellfire and damnation at the religious and self-righteous. Go read them for yourself. Because he appears in response to and in solidarity with human need, Brown Jesus’ words on the system are understood as a critique of the system – a critique that gets him killed – while White Jesus’ words are understood as him creating and endorsing the system that now exists.
Here is the supreme difference between White Jesus and Brown Jesus: Brown Jesus comes to save you because you are oppressed and in need and broken: White Jesus comes, tells you he will save you, gives you instructions on how to save yourself and your bodiedness, then watches to see how well you will do it. White Jesus pisses on you but doesn’t have the decency to say it’s raining. He tells you it is all grace but implicitly dumps a pile of works or guilt on you. That’s why more and more people are telling him to go f**k himself.
#TeamWhiteJesus is not necessarily composed of white people but of those who refuse to admit that white privilege is real. Many brown people worship White Jesus because Stockholm Syndrome is real.
#TeamBrownJesus is not necessarily and exclusively composed of brown-skinned people, but of those who recognize structures of power and privilege that have crushed people of colour, women and members of the LBGT community – basically, anyone who wasn’t as straight, white or male as White Jesus was.
Hashtag that. Discuss that. Call that out. #WhiteJesus is no longer sustainable. Tell me what you think.
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to comment and share.
Siya Khumalo writes about religion, politics and sex.