How will you react if you enter a church and see a bronze statue or an image of a dark-skinned man or woman in the sanctuary? Surprised, angry, indifferent, curious, happy?
Attached to this post is the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, Poland, an image of Mary and the infant Jesus depicted as blacks. This image has been venerated for over 300 years and popes have visited the monastery in Poland where the painting is kept.
I first heard about the concept of ‘white Jesus’ while researching religious distance among blacks in London in 2016. The argument is that the dominant image of Jesus does not represent the physiognomy of the people of the Middle East where Jesus came from and at the time he lived. This information rattled me, and in search of answers, I had to take up a course in ‘Religion and Art’. Although I was later encouraged to publish my thesis, I refused to do so because of the findings on “white Jesus”.
Today, six years later, that same idea restricted to a few has become pervasive due to a cultural reawakening aided by social media. I have encountered dedicated Catholics battling to reconcile this argument. My responses were helpful to them. I believe many priests, religious, and seminarians have seen this argument on social media or have been confronted with it. The default position sometimes is to denigrate those who say it or assume the devil manipulates them.
From a black African perspective, one divides the concept of a white Jesus into two. The first part is that Jesus was not a white European with blue eyes and blonde hair, as seen in the paintings and statues. Jesus was not black either, but Middle Eastern. The same as Mary, from whom Jesus got his biological traits. In her book, “What did Jesus look like?”, Joan Taylor, after a historical analysis, concluded that Jesus “was tall, somewhat slim and reasonably muscular, with olive-brown skin, dark brown to black hair, and brown eyes. He was likely bearded”.  Comparing Mohamed Salah and Jurgen Klopp can roughly help us distinguish between a Middle Easterner and a white European.
The second part is that the current image of Jesus reinforces racism. As my interviewees argued, the continuous depiction of Jesus as white even among Africans identifies “whiteness as supremacy”, “reinforces the inferiority complex blacks have with whites”, “perpetuates the white and black dichotomy” and makes blacks “worship the white man subconsciously”. But how did the image of Jesus become European?
Christianity began in Jerusalem and was institutionalised in Rome. Without any photos or biblical or historical descriptions of Jesus’ facial looks, there was no image. As there was a need for religious icons, European artists began depicting Jesus. They painted him based on their understanding of humanity—a handsome white and blonde-haired man. Generally, they portrayed the devil as dark-skinned to depict the darkness of sin.
Sadly, describing God in human terms (anthropomorphism) is always limiting. With colonisation and evangelisation, the European image became the de facto picture of Jesus. This carried over into vocabulary choice, with the adjective ‘black’ being associated with evil, crime, something shady or not ideal.
I earlier referred to the Black Madonna. Many other cultures, especially in Asia, have developed images of Jesus and Mary that look like themselves.
Pauline Publications Africa depicts Jesus and other biblical persons as blacks. However, their efforts are insufficient. Some Catechism books used in Nigeria still portray God as white and the devil as black. Nollywood Movies paint a black person as white to represent Christ and an unpainted person as the devil. They sometimes wear white and black clothes to represent God and the devil, respectively.
The inevitable questions are: If God is always white, does it mean that anything black is always evil? Is black Africa not the assumed origin of the human species and from where other races evolved? Did God, who created everything and found it good, create people with dark skin as evil? Before Africans encountered the Europeans and before Christianity came to sub-Saharan Africa, how did we depict good and bad people? Or did righteous conduct in Africa begin with Christianity?
Notwithstanding the above, as Joan Taylor says, “The image people have of Jesus can be extremely powerful as an emotional and spiritual trigger. Meditation on a visual idea can lead to sublime experiential moments”. Therefore, even as I write this post, I still have my apparitions of Jesus as white and blonde-haired based on the images built up in the course of my encounter with God. However, I no longer identify the image of a devil as black.
We must note that the issue of white Jesus is a problem facing mainline Christianity, particularly Catholicism, because Pentecostal Christianity and Islam rarely deal with images of God. Therefore, when next you encounter a Catholic struggling to reconcile the idea of a white Jesus or one who left for a Pentecostal Church or has completely ditched Christianity arguing that the Catholic Church worships a white man or that the white man used Christianity to deceive us or stifle African culture, you have your answer.
May God continue to help us🙏🏾
Mark Steven Greenfield’s work, Black Madonna, is a series of paintings that reimagine religious icons to reflect the “African American experience in American culture, often critiquing and offering unique perspectives on a society still grappling with the consequences of slavery and racial injustice”. Link to the images: https://www.williamturnergallery.com/black-madonna
 Joan Taylor, What did Jesus look like? London: Bloomsbury T &T, 2018, 168.
 Joan Taylor, What did Jesus look like?, 24.