By Wayne E. Croft, Sr., D.Min., Ph.D.
Sunday began what we refer to as Passion or Holy Week. It is the week in which the Christian world begins its commemoration of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It marks Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, his triumphant entry, his increasing encounters with his enemies, the Last Supper with the disciples, his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, his betrayal by Judas, his arrest and abandonment, Peter’s denial, his trial and conviction before Pilate, his crucifixion, with all this culminating in the resurrection of Christ the Lord.
Sight & Sound Theaters (located in Lancaster, PA and Branson, MO) will be streaming free, Easter weekend only, the stage production JESUS. They are allowing anyone, in celebration of Easter, to watch the production right in their living room or on their favorite device by downloading the TBN app. While we may not be able to gather together for Easter/Resurrection Sunday, Sight & Sound wants people to still experience the joy of celebrating the one who came to save us all.
I feel an obligation to be fully honest with you. Although Sight & Sound’s presentation of JESUS is artistically powerful, the visual portrayal of Jesus is completely false. Jesus nor his disciples were white. The historical Jesus, the man who was executed by the Roman State in the first century, was a brown-skinned, Middle Eastern Jew.
This is not controversial from a scholarly point of view, but somehow it is a forgotten detail for many of the millions of Christians who will gather to celebrate Easter this week. Does any of this matter? Yes! As a society, we are well aware of the power of representation and the importance of diverse role models. It should be important to every person of color to see Jesus as a person of color.
By negating Jesus’ true identity as a dark-skinned, oppressed minority, slaveholders were better able to justify the master-slave hierarchy. They displayed portraits of a white Jesus in order to get enslaved Africans to submit to them and the institution of slavery. The idea was, if enslaved Africans saw a white Jesus with power, with the color of their slave masters the enslaved would submit to their slave masters because the slave master bore Jesus’ skin color. Since this Jesus represented whiteness, purity, and European superiority, a more Israeli-looking Jesus wouldn’t have worked in the same way.
This Easter, I can’t help but wonder, what would our church and society look like if we just remembered that Jesus was a man of color? If we were confronted with the reality that the body hung on the cross was a brown body: one broken, tortured, and publicly executed by an oppressive regime. I can’t help but wonder what might change if we were more mindful that the person Christians celebrate as God in the flesh and Savior of the entire world was not a white man, but a Middle Eastern Jew.
Jesus’ hair was like pure wool, according to a vision recorded in the Book of Daniel. That means his hair was kinky. The Book of Revelation describes his feet with the image of burnished bronze. That means he was brown-skinned. Jesus was a Palestinian Jewish man who, as a child was able to hide from the King of Judaea by spending years in Egypt, a place where people of color lived.
Now, does it really matter, in the final analysis, whether Jesus was a person of color or not since race is a modern construction to reinforce racism. No, the fact is this: Jesus is the sinless Lamb of God who died for all sinners and is the Savior of those who repent and trust in him. Jesus transcends race. But if we are going to portray him let’s portray him correctly. Why? Image is everything!
So, if you choose to watch the stage production JESUS, do so with the correct images in mind.
The Reverend Wayne E. Croft, Sr., D.Min., Ph.D.
Pastor, St. Paul’s Baptist Church of West Chester, PA
Jeremiah A. Wright, Sr., Associate Professor of Homiletics and Liturgics in African American Studies United Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia