There’s something fascinating about the human life of Jesus. What was his day-to-day life like? Did he have a favourite food? Was he good to his mom? There’s only so much contained in the Bible about the life of Christ to illuminate the nuance and complexity of his life. There are troubling narrative gaps, which leads to us getting creative with our perception and image of who Jesus is. Folks tend to have the sneaky tendency to filter Jesus through their own context to reconcile what they don’t know. That being said, Christ is all things to all people and understanding Him in your own terms is helpful in fostering intimacy with him. If you study religious art across cultures and periods, iterations of Jesus can be found in multiple shapes, sizes, and colours. With the rise of Western Christianity over time, a particular interpretation of the human Jesus has replaced the diversity and mystery in religious consciousness. We’ve stuck Jesus in a happy little box that is clean and inoffensive. The White, Western perception of Christ is what we’re left with. I call him WhiteJesus™.
WhiteJesus™ has twinkling blue eyes, a soft speaking voice, and a perfectly trimmed beard and soft hair. He is fit and probably smells nice. He can be found on FlannelGraph boards, primetime television adaptations of the Bible, and framed and hung in people’s homes. If WhiteJesus™ were around today, he would drive a Prius and be really serious about recycling. This is the image of Jesus that belongs to the privileged and the comfortable. This is not the Jesus that I see in the Bible or in history.
Until I really started studying the culture and context which Historical Jesus lived in, I was totally fine with WhiteJesus™. So comfortable that I was disturbed when I finally put the pieces together and figured out the reality of his life, based off of what The Gospels give us.
Historical Jesus was a brown-skinned, Palestinian, bastard son of a carpenter. He was born in a cave full of animals (and not a cute little stable like your church’s living nativity). He was a refugee as a child and his country was occupied by an oppressive, totalitarian police state. He was not formally educated. He essentially couch surfed with pack of dudes for three years of his adult life, making him homeless. He was betrayed by his own people, then executed without a fair trial by the same police state in the place of a convicted murderer. Based off of what is known about Roman crucifixion, he was likely raped by the soldiers that tortured and killed him. He died in obscurity, abandoned by his friends and was buried in a stranger’s grave. When you frame Jesus’ life this way, it upsets the pleasantries WhiteJesus™for the privileged and can provide comfort to those who identify with the pain and ugliness of his reality.
When we ignore the realities of the life of Christ and focus our eyes on an interpretation of him that is pleasant and easy to swallow, we exclude the oppressed and abused and forgotten from sharing in the Gospel. I hate when people say things like “Jesus humbled himself to eat with tax collectors, lepers and prostitutes” to somehow inspire Christians to invest in their time in “dirty people”. It assumes two things; 1) that we as Christians are somehow on another tier of existence than others, and 2) that humanity of Christ was somehow more glamorous and sanitized than anyone else’s. Traditional theology asserts that Jesus was fully man and fully divine. So yes, the fully divine Christ did humble himself when he came to Earth. But from a social and historical perspective, the fully human Christ was already there. From manger to tomb, the whole of Jesus’ human life was lived at the bottom of society.
If you’re wondering why people are turned off of knowing Jesus, perhaps it’s time to think critically about how we present him. It is wrong and lazy to focus or manipulate just one element of the beautiful intersection of divine and human that is found in Jesus Christ. Please join me in stretching out your spiritual comfort zone. Let your understanding of Jesus (no matter how it looks) out of the box. What do the realities of Jesus’ human life mean for his divinity? Let this challenge your theology, let this challenge your walk with him. And for Pete’s sake, let’s retire WhiteJesus™.