The first time I encountered God in my likeness was in the middle of a shack. Although I had read the New York Times bestseller by William P Young some years before, there was something shockingly wonderful about watching the big screen adaptation of The Shack. The film tells the story of a man who – after an unspeakable family tragedy – encounters God the form of three persons – the Holy Spirit depicted as an Asian woman, Jesus, a Middle Eastern man, and God the Father as a curvy black woman named ‘Papa’, played by Octavia Spencer.
Despite a theology degree from Cambridge, in some ways it took a Hollywood film to help me shatter the illusion that I had been under all my life – that God was not a white man.
The God in The Shack looked a little bit like me; and it wasn’t until then I realised how the whiteness and maleness in my image of God had created a sense of distance. In a world where white men have been seen as the dominant and default human, what did that say about my place in the world – as someone who is neither white nor male?
The whitewashing of Jesus over centuries has gone hand in hand with the whitewashing of the Christian faith in general
Although intellectually and theologically most Christians know that God doesn’t look like Father Christmas and Jesus doesn’t look like a 1970s hippie, the reality is that is the picture most people – even many Black and brown ones – have in our heads.
When The Shack came out, it caused much consternation among certain sections of evangelical Christianity. For some, to depict God as anything other than a white man is part of some woke agenda, some drive to be politically correct, just like a Black actor being cast as Hamlet or Lear. For some it is seen as an attempt to rewrite history – those who see it in the same vein as decolonising the curriculum or statue-toppling.
They are wrong, of course, but what has led to these pervasive ideas of God’s maleness and Christ’s whiteness? The answers are clear: patriarchy and white supremacy.
The story that lies at the heart of the Christian faith is the belief in the incarnation – the idea that God became human, taking the form of a human. So, of course, that human had to be of a certain gender and a certain race.
Most who have read the Bible or know any part of its history – whether they believe in Jesus or not – know that the incarnate God in human form would have looked like a Jewish man from what we have come to call the Middle East, born in Bethlehem.
The archetypal white Jesus began to emerge during the Byzantine era, when the image of an enthroned emperor with long hair and a beard came to be the predominant way of representing Jesus. Later, after the 17th century saw the introduction of the idea of ‘race’ and the suggestion that certain races have certain traits, Enlightenment European theologians saw it as important to emphasise Christ’s whiteness as a way to highlight his divinity. Some time after, this evolved into the more hippie-like representation of Jesus we see today.
Unseeing and reimagining White Christ in the minds of believers is almost impossible. In a world where whiteness is power, then, of course an omnipotent, all-knowing God must be white. God could be nothing else.
The whitewashing of Jesus over centuries has gone hand in hand with the whitewashing of the Christian faith in general. It takes some effort to remember that Christianity did not begin in Europe and that there are virtually no leading biblical figures who could be described as ‘white’. Colonialism sold to the world a tale of white supremacy, and gave the false impression that Christianity was the white man’s religion to be shared with unenlightened people.
I have come to a more authentic reading of Christianity that paints a picture of God as siding with the marginalised and the oppressed, not power and empire
Despite the fact that there are far more Christians in the world who look like me than White Jesus, it takes some effort for Black and brown Christians to extricate our faith from its entanglement with the white supremacy that has at times directly contributed to the oppression, brutalisation and violence that we have experienced for centuries.
The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement over the past year has accelerated the questioning and interrogation of the whitewashing of our faith – something that many Black Christians called out for decades, and centuries before the reckoning with racial justice we have experienced in recent months.
In understanding that the Christian faith itself does not suggest one particular race or gender is closest to godliness, I have come to a more authentic reading of Christianity that paints a picture of God as siding with the marginalised and the oppressed, not power and empire.
But I can understand other Black people who find the process of disentanglement too difficult, and instead turn their backs on the Church, no longer able to grin and bear the microaggressions, institutional racism and white supremacy that can be found in it. Some are turning back to indigenous African diasporic religions in which they can see themselves reflected in the image of God.
Getting rid of the ubiquitous White Jesus is about more than just political correctness, it is necessary if the Church is to survive in the decades and centuries to come.
Chine McDonald is a writer, broadcaster and author. God Is Not a White Man: And Other Revelations is out on May 27 (Hodder & Stoughton, £16.98).