Did You Know Jesus Is Brown?

a woman's hand brushing a group of white flowers

I am a good woman. I am a loving woman. I am a smart and educated woman. I am a white woman. I am a woman who loves and believes in Jesus Christ. And I am a woman with racial biases.

I do not speak these words of being racially biased with pride, but in truth and with deep grief. I am not maliciously or necessarily consciously racist. We are not born racist, racial identity is socially constructed, it is not innate. That is why we must ask the questions: How did it come to be so? What is my racial identity, history, and development?

I thought I had a decent understanding of racial injustices and appreciation for the cultures of varying skin colors and people groups. After all, I’m a Christian from California, not the South (it is important to note that lynchings did occur in California). I participated in advocating for minorities and people who are marginalized, including people of color, so clearly I was on the right side of the problem. I had no idea how much I did not know.

Many years ago, I was faced with one of those pivotal moments when you think you know something and then come face to face with the reality that you really have no idea the depths and nuances of the state of things.

I grew up in a predominantly white, non-denominational evangelical church. The early years of Sunday school included felt cut outs of main biblical characters. Jesus was always portrayed as a white man in these teachings, along with crafts, manger scenes, and even my Bible illustrations. I remember coming home one day in middle school, exclaiming to my parents that I learned that Jesus was actually “tan,” not white, which they acknowledged. Although Jesus was no longer pale white, I have no memory of anyone ever saying that he was Middle Eastern.

It was not until I was at seminary, having a conversation outside of the classroom, that a classmate noted, “We know Jesus was Middle Eastern.” My eyes must have gotten wide. I was somewhat shocked and, simultaneously, it was like a light bulb went off. How did I not know that? It should have been a simple math equation of 1+1=2, but it wasn’t for me. Part of me feels shame from stupidity for not knowing, and the other part holds compassion, for how was a little girl supposed to put that together when everything around her was teaching her Jesus was white? No one from the pulpit who had the education, knowledge, or power, nor my family or others around me were saying otherwise. I had been so entrenched in the white church culture, which was perpetuating, or at least not disrupting, such thinking or comfort that I didn’t see the facts in front of me.

I had a choice: Do I hold on to the pleasure I take from my “informed” state, to my loyalties, and clench tighter to what I need to believe is “truth,” or do I allow myself to be humbled to a posture of a novice, a learner, in surrender and repentance? To surrender the need to be right, the need to be righteous, the need to be powerful, the need to be comfortable. This is a daily act.

How is it that as white Christians we often place ourselves at the center of a gospel that is about a brown, immigrant, refugee, colonized Jesus coming to offer life and freedom to other brown people on the margins, and speak against the Pharisees and those abusing their power or not stewarding it well? Yet we have used the gospel in the name of Jesus to keep people enslaved and to establish control (see the book The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby). It has been challenging and life-giving to assess the lens I have been reading the Bible and seeing people of color through. It has left me at times in tears and enraged, and other times rejoicing at seeing more clearly the heart of Jesus, his desires for his people, and the faces of his children—including my own. This is what Jesus does: He challenges our premonitions and disorients our ways of living and understanding to reorient us towards his way.

We are all image-bearers and masterpieces of God. Yahweh, who created the heavens and earth and all things in it, is not a white man. My friends of color bear the reflection of God’s face, personality, and way of being in who they are, their features, and the color of their skin. If I want to know and experience God more fully, then I need to also look to those who look different than me, who come from different cultures, and be in relationship with them. I need to expand the authors I have gained the majority of my learning from beyond predominantly white male voices. I’m not saying these voices are not valuable or not to read white authors, but it is not the totality. That’s only one lens and cannot possibly give the whole picture. After forming a list of the main authors I read, studied, and have influenced me, there was no denying what culture formed my understanding. I then committed to intentionally reading a diverse list of authors.

People of color are not the only ones who suffer from racism—we ALL do. It strips away from who we are and who we are meant to be. I can be proud of my whiteness, something I had no control over and did nothing to earn. Pride is taking responsibility, it is telling the truth, it is celebrating the good without minimizing the harm, it is honoring and giving dignity to all parties, and it is moving towards one another with openness. This requires vulnerability, respect, and laying down power tactics and fearful weapons in order to begin building trust and connection. People of color do not need white people to come in to save the day. They need us to face our truth and do our own work. When we begin our own healing we gain an ability to extend more care to one another, grow new imagination for reconciliation, prioritize equity, and have conversations that bring justice instead of perpetuating similar methodology. It is not the easy path, but it is a necessary one if we are to be the Church Jesus invites and calls us to be.

I do not pretend to be a “woke” or influential person on the matter of racial reconciliation. I feel like a baby learning to stand and take steps for the first time—with wobbly, shaky legs, falling and acknowledging each step. When it comes to racism, to colonization, to seeing and loving my brothers and sisters of color, to learning to love and see like Jesus, I will always be on the journey of becoming. That is my work; it is our work. May we have the eyes to see and ears to hear.