Black Jesus, a Non-Virgin Mary and the Image of God

Last week NBC announced that John Legend had been cast as Jesus of Nazareth in Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert! which will air Easter Sunday. Legend’s casting bumps against the traditional portrayal of Jesus as a white man, despite historical and biblical accounts describing Jesus as a Middle Eastern Jew.

While it’s important to acknowledge Jesus’s human characteristics, ethnicity, and religion, we must also accept that the divine nature of Christ transcends all of that. If Jesus is God manifested on earth, then people of all races and ethnicities should see themselves reflected in Jesus. This is why artistic renditions often portray Jesus with different ethnicities. We have black Jesus, Hispanic Jesus, Asian Jesus, Middle Eastern, and more often than not, white Jesus.

White Jesus is so prevalent due to predictable reasons—white supremacy. To some, it’s impossible to imagine God manifesting as anything other than a white man because “white is right.” So when Jesus is portrayed in the mainstream as a black man in Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert! or when God is portrayed as a black woman and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman in The Shack there is an immediate resistance among some. In regards to The Shack, Christian News Network’s Rev. Joe Schimmel told The Washington Post Young’s pretentious caricature of God as a heavy set, cushy, nonjudgmental, African-American woman called ‘Papa’ (who resembles the New Agey Oprah Winfrey far more than the one true God revealed through the Lord Jesus Christ — Hebrews 1:1-3), and his depiction of the Holy Spirit as a frail Asian woman with the Hindu name, Sarayu, lends itself to a dangerous and false image of God and idolatry.”

Accusations of dangerous and false images of God and idolatry aren’t usually lodged at white, male portrayals of the Trinity. And in rejecting these untraditional portrayals of Jesus, God and the Holy Spirit, we are also rejecting the image of God within people who identify with these untraditional portrayals. The rejection is more than “that’s not what the Bible says.” The rejection says, “God would never [manifest as someone like you]!!!”

White supremacy is pretty easy to identify in portrayals of Jesus, but often we have other hidden biases that are more difficult to recognize, and exploring these biases can reveal how we feel and interact with people who have the characteristics we are biased against. A few years ago, someone told me that according to scripture Jesus was ugly. I had a visceral reaction. I could feel the resistance rise up in me. My savior? Ugly?!?! NEVER!!!

For He [the Servant of God] grew up before Him like a tender shoot (plant),
And like a root out of dry ground;
He has no stately form or majestic splendor
That we would look at Him,
Nor [handsome] appearance that we would[a]be attracted to Him. —Isaiah 53:2 (Amplified Bible)

My Jesus was ugly (according to the Christian interpretation of Isaiah 53; historically, the passage refers to the exiled nation of Israel)!!! This was a gut punch. But why? Would Jesus’s appearance affect his ability to bring salvation to the world? Would being ugly make him less Godly? If I’m resistant to an ugly Lord and Savior, what does this say about the bias I show, intentionally or unintentionally, towards people I find unattractive?

Recently, I heard an episode of Homebrewed Christianity Podcast where the host and guests discussed the idea that maybe Jesus didn’t enter the world via a virgin birth. Almah is the Hebrew word associated with Mary in Matthew 1 and Isaiah 7:14. However, the Hebrew word almah simply refers to a young woman and has nothing to do with sexual purity. The Hebrew word for virgin is betulah. But when the Hebrew scripture was translated into Greek, Greek translators changed both almah and betulah to parthenos, the Greek word for virgin. And this is how young woman Mary became virgin Mary.

You feel that resistance rising? Why? Why is the idea of God entering the world through an unwed mother hard for you to accept? What does this say about your intentional or unintentional feelings toward young unwed mothers? Is this reflected in your treatment of young unwed mothers?

What about a fat Jesus? A poor Jesus? A queer Jesus? An illiterate Jesus? A short Jesus? A Jesus with disabilities? What does your resistance around seeing Jesus as a part of a marginalized community say about your feelings towards people who are members of these marginalized communities? Why do you have difficulty acknowledging the image of God in these people?

Epiphany is a Christian holiday that marks the Three Wise Men visiting baby Jesus. It celebrates the revelation that Jesus isn’t just another baby being born, but Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. And as we enter into this season of Epiphany, celebrating God amongst us, what better time to evaluate our acceptance and treatment of other people, particularly marginalized people.

When the book of Matthew discusses judgment in chapter 25, it quotes Jesus as saying, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (verse 40). So as we exit Christmas and enter into the New Year celebrating God’s manifestation on earth, let us also reflect on the image of God in others and acknowledge that God manifests in the people we share space with. Let us recognize the God in them and work harder to be more loving and accepting.

Jesus did not push people into the margins. He centered those society marginalized as an illustration of God’s love and acceptance. And as Christ followers this should be work that we embrace and take part in as well.