Jesus should look more Palestinian and less European to stop symbolizing the supremacy of the white man.
As a child, I attended Christian schools. These institutions taught students well. Teachers were tough but cared. I remember one Mrs. Lobo constantly trying to get me to study. Both she and my mother were frequently upset because I would bunk class and run off to play. Once I left an exam halfway through because I was bored. Both Mrs. Lobo and my mother were deeply distressed. On one occasion, I caused Mrs. Lobo even more pain.
During the morning assembly in church, we were told Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Back in class, I asked Mrs. Lobo where in the world was Bethlehem. She answered Palestine. In those days, photos of Yasser Arafat, the chief of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), often appeared in Indian newspapers. My father must have pointed out Arafat’s photo to me and mentioned where he was from. So, I blurted: “Excuse me ma’am, why is Jesus white? Why doesn’t he look like Yasser Arafat?” Suffice to say, Mrs. Lobo couldn’t answer the question.
Cross Carrying Conquistadors
On the first day of 2015, I couldn’t help observe that the highest read article on the website of The Economist was “On the Trail of Hernán Cortés.” The correspondent had traced Cortés’ journey of five centuries ago and written a splendid account of the conquistador. As expected from a publication born at the height of the British Empire, it tells a triumphant tale:
“This is where one of the great military expeditions of history began: Hernán Cortés’s march in 1519-20 from the Gulf of Mexico to Tenochtitlán, seat of the Aztec empire. Historians liken it to Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul. Its protagonist, a cunning 34-year-old with almost no experience of war, led about 500 men and just over a dozen horses into territories whose bloodthirsty warriors hugely outnumbered his own. He exploited seething tribal rivalries to conquer a civilisation—albeit with the help of gunpowder, smallpox and his wily Indian lover. At times he used mischief; at times cruelty. He had an eye for his place in history—as well as for the ladies. His soldiers did not just subjugate the people they conquered. From the very start they bred with the Indians too, creating a mixed race through mestizaje, with a common language and religion that defines Mexico today.”
Conquest has defined human history, but what is most interesting in The Economist article is the story about the episode when Cortés was gifted eight noblewomen as slaves. He was only willing to accept the gift if the fat ruler became Christian first. Genghis Khan plundered, pillaged, raped and slaughtered, but he didn’t have the arrogance to save people’s souls. He wasn’t sanctimonious like the white men from Europe who went out to conquer foreign lands for gold and God.
I was born in Vasco da Gama, a port town named after the Portuguese explorer who sailed to India in 1498. He is glorified as an epic hero in Os Lusíadas, the Portuguese classic, and there is a church named after him in Kochi. Conveniently forgotten is the fact that he murdered for pleasure and once burnt 400 Muslim pilgrims on their way to Mecca. Even women were not spared. Their efforts to offer their gold and jewels didn’t work. Even when they held up their babies and begged for mercy, good old Vasco wasn’t moved. He wanted to find Christians in India and destroy Islam.
The churches in Latin America and Goa were built by the Spaniards and Portuguese. Christianity was imposed through the barrel of the gun, though missionaries played a significant role. Both the Spaniards and the Portuguese set out to persecute not only other religions, but also non-Catholic Christians. Today, the people who were colonized have largely lost their native cultures, myths and identities. Most significantly, in former Spanish and Portuguese dominions, Jesus is almost invariably white.
Muscular Christianity, Mission Civilisatrice and All That Jazz
The British and French were not as interested in saving souls as the Spanish and the Portuguese. Yet they saw themselves as civilized Christian nations. Popularized by the barrister T.C. Sandars, “Muscular Christianity” is the idea of tough men of God going out to civilize the natives that held sway in Victorian England. The image of “the Englishman going through the world with rifle in one hand and Bible in the other” was popularized by J.G. Cotton Minchin. British public schools, which are really private schools for the well bred, were infused with this ideal. Cotton Minchin wasn’t far off when writing: “If asked what our muscular Christianity has done, we point to the British Empire.”
The French idea of mission civilisatrice was infused with the idea of the superiority of Christianity. Conversion to Christianity wasn’t essential as under Spaniards or the Portuguese, but was preferable. Along with European dress and the French language, it was the hallmark of civilization. Needless to say, both the British and the French built churches where Jesus was white.
During my lectures, I often ask Africans from the Anglo-French colonies whether Jesus is white. A devout Nigerian student in Berkeley, whom I taught last year, confessed to be troubled by this fact. He told me: “It is what Jesus stands for that matters; not his color.” I quipped: “Then what is the problem in Jesus being black?” Like Mrs. Lobo, he couldn’t answer.
Yes, Jesus Should Look Like Yasser Arafat
For Christians, Jesus is supposed to be the son of God. If he is white, does that mean God is white? Michelangelo Buonarroti, the greedy gay genius, painted a resplendent old white man creating a dashingly handsome young white man on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Any Catholic who sees the image cannot but be influenced by the fact that God and Adam are white men. Needless to say, so is Jesus. To steal the words of Cecil Rhodes, the great robber-turned-philanthropist of the 19th century, white men have won the first prize in life’s lottery.
Religion at its best provides a repository of tradition, a locus for community and a crucible for spirituality. Christianity is no exception. There have been countless pious Christians such as Mrs. Lobo who have been outstanding human beings with a profound spirit of service. The New Testament idea of turning the other cheek is certainly a noble one. The historical Jesus was a Galilean Jew born in modern day Palestine. Finally, in 2015, he should start to look Palestinian.
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