White Jesus, White Moses
Note: This particular entry touches on religion, but spends more time in the cultural and historical forces shaping the depiction of Biblical figures. I am fully aware what a potentially divisive topic this is.
With the glut of Hollywood moves revolving around Biblical themes lately, it seems that Christianity is enjoying a bit of a resurgence in popular culture. In the past year, Noah has been depicted by Russell Crowe (an Aussie) and Moses by Christian Bale (Welsh). Thus continues a long Hollywood tradition, the whitewashing of history. One can perhaps provide justification in earlier films like The Ten Commandments, released in 1956, before there were any serious societal shifts towards integration and diversity. In the years since however, Hollywood’s congratulatory Liberal self-image hasn’t mirrored the demographic reality in America or elsewhere. The reality is that far too few actors, directors, screen writers, and producers of color have enjoyed the critical acclaim and financial success of their white counterparts.
Nowhere is this more true than in Biblical themed epics like Noah or the even more recent Exodus. A quick glance over the cast of Noah reveals an entirely white cast with lead roles also being filled by the likes Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson. Both fine actresses in their own right, but far from historically accurate. In Exodus, Bale plays Moses while Ramses is played by an Aussie named Joel Edgerton. Edgerton is given a little bit of bronzer and some eye black, and suddenly becomes Egyptian. Worse still, the Black actors that do appear in the film are given menial, generic roles that do not even merit a first name. Like so many other Hollywood depictions of history, Black and Brown people are not the agents of change, just bystanders that passively experience it.
Director Ridley Scott recently told critics vocalizing this problem to “get a life.” Bale, not known for his calm or tact, provided a more measured response. In his view, people go to see actors they know. When a studio is forking over $140 million for a bloated epic, they want to do everything in their power (which includes casting decisions) to make a profit. Therefore, the tendency to fill biblical movies with white actors is not in itself racist, but a matter of economics. Maybe so. But, is the average film goer that averse to seeing actors that may or may not look themselves that they would choose not to see a movie? I sincerely hope not. I care much more about story, character development, and acting ability than who is in a film. Actors become box office draws only after they are discovered. Who is to say that an actor of Middle Eastern ancestry couldn’t become a big star following widespread exposure in a blockbuster like this?
In the Church, In Your House
Christianity is unique among Monotheistic religions in its representation and depiction of religious figures. In the Islamic tradition, religious art is largely confined to intricate geometric patterns. The depiction of God, who is so far outside the realm of human understanding, is simply not possible. Likewise, the Prophets within Islam (including Jesus) are not to be displayed. Any visit to a Synagogue reveals a similar tendency. Churches however, are quite different. While different denominations depict God, Jesus, and the Saints in different ways, Christian art is ever present whether through stained glass, icons, statues, the Crucifix, relics, paintings or frescos.
This extends beyond the walls of the church as well. Many friends’ houses had the painting The Last Supper featured prominently in their Living or Dining rooms. My own parents have Iconographic wood-bloc paintings of saints in their foyer. No middle school class on the Renaissance can resist showing this picture:
And yet, even such comparatively ancient and historical depictions such as these recast the central biblical figures as white Europeans.
The Real History
As anyone who has ever read the Bible knows, it takes place entirely within a narrow, crescent shaped band broadly referred to today as the Middle East. Within the Old Testament, Egypt is its southern terminus, modern-day Turkey its far North, and everything from the shores of the Mediterranean at the West to present Iran in the East.
Ancient Egypt, as their own contemporary art depicts, was a racially and culturally-mixed society. We couldn’t define Egypt as being a Black civilization anymore than being a White civilization because A) modern conceptions of race didn’t exist in those times, and B) large empires like it encompassed so much more than our narrowly defined ethno-nation states. However, thinking of Ancient Egypt as an African civilization is entirely accurate. The depictions of slaves, historically thought to be the ancestors of today’s Jewish population, are copper-toned Semitic people. Moses, and his followers would probably resemble today’s Palestinians, Saudis, Yemenis, and Iraqis.
The New Testament expands this arc only slightly to include Rome, Greece, Mediterranean islands, and parts of North Africa. It is only in the New Testament that we even encounter people today classified as European. Even contemporary descriptions of Jesus in the Bible refer to his skin tone as a “dark bronze”. He was certainly dark enough to have spent time in the Middle East and elsewhere, and not to have had his skin tone commented upon or noted. Assuming that the Roman administration was imported from Rome, they would likely have been olive-skinned Italians. In the book of Acts, the Apostles take the show on the road to present day Syria, Turkey, Cyprus, Greece and Malta – all countries already subject to thousands of years of genetic and cultural mixing.
Under Greek and Roman rule, Egypt welcomed an influx of Europeans crossing the sea to settle principally in Alexandria. Jerusalem, Lebanon and Syria were heavily involved in, and influenced by the Crusades. Crusader states filled with French, English, and German soldiers greatly contributed to the existing admixture. Massive Arab migrations into Egypt and North Africa were but another influential group. Present day Palestine shows us the sheer diversity with light-skinned Arabs as well as those with the “dark bronze” tone of Jesus. The Middle East has ever been a famously diverse place, the literal cross-roads of the ancient world.
Made in the Image Of
All of the earliest depictions of Christ and his disciples mirrored the people living in that place. Thus, in Greek communities Jesus was olive-skinned. In Ethiopia, dark skinned. In Malabar (present day India) brown. In Gaul (present day France), white. This was entirely predictable and natural as missionaries of the faith had to make the biblical characters relatable to their audience. In a place like Ethiopia, which was never colonized by Europeans, it is wholly unsurprising to see a very African looking Jesus.
It was only truly after the start of Colonialism ((and by extension slavery) that the depiction of Jesus, and the broader Bible that depictions gained such a racial dimension. The domination or exploitation of a whole group of people must be rationalized and moralized in order to become acceptable. Hence the idea that Europeans must be genetically, physically, and intellectually superior, and that they served an altruistic, civilizing role. The logic maintained that if Jesus (the savior of all and the only sinless man in the history of the world) wasn’t white, the whole myth of superiority came crashing down.
A paradox to consider from a Salon article on this topic: “If the color of Jesus Christ is unimportant, why then the objection to the question and a resistance to changing the images to become more historically accurate? Moreover, such a basic question about the lie that is white Jesus, is often deflected and redirected into one which ends with the power of the white racial frame enabling those invested in its distortion(s) of reality arguing that anyone, especially a person of color, asking such things must be a black ‘racist” or anti-white.”
If a Christian is a true believer why would they have difficulty reconciling their faith with such a superficial thing as changing the historical lie that is white Jesus into one that is more accurate, a man of color, whose message would be unchanged? Would it really be that hard for some white Christians (and others) to kneel before a black or brown Jesus Christ? Are the psychic wages of whiteness so great as to distort a person’s image of God? Ridley Scott may say “get it a life”, but we should be saying “get it right”.