The Historical Reality of the ‘Whitewashing’ of Christianity in America and Why It Matters
By Jerome Gay Jr.
On February 15, 1974, the TV show Good Times aired an episode called “Black Jesus.” Good Times featured a strong Black family with loving parents, creative children, and caring neighbors living in a Chicago housing project. The main character in the show was the flamboyant James “J.J.” Evans Jr. with his rousing signature wail, “Dy-no-miiiite!” In this episode, Florida (J.J.’s mother) became terribly upset when Michael (J.J.’s brother) hung J.J.’s painting of a Black Jesus on the wall next to the family’s framed print of a conventional rendering of a White Christ.
Michael was amazed by the painting of a Black Jesus, so he took down the painting of White Jesus and declared, “A Black family should have a Black Jesus on the wall.” Upon returning home, Florida noticed the switch immediately. A debate ensued wherein Michael pleaded with his mother to at least allow the painting of Black Jesus to hang next to the picture of White Jesus.
“The only Jesus I know is him,” Florida declared, pointing at the painting of White Jesus, “and the one thing he don’t need is a partner. This picture has been in my family since I can remember. When I was a baby, I don’t know what I saw first: my momma, my poppa, or this Jesus [pointing to White Jesus again]. Now, he’s the one I know and love, so let’s close the subject. If Jesus was Black, the Bible would’ve said so.”
“But it does say so,” Michael replied. He grabbed a large Bible and turned to the final book: “The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters” (Revelation 1:14-15, English Standard Version).
Florida grabbed the Bible from Michael with a look of disbelief.
“Oh, Lord have mercy. It sure do say that, don’t it?” his mother cried. Michael held out the painting of Black Jesus to make comparisons and concluded, “Momma, how do we know Jesus wasn’t Black? He could’ve been from the lost tribe of Israel; they were supposed to be Black.”
J.J. ended the segment by saying—in true J.J. fashion—“If ever a people were lost, we’re it.”
Why Does Jesus’ Race Matter?
Florida’s statements highlight how the American church has responded to the idea of a Black Jesus and how proponents of the White-Jesus myth have fought vehemently to perpetuate the Christian faith as almost exclusively influenced by White people. Florida told her son to “close the subject.” Closing the subject—that is, refusing to address the subject of whitewashing—has been an extremely effective tactic in keeping the White-Jesus myth active for centuries.
People deploy statements such as “His race doesn’t matter,” “This just takes away from the core message,” “I’m color-blind,” or the all-too-popular, “This is CRT” to close the subject. But “closing the subject” only nurtures the delusion of those who think Jesus was White and those who make an eternal decision to reject him based on this grossly incorrect assertion.
When thousands of Black and Brown people are turning away from the faith, in part due to the perpetuation of a White Jesus, we should not close the subject. In essence, whitewashing is an evangelistic issue rather than a racial one. When one community’s contributions are highlighted while another community’s are neglected, we cannot close the subject. When an entire faith is misrepresented, we cannot close the subject.
While the verses from Revelation read by Michael on Good Times had nothing to do with Jesus’ race—but primarily were symbolic of his power and judgment—it’s important to note that Jesus’ race has been a concern for centuries. Particularly, it’s been a concern with the way Christianity has been presented in America. Jesus has been presented as a White man, with White disciples, who will come back surrounded by White angels.
White Jesus is the elephant in the sanctuary who has been comfortably presented as historically accurate in churches, seminaries, and households for far too long. White Jesus is the beneficiary of centuries of whitewashing, and the American church is the victim. In many cases, America has been a willing victim.
It’s easy to say Jesus’ race doesn’t matter; it’s too late to say that, however, when inaccurate depictions of him have been circulating and erroneously affirmed for centuries. The omission of the African presence in Scripture and history has millions functionally saying that White Jesus is “the only Jesus I know.” This is a travesty that must not be ignored or dismissed as divisive. What’s divisive is presenting nearly every biblical character as White. What’s divisive is presenting the Brown-skinned, Middle Eastern, Jewish Savior as a White man, presenting it as fact, and labeling those who address this lie as troublemaking dissenters and race-baiters. What’s truly divisive is presenting one race of people as the entire representation of the Hebrew nation.
The notion that Christianity is the “White man’s religion” is an observation that does not find resonance in biblical or historical reality. Christianity is not a faith that’s “becoming” a global religion; it has been a global religion since Acts 8.
What Christ has done through atonement is create a people from all people. He wants to see people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9, ESV).
The proclamation of the psalter that “Cush shall hasten to stretch out her hands to God” (Psalm 68:31, ESV) finds unique application in the reality that the descendants of the Cushites—the Nubians—not only embraced Christianity as the national religion as early as the fifth century CE, but fought off Arab Muslim invasion in order to maintain an indigenous, Black Christian kingdom that would flourish for a thousand years. It is noteworthy that the “Ethiopian” eunuch mentioned in Acts 8 was likely from Cush, rather than the southern Axumite kingdom of Ethiopia.
The reality that facts like this aren’t widely known, shared, or taught is another reason why this subject must be broached, and we simply cannot “close the subject.”
Why does Jesus’ race matter? This is a good question, a fair question, but in many cases, the wrong question. While Jesus’ race doesn’t hold any weight as it relates to salvation, it does have anthropological and social implications. Rather than simply asking why Jesus’ race matters, we should ask, Why has Jesus and the entire Christian faith been whitewashed? Knowing that Jesus was a Jewish man of color, why have we been bombarded with images depicting him as a blond-haired, blue-eyed, White man? Jesus’ color is an integral part of his ontological being, for he was both human and divine (John 8:58; Colossians 1:15).
Why Whitewashing Must Be Confronted
There’s a growing sentiment among people of African descent and people around the globe that Christianity is a Western-created, European-influenced, White-owned religion. While this is historically inaccurate, many have adopted this assertion for legitimate reasons. Church historian Dr. Vince Bantu said, “Christianity has been perverted into a mechanism of tyranny by many Western nations.” The main reason for this growing sentiment is historical and cultural whitewashing; contributing to it is the under-emphasized reality that the gospel took firm root in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia long before even an idea of it traveled to the West.
To properly present the gospel and the Christian faith accurately, it must be understood that Christianity is not the cultural property of any single racial or ethnic group. On the contrary, it exists for every nation, tribe, and tongue. Because many have been made to feel culturally alienated from the gospel, it is imperative to explore the neglected history of non-Western Christianity. This is one of the many reasons whitewashing must be confronted. Dr. Carl Ellis addressed this in his sociological and historical masterpiece Free at Last when he pointed out how Black militants responded to what he called “White Christianity-ism,” yet failed to distinguish the difference between the true “Christianity of Christ” and the “Christianity of this land.” Dr. Ellis wrote,
When Christianity was rejected, secularism and humanism filled the void. Secularism is the belief that human life is independent of God and his revelation and that the sociological struggles of a people transcend all forms of religion. Humanism is the belief that humans are the final judge of all truth. Ironically, both of these are worldviews, with their own belief system and demands for faith. Since this is the essence of religion, secularism and humanism do not transcend religion. They are religions themselves. Not realizing this, the secular militants ended up merely switching from a God-centered faith to a human-centered religion. They were justified in rejecting White Christianity-ism and asserting that we should replace White definitions of us with definitions of our own.
So, what exactly is whitewashing? Like much of Christianese, or religious jargon, used in churches all over the world, definitions are essential to understanding, engagement, and transformation. With this in mind, I want you to think of whitewashing beyond political propaganda used by “the left” to divide us (as many would assert), but rather a historical reality that still affects the way we think about and present the Christian faith. This will help us to explore the concept with a more balanced perspective as we review historical realities that shape how we engage Scripture, humanity, and Christian history.
I’m asking you to reject your motivational reasoning (what social scientists call the process of deciding what evidence to accept based on the conclusion one prefers, despite evidence to the contrary). The evidence is clear both spiritually and historically that many races were used in Scripture and Christian history; the evidence also shows that this is not highlighted in churches, seminaries, film, and print. Why? Because whitewashing has been an acceptable norm in America.
The dictionary defines whitewashing as an attempt to stop people from finding out the truth about a situation. This is essentially hiding facts to control or even change a narrative. A secondary definition of whitewashing is using White people to represent people of color in film and history. This helps us to understand the version of Christianity that’s been presented for centuries, one void of any significant ethnic diversity.
So, how do we define whitewashing as it relates to the Christian faith? Here is my attempt:
Whitewashed Christianity refers to the affinity of White Christian scholars to dominate Bible teaching, Christian art, literature, and history with White people at the expense of authentic ethnicity and true scholarship in order to resonate most deeply with White audiences, primarily based on their experiences, presuppositions, and worldviews.
As inner-city missionary Dr. Ernest Grant says, “Whitewashing occurs institutionally and structurally when the contributions of the African Diaspora to theology, ethics, and culture are largely ignored, and the influence of people groups of European descent are accentuated.” Whitewashing wrongly validates and champions the implicit cultural and historical bias within conservative evangelical communities and bolsters the notion that people of color will remain unequal to our White counterparts, regardless of our credentialing or accomplishment.
This doesn’t mean that every White scholar is racist, nor does it mean that every White Christian scholar was complicit in the historic whitewashing that plagues Christianity in the West today. However, we must not ignore how our White-dominant history has affected how the Christian faith has been presented and propagated, especially in the West. When we look at whitewashing historically, we’ll find that it was dishonest, deliberate, and oftentimes destructive.
The primary issue of whitewashing isn’t the inclusion of White people, but rather the exclusion of Black and Brown people. The gospel empowers us to confront these issues with truth and love while simultaneously not making a feature of who we are (i.e., our race) the foundation of who we are.
Jerome Gay Jr. is the author of The Whitewashing of Christianity: A Hidden Past, a Hurtful Present and a Hopeful Future, from which this article is excerpted. He serves as lead pastor of Vision Church, a nondenominational church in Raleigh, North Carolina.