White Jesus

By Colleen Shaddox


Above my father’s dresser hung a reproduction of Christ in Gethsemane by Heinrich Hofmann. The series of paintings of Jesus that made the German artist famous bear a strong resemblance to Hofmann’s self portrait. Hofmann and Jesus could be brothers.

“Man made ‘God’ in his own image,” Eckhart Tolle famously observed. “The eternal, the infinite, and unnamable was reduced to a mental idol that you had to believe and worship as ‘my god’ or ‘our god.’” 

No one can truly describe God, because that would also require limiting God. Throughout history, there have been faiths that discourage visual representations of the sacred, as Islam still does for both Allah and the Prophet Muhammad. I also love the early tradition of depicting the Buddha using an empty throne. There is something profoundly honest about that.

Yet my imagination always puts someone on that throne.  I need a face, though I recognize that the divine has many. The most accessible and compelling of those faces for me has always been Jesus. For most of my life, my mental picture of Jesus was modelled after the Christ Hofmann placed in Gethsemane. Silky brown hair, parted down the middle. Moonlight pale, like Hofmann and like me.

Also not like me. Dad always referred to the picture as The Agony in the Garden,  a painting that predates Hofmann’s by more than 400 years. He related to a Christ who dreaded tomorrow. It took me decades to realize that my father’s picture was obscuring the Jesus in my heart, a Jesus who is not eternally in Gethsemane, not always profoundly alone. “My” Jesus is also reveling in out-debating the learned, feasting with his friends, and forever advising us not to be afraid. My Jesus suffers, but not because he is self-pitying. He’d much rather not suffer – which, by the way, makes his ultimate agreement to suffer all the more beautiful. My Jesus is mostly happy and wants me to be mostly happy too. 

When I came to this realization, I thought my father was simply wrong about Jesus, a narrow and arrogant thing to believe. My father and I painted different gods. Maybe those differences came from our own needs. Maybe the divine spoke to us differently. I imagine there’s some truth in both ideas. There usually is. That’s why reducing Jesus, the divine, or whatever word you prefer to a single image is the most dangerous kind of heresy.

It took many more years before I focused on the idea that the historical Jesus probably didn’t look like Heinrich Hofmann and me. I don’t know what it would have been like to grow up looking at depictions of Jesus and Mary that were always a different race from me. I’ve never been in a parish where anyone asked about that, though I’ve spent a lot of time in diverse faith communities. I fear that looking markedly different from the holy family could make some of my sisters and brothers in Christ feel an otherness from the divine, which is a deep and ugly lie. As a white person, I know that white Jesuses have made me feel a sameness with the divine, also a deep and ugly lie.

When I enter contemplative prayer today, those stalwart and loving Marys of the Gospels and their Jesus all look like people who were born near the Sea of Galilee. This was a conscious effort at first but has come quite naturally for a long time. I’m not saying that I see their true faces – that’s for saints and mystics. I merely have a new idea of my savior and blessed mother’s faces. 

The reason that I have changed my interior picture of Jesus and his companions is not for mere accuracy. I started doing it in an effort to be less Eurocentric. My brown Jesus is a reminder that most of my fellow humans, most of the people he commanded me to love, aren’t white.

My Jesus is quite tall, skinny, olive-skinned, with curly black hair and a wide smile. Other ideas are just as good, including the ones where he is a blond child. Perhaps those painters modeled their Jesus after some babe they loved. I’d like to think so. 

All those white Jesuses are legitimate expressions of artists’ experience. Tragically, the pool of experiences that we can try on through art is severely limited, because so few people have been allowed to express themselves. Faith communities and denominations would do well to commission works by artists of color, who will have different ideas. Seeing Jesus through many eyes, rather than a codified iconography, will help everyone grow in faith. That doesn’t mean putting all the da Vincis in the basement. This is addition, not subtraction. The God who spoke to Noah through a rainbow should not be depicted monochromatically. 

It’s time to ask everyone in the community how the images around them affect their faith life – including those of us who identify as white. I suspect the reflection will be painful for all of us, though for different reasons. Heinrich Hofmann and Dad were right: Jesus is present in our pain, just as I know he is present in our joy.

I’m looking across the room at an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, an apparition in which Mary appeared as an indigenous woman to Juan Diego in Mexico and spoke to him in his own Nahuatl language. Upstairs is a holy water font from my childhood bedroom, with a ceramic Mary and Jesus, so fair they are practically pastel. Both images are precious to me. Together they remind me that the sacred looks like me and like people quite different from me. 

I don’t comprehend God. But my image of the divine becomes slightly less incomplete as it adopts the features that my sisters and brothers see. Perhaps in the end that's the best description of God I can muster: An embrace of the other’s divine.

Colleen Shaddox is a Connecticut-based writer. Her book, with Joanne Samuel Goldbum, Broke in America: Seeing, Understanding, and Ending US Poverty, will be released in February.

Christ in Gethsemane by Heinrich Hofmann. “Jesus Chris, Sacred Heart” photo by PXFuel