Updated: Jun 3, 2021
By Radheesh Ameresekere | Canada
Christianity has become a divisive topic in recent years. While at the core of its faith system is undoubtedly a doctrine of unconditional love, Christianity invokes a hard-hitting history of the Crusades, inquisitions, sexual abuse, homophobia, and centuries of oppression and violence.
Among the many sins of the Church, is perhaps one of their most egregious intellectual sins – the whitewashing of Jesus Christ, and the history of Christianity, both literally and figuratively. Whitewashing, in specific regard to history, refers to the practice of using conventionally white representations of non-white figures, or more generally imposing a white cultural bias onto a non-white history.
Jesus is the most recognizable historical figure to be “painted white”.
A majority of historical sources suggest that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (about 10km from what is now modern-day Jerusalem), in Judea, a client kingdom of the Roman Empire. Jesus was also documented as a practicing, second Temple-era Jew. In every sense of the word, Jesus Christ was a Judean Jew. Then, his usual depiction as a blue-eyed, blonde-haired white man, is awfully peculiar. A man, from what is now the modern Middle East, would look very different.
Where does the whitewashing of Christianity come from?
Christianity began as a Jewish-Christian sect in the first century, in Jerusalem, under the Pillars of the Church and James the brother of Jesus. Since attracting a significant non-Jewish following, who found themselves at odds with the staunch Jewish traditions of the time, the Apostle Paul helped cultivate an independent Christian identity that alleviated the need for tradition or inheritance.
Christianity continued to spread to Aramaic-speaking peoples along the Mediterranean coast, to the inland Roman Empire, the Parthian Empire, and the later Sassanian Empire. It reached Egypt by the first century, and Carthage by the second. It was during this era that Christian scholasticism saw its foundational development, especially in North Africa.
However, Christians were still a small minority, facing serious persecution within the Empire. It was Roman Emperor Constantine I who ended state-sanctioned persecution of Christians with the Edict of Toleration in 311 AD and the Edict of Milan in 313 AD. In 380 AD, Theodosius I, Gratian, and Valentinian II established Nicene Christianity as the State church of the Roman Empire, resulting in its rapid growth, given the vast Roman influence.
The roots of the whitewashing of Christianity lie in the nature of the Roman Catholic Church’s rapid development. With the fall of the Roman Empire during the fourth and fifth century, there existed a massive power vacuum in Classical Europe. The Church, growing wealthy after the Nicene Council, was the perfect replacement political player. However, as a political institution, the Church was obviously influenced by the contemporary socio-political environment.
While the Roman Catholic Church and its many scholars helped develop the faith, the accolades of the African Christians are often ignored. The often-unheard-of Tertullian, Clement and Origen of Alexandria, Cyprian, Athanasius, and Augustine of Hippo (all of whom faced a similar whitewashing) are North-African Christian scholars who received no real credit for their efforts. Discussion is reserved for Constantine, the various Popes, Martin Luther, St. Augustine, John Calvin, John Wesley, and so on.
Beyond the intellectual whitewashing, there was also a literal artistic whitewashing.
With the Papacy firmly established in Italy, the central figures of Christianity were subject to the artistic interpretations of the Italian Renaissance (which had artists and commissioners who were overwhelmingly white).
As some of the most famous Christian works of the Renaissance, including the Pieta, David, The Last Supper, The Creation of Adam, The Resurrection of Christ, and the countless portraits of Jesus were either commissioned or painted by white men, the bias is crystal clear. It should actually be noted that fifth century-or-earlier depictions of Jesus are more accurate than the version popularized by the Renaissance. As the Christianity of Rome grew over the centuries to reach billions of people, it was the Renaissance image of Jesus which grew to be normalized.
It is no secret that the Renaissance was one of the most impactful artistic movements in human history, and the Eurocentric precedent that it set would forever influence Christian art and culture. While it is not uncommon for artists to impose their biases on their art, the whitewashing of Jesus spoke to the inaccuracies of the Catholic Church’s Christianity.
The whitewashing of Christianity and its history is the product of the politicization of the Church as a European power. While it is difficult to fault artists for imposing their cultural biases onto their work, there is no excuse for the intellectual and academic censorship of Christianity. Plus with abundant historical evidence to the contrary, there is no excuse for upholding this façade.
It’s time to acknowledge the roots of Christianity, the genuine life of Jesus, his followers, and the fathers of the Church, as well as the minds who helped develop it. The Eurocentrism which permeates through an inaccurate retelling of one of history’s most impactful sagas is quite frankly not only a sad excuse for any genuine scholasticism, it is racist.
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