Anyone who enters St. Cyprian of Carthage Orthodox Church near Richmond will be dumbstruck at its iconography. The patron saints, Cyprian of Carthage and Moses the Ethiopian (the Black), are both African and are as dark as my father and myself. The icons of Christ Pantocrator and the Theotokos are both racially ambiguous, kinda like mixed-race “redbone” blacks. With the exception of one or two Ethiopians, virtually everyone in the church is white of Eastern European origin or Anglo-Saxon converts. The ancient pictures of Christian Nubia depicts brown-skinned kings, queens, bishops, and saints. But, Jesus and Mary are depicted as pale skinned. This can be seen as a debunking of the black Jesus idea as the native Africans who had their own kingdom and were not under the yoke of bondage did not paint Jesus as one of themselves. How do we interpret the question of the race of our Lord when He walked the earth?
First, let’s go to one point that we all should be able to agree upon. Jesus was not of a pale skinned, blonde haired, blue-eyed, Nordic stock. Anyone with any sense of archaeology or history knows that such people would have found it difficult to survive in the Middle East. The Israelites spoke a Semitic language that was closer to those still spoken in the Ethiopian highlands than Western Europe. Indeed, the earthly lineage of Jesus has no connection to any place in Europe.
Yet, the idea that Jesus was a racially pure dark-skinned Nilotic African is also misleading. Immediately some would like to the point out that the Pharaohs of Egypt were black people. It is undeniable that most of the great rulers of Egypt were black. But, consider the fact that there was a good deal of race mixing with lighter skinned races for centuries. The Hyksos were a Semitic people who ruled Egypt for about 200 to 300 years. The African kings did continue to trade with the likes of the Hittites, Phoenicians, and even the Greeks blending Egyptian blood even further. The conquest of the Persians and Macedonians pretty much ended the idea of a racially pure black Egypt before the dawn of the first century. So, when Joseph took Mary and the Child to Egypt to hide from Herod, it was just as much out of the fact that Herod had no authority over any place outside of Judea as it was that the Holy Family would be able to blend in with the general population, which by that time the people’s skin tones ranged from “high yellow” to Ethiopian brown with a few darker Africans and more pale European elites.
Early Christianity depicted our Lord and Savior in a variety of skin tones. For the Slavic people, a dark-skinned icon of the Theotokos was well accepted as she was from a part of the world different from theirs. To a black Nubian, anyone from north of Memphis was painted with pale skin because they would be lighter than themselves. For the first 300 years of the faith, Christians of all races were persecuted not because of skin color but because they refused to abandon their belief in Jesus. After the legalization of the faith, it was a deacon from Africa, Athanasius, denounced by his detractors as “the black dwarf” that led the successful argument that Jesus was co-substantial and co-equal to the Father. His mentor, Anthony, was another African and is widely regarded as the father of Christian monasticism. Athanasius would later become the bishop of Alexandria and write the list of books that would be canonized as the New Testament in the African city of Carthage. Europeans knew the history and the roles their African brothers played in the establishment of the Christian faith and even through the Renaissance depicted black people with the same dignity and honor as they painted and sculpted themselves.
The slave trade changed this sense of mutual respect. Muslim Arab conquerors began the process of dehumanizing Africans who refused to convert to Islam. They ruthlessly persecuted Christianity in Egypt and the Middle East, conquered Christian Nubia, and left Ethiopia as an isolated Christian nation. As Western Europeans began their age of exploration, they saw the profits that could be made in enslaving non-Christian Africans. With the faith barely reaching beyond Ethiopia and no regard for the persecuted Orthodox believers, greedy Catholic and Protestant elites found it easy to dismiss sub-Saharan people as being subhuman. This is where the “curse of Ham” doctrine (a lie that was never taught by neither the Desert nor Early Church Fathers) was born with the excuse that Africans were meant to be slaves. Catholic elites quickly ignored all but a handful of their black and brown-skinned icons and any references to Christianity’s African past. Protestants rejected icons wholesale relying only on their various interpretations of the Bible. Even through the end of the Trans-Atlantic trade, the preferred images of a more European-looking Jesus was a tool to establish supremacy over the darker races of the world (the slave trader John Hawkins named his ship, “Jesus,” and his coat of arms was a black man in bondage). African-Americans have every reason to reject portraits of our Lord and savior as a blonde haired, blue-eyed, pale skinned man.
But, I wouldn’t necessarily endorse every picture of Jesus with dark skin, an Afro, or dreadlocks either. To display images of a black Jesus to counter the racist images that we African-Americans had grown up with makes sense. But, there is a temptation to use the dark-skinned Christ not as a tool for healing and reconciliation, but as a wall to keep black and white Christians separated. Someone may easily start boasting his identity with that of the Lord and consider their former oppressors ans incorrigible or too far gone to receive salvation. Blacks are not in an economic, political, nor social position to impose on whites anywhere near the same kind of hell we went through in this country (nor would 99.9% of us want to). But, to use the image of Jesus as an example of black supremacy is just as racist and wrong as what white society did to us.
If you are comfortable with your heritage and skin, you need not be bent out of shape with what color Jesus is. Attending St. Nicholas Ukrainian Orthodox Church this past weekend, the images on the iconostasis were all darker than my mother. The Slavs know that they have preserved the faith during the fall of Byzantium and spread Christianity to North America. So, venerating images darker than they are is not a problem. I saw a picture of an Ethiopian woman proudly displaying an icon of the Theotokos with pale skin. For her to admire and adore this image does not threaten her noble history as the Christian kingdom that was never colonized by neither Arab Muslims nor Western Europeans. African-Americans have experienced chattel slavery and segregation under the image of a Nordic image of Christ. But, we also developed a reverent spirituality in the midst of our suffering and proven that the power of love and non-violence can overcome hatred. Like the Ethiopians and Slavs, we can hold our heads up with a sense of pride. We need not get uptight about the color of the image. And as we are all called to the great multitude of humanity that will be saved in the heavenly kingdom, perhaps it is best for us to embrace one another’s differences as well as our unique qualities here on earth.