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  • Writer's pictureRev. Christopher Tweel

What we lose

There is something deep that the church in the US has failed to adequately cover and teach and internalize.

The misuse of Biblical characters as white-washed and sanitized versions of themselves.

Every person who has taught children in the church has run up against this. From the most basic idea that Jesus Christ was not Nordic and was instead a person of color, to the fact that Moses's wife, Tzipporah, was most likely a Cushite.

With Jesus, I've heard that "It's easier" for folks to resonate with a Christ who looks like them. Pictures of Jesus depicted as different nationalities across the globe can be found anywhere. The idea isn't a new one, but it carries with it inherent issues.

First is the idea that Jesus needs to look like us. Right off the bat, we are allowing ourselves the luxury of imagining a Jesus who is like us, as opposed to re-imagining ourselves in the likeness of Christ. Perhaps that seems small, but I think the imagery as we are taught it as children is incredibly important. For white Americans especially, to know that Jesus was "other" speaks volumes to a population who are right now confronted with realities on how we want to interact with the marginalized on a local and national scale. It is important that we are taught from day one that Jesus looked nothing like us. Second, making Jesus a version of ourselves gives us an inherent sense of superiority. We are suddenly on the side of Christ, or rather Christ is on our side, simply because we look the same.

Children's books are the worst at this. Teaching lessons through ducks and bunnies and llamas are apparently fine, but asking a child to connect with a Jesus who is a darker shade of brown is out of the questions. The most maddening thing is that it is done with absolutely no thought at all. Adam and Eve are often the palest versions in the books, setting up questions for the way God really made people in God's (white?) image. Not to mention Tzipporah, and 2 of the mother's of Joseph's brothers -- patriarchs of the Jewish people -- who are often the same light tan as everyone else.

In reality, Adam's soil color is described as reddish-brown and dark. Tzipporah was Ethiopian and Jacob's 2 handmaidens were from African Tribes (1). The list goes on and on, and yes, this is unfair and is a rank colonial period look on the rest of the world that influences our ideologies beyond our theologies in a way that twists the real story that God is trying to tell -- but what else do we lose?

When the characters of God's story to humanity only include the parts of humanity that look like us, we embody -- without our conscious control -- a dehumanizing world view on the kinds of people that that don't look like us, that don't look like the characters of God's story. It is inevitable. What we are left with is an anemic faith that struggles against these ingrained understandings in a poorer fashion. We find ourselves constantly using up the energy we have to combat our naturalized worldview in our attempts to do what we know we should do in order to bring the world we believe should exist. The diversely rich, many-faceted body of Christ that is the agent of change and morality in the community.

Dehumanizing other communities at this most basic level of Biblical understanding allows us to travel the paths of war, of discrimination, of hate, of bias, of basically every anti-commandment issue that plagues the Christian believer every day. It allows us to create an "us" and "them" that have led to the darkest periods of human history. Chattel slavery in the US told the story that African tribes made "natural slaves." Could that social ideology have taken hold if Christians knew that so many of our key Biblical figures were African and that the Bible made no distinction between them? Possibly. If Jesus was known as a Jew, would Christians have supported the Nazi policies in the early days? Probably not. Does it change our narrative with Middle Eastern Christians to resonate with the Middle Eastern focus of our Christian heritage?

The story we tell and know dictates the way we allow ourselves to believe. Knowing the reality of colors that are present in scripture allows us to complete more of the picture that God is bringing to the world. If we allow the whitewash of scripture to continue in our children's Bibles, our Bible studies and Sunday School lessons, we risk losing so much of God's story to us and run the risk of distancing ourselves from the humanity of our brothers and sisters created by a loving God.

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