For those of you who aren’t up on your Church of England trivia, Archbishop of Canterbury Most Rev. Justin Welby is the head of the Church of England and the symbolic head of the global Anglican Communion. That makes him one of the most powerful religious figures in the world.
Last week, according to the Times of London, Rev. Welby was asked on a BBC radio program whether or not Black Lives Matter criticisms of how Jesus was portrayed in terms of his features meant the church had to rethink how it pictured the Savior.
“Yes, of course it does,” Rev. Welby said, adding that his time at the head of the Anglican Communion had challenged “that sense that God is white.”
“You go into their churches, you don’t see a white Jesus. You see a black Jesus or a Chinese Jesus or a Middle Eastern Jesus, which is of course the most accurate, or a Fijian Jesus.
“You see Jesus portrayed in as many ways as there are cultures, languages and understandings,” he added, saying he didn’t approve of “throwing out everything we’ve got in the past” but that the “universality” of God ought to be taken into consideration.
The “most accurate” representation of Jesus won’t be what’s hanging above the altar in one of the most historic churches in the Anglican Communion. Instead, it’ll be a black Jesus at the 11th century St. Albans Cathedral.
The picture is a print of a take on Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” in which the the disciples are viewed as a diverse lot. It was painted by Lorna May Wadsworth, 41, who wanted to “question the western myth that he had fair hair and blue eyes.”
It’ll hang in the church starting Saturday, according to the U.K. Daily Mail, where it will hang until October. The 2009 original made news last year after it was discovered someone had shot out Jesus’ head with an air rifle.
“My portrayal of him is just as accurate as the received idea that he looked like a Florentine,” said the 41-year-old Wadsworth.
Indeed it may be. There’s also the fact that this oughtn’t matter much; what a church wants to put up is really its own business and there’s nothing inherently problematic with the painting. The troubling element, instead, is the political context.
Take the statement from the dean of St. Albans, the Very Rev. Dr. Jeffrey John: “The church is not in a strong position to preach to others about justice, racial or otherwise, but our faith teaches that we are all made equally in the image of God, and that God is a God of justice.
“Black lives matter, so this is why we have turned our Altar of the Persecuted into a space for reflection and prayer with Lorna’s altarpiece at the heart.”
If they matter so much, why was this announced right after Welby was challenged? Black lives have always mattered to God in every manner. John has been in the Church of England for quite some time now. The timing of the decision makes it feel less like a reminder “that God is a God of justice” and more like a capitulation and apology for the fact that the church hasn’t been capital-W Woke. See, the stuffy old Church of England is hip to what’s been going on. They can rap with the kids taking to the streets.
As these things go, this is the Poochie the Dog of political statements.
In case you’re just catching up on this one, the most prominent Black Lives Matter supporter who called for the white Jesus archetype to be called into question was the dubious Shaun King, who decided to go on a Twitter spiel about tearing statues and paintings of an unmelinated Savior.
Yes, I think the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down.
They are a form of white supremacy.
Always have been.
In the Bible, when the family of Jesus wanted to hide, and blend in, guess where they went?
Tear them down.
— Shaun King (@shaunking) June 22, 2020
All murals and stained glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends should also come down.
They are a gross form white supremacy.
Created as tools of oppression.
They should all come down.
— Shaun King (@shaunking) June 22, 2020
Leaving aside the fact that King is one of the more sketchy characters inside the Black Lives Matter movement, the fact remains that this isn’t an uncommon sentiment these days.
And while this all may true, it’s more likely that Christ’s mien was more Middle Eastern than anything else. The black community appropriating him is just as incorrect as white people appropriating him if you believe in that sort of thing.
The difference is, of course, that Black Lives Matter believes that white Jesus represents a history of white supremacy. The why behind this isn’t regularly challenged — and this is just as well, because the logic here would fall apart like cheap paper towels in the rain if it did.
Jesus was portrayed as white in these churches for the same reason that, as per Welby’s experience with other churches around the world, churches in other parts of the world don’t portray Jesus as white.
But don’t think about this too hard. The Church of England clearly hasn’t. They just saw the direction in which the winds of outrage were blowing and acted accordingly.
This isn’t just affirming the worth of humanity and standing for justice. This isn’t just putting a print of a painting which portrays Jesus as black behind the altar — one that, in any other context, I’d find challenging and slightly profound.
It’s the earthly church expediently cosigning a political movement and pretending to have God’s signature on the documents.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.