The Word Rabbit

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This article was written on 04 Mar 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

The radical, transformative outsider

There now follows, if you’re a Certain Type of Christian, a fairly intense five or ten minutes of heresy that is, nonetheless, heartfelt. If you are of a sensitive or nervous disposition, you may look away now and access another website. I believe there are many and, as I’m in a rather batey mood, it might perhaps be for the best. Some of my language may be intemperate. Here we go.

White Jesus is a damaging fiction. There. Like pulling off a sticking plaster, we’ve done it all in one go and got the worst out of the way with. Let’s deal with the fictional part first. And as this is the easiest to do, we can breeze briskly through it.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem which, today is in the Palestinian West Bank. His mother, Mary, was from Nazareth, which is today in northern Israel in Galilee and is where Jesus grew up, sufficient for him to be known as Jesus of Nazareth. Some people call him ‘the Nazarene,’ a phraseology I like because it sounds strange and alien to my, Western ears.

This places Jesus squarely in a geographical context and that is significant because it also tells us, in part, what he might have looked like. While the gospels cheerfully ignore his race and ethnic background, perhaps thinking it isn’t important (maybe a message for you there, racists, if you have but the wit to grasp it) he will probably have been of conventional Middle Eastern appearance with olive skin, a broad nose and cropped hair. We know this because that’s what third century pictures of Jesus’ people looked like and as to the hair, St Paul the Apostle ranted on about men not having long hair, which suggests he probably didn’t. St Paul wouldn’t wanted to have risked being smited. Smote? Never mind.

None of this is particularly difficult to get your head round, but it was for Western artists, who have spent hundreds of years portraying him as looking like a lean, American tennis player who went to an Ivy League university and who had let his hair grow a bit, the raffish young scamp. Even in the depictions where he looks notably Semitic, as he almost certainly did, he’s about six and a half feet tall with a strange light coming from behind him, which, were it the case, would suggest he wasn’t hard to spot. And yet when he was betrayed, the means that was chosen was for Judas to give him a kiss, which suggests he wasn’t that recognisable.

Quite when this fissure took place in Western art, I lack the erudition or the knowledge to know. Maybe they were just building his part, perhaps feeling that the hero should at least look heroic and setting out to make him so according to the tradition of whichever artistic school they fell within at the time, but it means that our version of Jesus has got all bent out of shape. We seei him as a lovely tall white man who brought some of that old-time religion to people we’re encouraged by these interpretations to see as being a bit thick.

What feels as though it’s lost in the translation from life to canvas is some of the texture that he must have had. This was not a man who walked around in the blazing sun and stayed pearly white, with clean hands and smelling of Dove. His skin would have been baked by the sun and, without any Factor 50 to hand, it will have shown. Equally, none of them would have been immaculate. The highways and byways of the Middle East are not like walking down a slip road of the M1. They’re dirty and smelly and, particularly for Jesus’ followers who had been fishermen, nobody would have given off an odour which suggested they’d just walked out of a perfume commercial.

These dirty, smelly men, and women, with short stature, pudgy noses and olive skin went on to change the course of history. One of them was the Son of God, which weighs pretty heavily. But why is the fact that they’ve become white in the Western re-telling of the story significant? Well, because what we’ve done is to take Jesus’ notional safety catch and put it on ‘safe.’ It’s alright people, he’s one of us. If he came back now, he’d probably live in Surrey, work in the City, have Le Creuset saucepans and go to Holy Trinity Brompton when he wasn’t playing golf with Moses or tennis with Nicky Gumbel. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Jesus was, and should still be perceived as, an outsider. His country was a vassal state of the Romans, and his people had been subjugated by them. He didn’t do what the authorities wanted, either, with regard to the colonial powers or the supine idiots of the Jewish faith. He went into the temple and turned over the moneylenders’ tables, rather than saying that he was ‘intensely relaxed’ about moneychanging and really cool with people getting rich. Remember that thing he said about a camel passing through the eye of the needle being easier than a rich man getting into heaven? This was not a man keen to win friends among the powerful.

The idea of him being an outsider should echo down the generations and wreak havoc with our conception of history. Martin Luther King could scarcely have been more of an outsider had he tried, but this black preacher held the most powerful nation on Earth to account and called upon it to live by the principles on which it had been founded. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was part of the Confessing Church, which desperately tried to exculpate German sins for allowing themselves to be seduced by genocidal mania and Cardinal Romero spoke out against government brutality against his people.

All three paid with their lives. All three were feared at the time for the clarity of their moral vision, for all that they have been lionised now that a comfortable amount of time has passed. But all were outsiders, all called a comfortable majority away from their cosy assumptions and bid them turn their attentions, as Jesus did, to the barbarity of injustice. Western Jesus seems to me to be curiously devoid of power and potency. Restore him to his context and he’s an angry and, dare I say it, politicised warrior who believed in what I think was the truth with fervent clarity.

When I was doing my Street Pastor training at the Methodist church in Clapham, there was an image of Jesus in stained glass which evoked all of these misperceptions, albeit unknowingly. That isn’t, I need to be clear, the nice, tidy Jesus that I follow. When you worship Him, you worship someone who came down to us to live among the poorest folk of the already downtrodden and colonised, who lived among dirt, grime and performed messy, complicated miracles that defied people’s perceptions and suffered every conceivable human agony. This is both awe-inspiring and horrifically relatable at the same time, Word made literally flesh, in all its pungent, visceral inconvenience. For pity’s sakes, we need to restore this Jesus and forget our cosy ideals about Him because there, in that body, He lives again in all His radical, transformative glory.

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