Saturday, November 6, 2010

Racism in Religious Imagery

so i mentioned a while ago how i had just discovered all these old Phil Donahue episodes on youtube. one in particular that i want to discuss is the one entitled "Was Jesus Black?" in this episode, Phil has various black people on the show discussing the historical references and arguments to support the idea that Jesus was black.

while i am fascianted with nearly every aspect of religion, i am only vaguely concerned with the racial make-up of Jesus. theres barely any evidence to show he existed at all, let alone any to give insight to his "race". black people should spend more time questioning the morals and subliminal messages of the bible than the racial make-up of any of its important figures. but thats another post. i wanted to expand on the comments made by the (self-identified) white people that phoned in to offer their opinions.

the main sentiment of the white individuals in the audience and on the phone was- "what does his skin color have to do with it?...i don't care if he's black, green, or hot pink!'s sacreligious to speak about the phenotype of god...etc." what i find interesting is that it didn't seem much of a concern for the white people calling in to question why it would be such an issue to worship a god (or god in human form) that looks nothing like you. then again, it doesn't take much of an imagination to wonder why some individuals have such difficulty stepping into the perspective of someone of a minority race when our perspective has been, for the most part, ignored, distorted or completely left out in most textbooks, history lessons, and general historical education. the inferiority complex evident even today in many (most) black and brown people has to be examined from all axes. religion may not be the arena most people explore, but with people of color being some of the most religious in the country, this field has to be studied.

growing up in a non-denominational church in southern Alabama, the only figure in my religious upbringing that resembled me in was satan and his demons. they were the only dark-skinned individuals in ANY religious imagery. in contrast, every depiction of God, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Noah, Moses, or any angel was white. Asians, Pacific Islanders, Blacks and Native Americans did not exist. at the time, it didn't have much effect on me (or so i didn't think). living in a country in which most shows, movies, television commericials, etc....are white, white, and white, it wasn't something that stuck out to me. every now and then the pastor of the church i grew up it mentioned the verse in Revelations that talks about Jesus having "hair like wool...", which got a reaction. but that isn't enough to reverse the overwhelming racial preferences in Christianity.

i don't consdier myself a Christian presently, but the idea of a white god and a black devil never was a factor in that. and i'm wondering now, why is that? why is it easy for many black and brown people to accept this idea of a white god? what kind of effect does this have on the personal esteem when all the people that look like you in the Bible dwell in hell? does it have any effect on our thoughts?

i've recently read about the Black Madonna and about how the imagery of Christianity at one point and time was very black, but was changed once it reached the Americas. Europeans changed this imagery to fit themselves as a people, so why haven't we as blacks and browns changed the imagery to suit ourselves?

in some circles, it is happening. one of my aunts gave my mother a Bible with all the characters represented as black people a while back. it was the first bible i had seen like that; the first time i had seen a black Mary and Joseph holding a black baby with black wise men behind them. Afro-centric churches have changed the imagery of Jesus, but as far as the masses of black church-goers, i think the imagery is consistently white.

what have been your experiences with religious imagery? do you think it has effected your personal ideas on color, race, or nationality? do you think it effects the esteem of others? is it necessary to liken the imagery of your religious gods and goddesses to oneself? also, if one can change the imagery of religious figures so easily, and have it become near fact in many people's eyes....wouldn't it be equally easy (and possible) for one to do the same to the religious text itself; to the message of the Bible? can this be added to the argument that suggests Christianity was instrumental in the mental enslavement of Africans?

comment. think. criticize.


  1. I've read about associations with blackness (especially black women) and the devil in early Christian times. The book I read that in was The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity and Islam by David Goldenberg. That book was really an eye-opener in terms of how racism as it is today is tied in with those 3 religions. While it is great that the Black Madonna existed and still exists, it doesn't cross out the Black Female Devil on the flip side.

    Considering the relationship the Abrahamic faiths have with race and slavery, I don't think changing the race of Jesus, Moses or Mohammed is going to do much except provide momentary pride/happiness/any other positive sentiment. I believe anyone who is conscious of the history these religions have with black skin and wants to compromise that, it would be best to move things out of this humanly realm and take it spiritually.

    I am happy with the religious imagery or lack thereof in Islam. Thank goodness no one shoved pictures of a lily white Mohammed before me. However there are Nigerian ethnic groups that claim Arab ancestry because they believe this means they are 'truer' Muslims. People here actually believe that Arabs have a priority when it comes to heaven and that in heaven the lingua franca is Arabic. So yes I do think religious imagery affects the esteem of others. I'm pretty pissed off by the blatant Arab worship some African Muslims hold dear to themselves. Growing up exposed to Western media and Christian imagery that upheld whiteness (I went to a Catholic school) and on the side seeing Arab worship made me reject them both. I don't accept a racial worldview and I'm still trying to reconcile Islam's relationship with the enslavement of Africans to date.

    I believe it is so necessary to liken gods and goddesses to oneself. At some point, I found myself wondering if God hated women and those of us with black skin and it is totally unnecessary to have to go through that kind of stress. At the same time, the need to liken gods and goddesses is only effective if one places huge importance on imagery in the first place. For me, coming from a Muslim background it is more expedient for me to call my God 'She' or to lose gendered pronouns all together. When it comes to race, I don't think much about it because I was told God wasn't a human being and that God is so different from us we can't begin to comprehend.

    Furthermore, there is a lot of talk on the racial unity in Islam, Bilal the first man to call the prayer was a black African. That coupled with God being above human identifiers helps eliminate the need for a black Mohammed. I must add that the racial unity mythos usually gets shattered after African Muslims encounter racism in Arab countries and/or learn about the Arab enslavement of Africans.

    I believe religious texts can and have been changed to suit the purpose of the ruling class of the day. Ditto on the mental enslavement of Africans.

    I apologise for writing an essay here! I'm doubly sorry if this doesn't make a lick of sense, when it comes to race and religion I tend to get passionate. I've got a question though, the Ethiopian Orthodox church is the among the oldest in Africa how do you think religious imagery affects them?

  2. no no! don't apologize. very few people....i think in the world ever give this subject any credence, let alone give time to genuinely examine it and how it has effected them it's more than awesome that you comment....not to mention that i like your responses because they bring a unique perspective that i know very little of to the table. so anywho...
    i agree. if someone did change all the images of Jesus to black, then someone is going to be left out. there'd be arguments then saying he's Phillipino. black people have been forced into too many religios and now, being westerners, many of us view the spiritual realm as "white" or "the devil". my mother thinks astrology is the workings of the devil. and with views like these, it's no wonder our views on religion stay with these organized religions.
    yea, i was talking with one of my friends about this subject and she said she wonders whether the lack of imagery in Islam appeals to many women of color, or just people of color in general considering Islam has the fastest growing population, most of which are people of color. i think that does have something to do with it. Malcolm X got a lot of converts, i think, during his time by almost always referring to jesus as "White Jesus".
    what exactly is the "lingua franca"? thats really this idea of racial heirarchies is evident in religion. without a human messiah, it seems the religion probably won't last long; but with one, there comes these racial and ethnic heirarchies...not to mention notions of entitlement when it comes to land.
    i saw a documentary not too long ago with Henry Louis Gates Jr. in it about him going to different countries in Africa, but mostly North and East Africa talking and educating on their lives and whatnot. and i remember he was in Ethiopia, and these men and women with very dark complexions, with hair kinkier than mine calling themselves "Persians" and scoffing at the idea that they had any black ancestry....because black ancestry or being black period was almost synonymous with "slave". it was really interesting and sad too. when African Americans think about the "motherland", we almost never think that there is any racism or internalized racism. very interesting and sad. is there anyone or any groups or....movements addressing this internalized racism? are there any academics or forums that discuss things like this?

  3. (cont'd)

    and exactly! i began to wonder the same thing. one point in my Christian past that i knew was a changing point for me was when i read the part in the bible (II Corinthians, i believe) that says something along the lines of "a woman should be silent in the church. if she has any questions, she should ask her husband. but for her to speak in the church is an abomination". i ask my mom about it and she points to the female minister we had at our church, and i'm thinking "but this is against God!". i definitely felt that i was a second-class human after reading that.
    although i don't personally have a concept of a god, i like to point out to a lot of people their male pronouns when describing god. especially the ones that say god doesn't have a gender or a race, etc. and then go on to talk about HIM as if they know what HE looks like.
    and this is where i think Islam makes so much more sense that Christianity, or most other organized religions. not only is the imagery not present, but it gives homages to multiple prophets-and has they all been different ethnicities (i'm not sure of every Prophet, but i don't think there are any for sure black or asian ones...??), it would have been a step in a good direction. also, wasn't the Prophet Muhammad rasied by a black slave woman? Baraka i think? yea, there is definitely some leaps of intelligence Islam made coming from Christianity and Judaism.

    are there any verses in the Qur'an that speak about slavery or any reference to enslaving blacks? theres plenty in the bible (the story of Cain and Abel, and the one of Ham), but i've never heard of any from the Qur'an.

    i'm not really sure about the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. i've only heard about it in the last 2 or 3 years, which is sad. but i did see a documentary on this young boy trying to become a preist in the church and how he had to learn Diez (sp?) and the ancient roots of the church. i'm not really sure about how racial imagery effects them. theres so many differences in their denomination of Christianity than from what i know as Christianity that i would have to do more research on it. like, i was talking with this woman in my Arabic class whose learning....Amharic, and she was saying that the bible in Hebrew, Amharic and some other language has a completely different message than it does in the english King James version of the bible. and not only are the Ethiopians speaking their own language, but the text of the EO church is in a dead language that the preists have to i'm not even sure how similar their Christianity is to this....white, racist, patriarichal version of Christianity we've been fed.