When I travelled to India in January of 2015, we visited a number of churches. And there was something odd about the depictions of Jesus in all of them: He was a very, very white European-looking man. Having grown up with lots of images of Jesus who is depicted with European features (the 1940 version by American artist Warner Sallman comes to mind right away), I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t look Palestinian. However, his skin was like Elmer’s glue white. Not a healthy looking color by most standards.
When I asked about this odd novelty, I was told by our seminary professor that in much of Indian culture, the lighter a person’s skin color is, the more value they are given. India experienced hundreds of years of colonialism where power was held by light-skinned British, even if it was destructive and dehumanizing power. And so, over time this has led many in Indian culture to make choices for themselves and their children that give them “light-skinned value” as people in their society, even today: from using cosmetic skin-lightening products to intentionally marrying into a light-skinned family.
This was theologically quite disturbing to learn. It forced me to consider the racism in my own country, and for the first time I realized that the color of my own white skin might actually carry some unintended messages from destructive colonialism in the world, even today—like the present-day art in churches of glue-white Jesus (you can re-open this in your browser to see photo above, if you like).
As Christians, we want to help people “just like Jesus did.” It’s embedded into our core identity as people who have experienced liberation through embracing the Christhood within ourselves and within each other. But how might being a white woman need to be held with some important caution, especially if I want to help empower people and not disempower them?
We’ve all heard the sad accounts about well-intended service agencies or mission teams going to places to build houses or dig wells where the team bringing resources, skill, knowledge and wealth (all of which translate into POWER), do their kind deed and feel great about themselves, but in a year or two when their work has not been maintained by the people it was meant to benefit, it’s evident that they had not been able to build relationships between the two groups that conferred this most important fact:
OUR liberation is tied up with YOUR liberation.
We all remain poor/unsafe/unwell as long as some are poor/unsafe/unwell.
Learning about White Saviorism has helped me to read 1 Corinthians 12 :22-26 with fresh eyes:
“The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
As long as people with power (Whites) generally see their work to reduce poverty or homelessness or discrimination or injustice as “benevolent kindness” for those people from that other zip code (instead of other parts of the human “body” that are essential to our well-being as much as we are to theirs—as different as our cultures may be), we are never going to find our way out of the many places of suffering in the world today. (I am writing this message to myself as much as to anyone else, so please see any finger-wagging at myself only.)
Part II of this essay (coming this weekend) explores the dangers of translating the lived experience of people of color through the lens of the white person’s privilege—and how we white folk do it regularly without even knowing it—particularly in the movies we watch. Stay tuned for more!
With Love and Light for the journey,