Dwight A. Moody
Color is everywhere these days: on the streets, in the media, at the courthouse—and between so many lines that I hear and read and think. Like many, I am learning to see color where I did not see it before, from public policies to personal assumptions, from president Jefferson to the prophet Jesus.
The color of Jesus has never entered my imagination before; and I have never noticed how he is colored in the place where he is taught. Church. So, I made an appointment with a minister at my church. “I want to look at all the art in our buildings”, I explained.
This is what I found.
There are literally scores of pictures of Jesus in our church, the First Baptist Church of St. Simons Island—hundreds if you include all the Bibles that clutter so many tables and shelves throughout the buildings.
I looked at many of them, and at the stacks of children’s literature that have accumulated in now unused spaces. Old murals and new videos added to the adventure, from a dozen publishers in as many states.
As you might imagine, Jesus is every shade in the box that ranges from stark white to soft brown. No black, though, and no hue that might signal a connection with what we now call Native Americans. And even in those images with some element of color, there are no facial features that signal anything other than Anglo descent.
Throughout the buildings, we came upon more framed pictures than any of us predicted: some large and hanging in prominent places, others small and stuck in corners. Enough, I proposed more than once, to create a gallery. Art can be a powerful platform for congregational vitality, even evangelistic outreach.
The apex of our little adventure was the large stain glass image adorning the front wall of our baptistery—which, in a Baptist church, sits behind the pulpit and choir loft, square in the center of the room. Which means, it is the most prominent image that anybody sees when attending anything in the sanctuary.
It is a familiar scene: John the Baptist with Jesus our Lord in the waters of the Jordan River. John is baptizing Jesus.
My first time preaching here after relocating from Kentucky was the Sunday on which this immersion story was the text for preaching. My grandson Sam read the narrative from the Gospel of Mark, and more than once during my sermon, I turned in reference to the image on the wall behind me.
But today, when I tried to recall the color of that Jesus I could not. Sunday after Sunday of sitting in that sanctuary left me drawing a color blank. As I wrote above, I am learning to see color where I had not seen it before.
That Jesus, the one everybody sees, the one that sits immovable behind whoever is standing in the pulpit—that Jesus is a fully American Jesus: hardly a trace of color in the skin tone but a strong suggestion of blond in the long hair that flows down both sides of the face.
I stood and stared a long time. I took pictures (above). I pondered the color of Jesus. I thought to myself (but did not say)—
Is replacing this anglicized image in this sacred space the ecclesial version of toppling the confederate statue that stands in Hanover Square in downtown Brunswick? I wonder.
I wondered even more after my minister described the day a small child of color approached after a service in which a picture of Jesus had been presented. His question was, “Is that what Jesus really looked like?”
We all wonder, I suppose. And that curiosity (as well as our commitment to Jesus as Lord) has pushed us to fashion images of Jesus that make him look very much like us. And by “us” I mean Christians in Africa, where Jesus looks like Africans, and in Asia, where Jesus looks like Asians, and in South America, where Jesus looks so Latino.
Theologians call this incarnation, God taking up residence in one of us, in the man Jesus, of Nazareth. This incarnational idea was expressed and explored some years ago in a song entitled “What If God Were One of Us”. The learned answer that question one way, and the artist another. And the color of Jesus in the stain glass image where I worship is one version of that answer.
God, in Jesus, looks like one of us.