‘So when did your family convert to Christianity?’ asked an American General early on in the occupation of Iraq. ‘About two thousand years ago,’ replied the Iraqi.
The Middle Eastern culture and context of Christ is something that the Western Church seems happy to forget. That Jesus was very specifically a Jew is something we have found even more difficult – as Christianity’s uncomfortable bouts of anti-Semitism have shown.
It is because of this that the new Archbishop of York’s claim this week in an interview with the Sunday Times that ‘Jesus was a black man’ is so unfortunate.
The plight of Middle Eastern Christians should be a matter of outrage for the Western Church. Their population has fallen from 20 per cent of the Middle East to 5 per cent in the past century. 3 million were killed in one genocide running alongside the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; another saw Christian populations expelled, exterminated, or forcibly converted by Isis.
We should be outraged. But we’re not. It has hardly featured in our national press. There have been no protests. It may be because so much of this has happened on the back of Western action (especially the Iraq War). Perhaps it is because Westerners are inclined to think of Christians as ‘oppressors’ and not ‘oppressed’ in some global hierarchy of privilege. Whatever the reason, with a few notable exceptions (among whom we must rank the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has been very strong on this) Western Christians have been happy to ignore the horrors inflicted on Christians of the Middle East, and consciously or unconsciously have furthered the view that Christianity is a Western religion.
Into this complexity comes a heightened awareness of racial disparities, especially between black and white populations of the United States and Europe. One of the battlegrounds has been the question of why Jesus is so often portrayed as ‘white’, sometimes with blond hair and blue eyes.
This is partly, of course, because of the artistic and theological trend that sees Jesus (and those around him) painted and carved in the style of the culture in which they are being honoured – see, for example, the wonderful 18th century Mughal paintings of an Indian Christ and his mother, the Italian art of the Renaissance, or the sculptures and paintings coming out of the various churches of Africa at the moment. It tells the local viewer that this story is for you and about you. The tragedy is that it can also do the opposite: many black people have said they felt that the stories were neither for them, nor about them.
It was in this spirit, I think, that the Archbishop of York said, ‘Jesus was a black man, and he was born into a persecuted group in an occupied country.’ The trouble is, it isn’t true. Jesus wasn’t a black man. He wasn’t a northern European either. He was a Jew. A Jew from the Middle East. And that is a scandal. The ‘Scandal of Particularity’, as it is called.
It is a scandal that Jesus was born at a particular time in a particular place among a particular people as a particular sex. It is far easier to believe in a God who never gets tied down by human specifics. If God is nothing, God can be anything: God can be white, God can be black, God can be British (or German or French) and God can cheer us on against our enemies. God can be trans, or straight, or gay.
But when you rip divinity out of its comfortable atemporality and give it – give him – a name (something God stoically refused to tell Moses on Mount Sinai), a family, an education, a station in life, a group of friends, and, of course, a political world with which he interacted… suddenly he cannot be all things to all men.
At its best, art that puts Christ in a different context takes us out of our reality and put us into his scene; we become actors in his drama. At its worst, we end up ripping Christ from his reality and making him an actor in our drama – national, racial, or personal. The gap between good art and bad art is a chasm that is almost as deep as that between good theology and bad theology – and takes us to the same place.
The best art, like the best theology, takes the particular and makes it universal. We should be able to see ourselves (whoever we are) as Thomas putting his finger into the side of Christ, or as Matthew being called from his counting house, or as one of the soldiers pushing the crown of thorns onto Christ’s bleeding head.
The worst, however, cancels historical fact and replaces it with whichever passing particularity suits your narrative at the time. It leaves us without an historical Christ in whom we can (or can’t) believe on his own terms, and gives us an ever-flexible puppet of our own creation – in which it isn’t worth believing whatever the terms. Having removed the Jewish identity of their Saviour, it’s unsurprising that so many Christians are indifferent to that of their Jewish neighbours. Having abandoned the Middle East, you can see why the plight of their Christians can no longer interest us.
Now is not the time to erase the Middle Eastern Jew from the Christian story.