Controversy Over Black Baby Jesus Shows Depiction of Christ Is Still a Politically-Charged Issue

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This black doll in the nativity scene on display in MP Lizzie Blandthorn's Pascoe Vale office has some locals seeing red.
This black doll in the nativity scene on display in MP Lizzie Blandthorn’s Pascoe Vale office has some locals seeing red.

People often argue that it shouldn’t matter what color Jesus Christ is, but hackles are raised when he is portrayed as anything other than white. This is what’s happening in Pascoe Vale, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, which has generated controversy by displaying a nativity scene with a dark-skinned baby Jesus.

According to The Moreland Leader, Pascoe Vale state Labor Member of Parliament Lizzie Blandthorn said the figure, displayed in her office window, is a more historically-accurate depiction of Christ. She said the display had been well-received so far.

“It’s a very multicultural community and people are pleased to see a multicultural presentation of the nativity,” she said. “Some people have suggested it wasn’t appropriate because it was dark-skinned, but my view is it’s more historically accurate given the part of the world in which the nativity happened.”

Even though Jesus is usually portrayed as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed Caucasian in Western art, religious scholars say, judging by the place he was born and the people who lived there, he most likely would have been a dark-skinned Middle Easterner. The Archdiocesan Vicar General Monsignor Greg Bennett also supported this view. He told The Moreland Leader Jesus was Jewish, so he would have looked like the people of the Middle East.

“However, throughout the centuries, the images of the Holy Family in art, sculpture and windows have reflected the diverse cultures of the world and therefore the depictions of the Holy Family have reflected this reality,” Bennett said. “Jesus was born for all people — all nations — in history for history.”

However, not everyone is happy about the dark-skinned baby Jesus in the Pascoe Vale nativity scene. Local resident Maria, who didn’t give her last name, told The Moreland Leader she didn’t like the display because it was “changing what Jesus was.”

“I’m not saying he would have been blue-eyed and blonde, but I don’t think he would have been that black either,” she said. “It sounds like I’m being racist but I’m not. I’m Italian, I was born here, and I used to get called a dago — I don’t like racism.”

Twitter user XanderAngelis again raised the point that Jesus’ color should be immaterial.

“Why am I seeing people arguing about what colour Jesus was. It doesn’t matter if he was white, black, brown, green or purple,” he tweeted.

The controversy over the Pascoe Vale nativity scene shows how politically charged the depiction of Jesus can be. It seems many people get bent out of shape any time he is portrayed as anything other than a white man.

Tim Wise, an American anti-racism educator and author, said the image of Jesus has changed over the centuries. However, some of the first images of Jesus, found in the catacombs under Rome, depict him as dark-skinned. Also, early images from the Roman Empire, which helped spread Christianity across Europe, show him as a man of color. But over the centuries that image has changed to what is the now standard Caucasian features. Wise said there is a political reason for this.

“The image of a white Jesus has been used to justify enslavement, conquest, colonialism, the genocide of indigenous peoples,” he said in a CNN interview. “There are literally millions of human beings whose lives have been snuffed out by people who conquered under the banner of a white god. “

“So long as our culture pictures Adam, Eve, Moses, Jesus, Mary, the Apostles, and even God ‘himself’ as fair-skinned, despite the obvious preposterousness of such representations, we will continue to plant the seeds of racial supremacy in the hearts and minds of millions,” Wise said.

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