I have to give props to the establishment. They’ve managed to divert some of the most militant protests in recent history away from the subject of police brutality to a futile debate about statues. Personally, I was in favor of tearing down Confederate monuments, mostly because they were put up to intimidate blacks in the Jim Crow South, but when it got to the point where masked “anarchists” were vandalizing statues of Ulysses Grant, it felt like COINTELPRO. Grant, in spite of all of his flaws, was the man most responsible for destroying the Confederacy, and the original KKK. For decades, Lost Cause ideologues and Neo-Confederates had buried his reputation under a mass of accusations that he was a corrupt, drunken butcher, a hypocritical slave owner, and a genocidal imperialist. So it seems oddly coincidental that only a year or two after liberal historians like Ron Chernow began to rehabilitate the reputation of the 18th President that “anarchists” arrived on social media in force with talking points about Grant straight out of the monthly newsletter of the Daughters of the Confederacy.
Of course the people who tore down the statue of Ulysses Grant in Golden Gate Park might not have been feds. They might have been people generally opposed to the the idea that slavery in America wasn’t ended by capitalist state power, rather idiotic if you read history but everybody has the right to be stupid. Now, however, we’ve moved onto Jesus. Sadly, people on the anti-racist left have taken the bait. In response to a question about whether or not we should tear down images of Jesus, Black Lives Matter leader (and Bernie supporter) Shaun King responded in the affirmative.
The real answer to the question about Jesus’s race is this. Man is not made in the image of God. God is made in the image of man. Jesus may have been a historical character who once lived near what is today the border of Syria and Israel. He may have traveled to Egypt. He may have been black. He may have been white (it’s certainly possible his father could have been a Roman soldier). But the reality is that Jesus is a semi-mythological character who lived in the days before photography. Unlike the Egyptian Pharaohs, we don’t have his remains. Inevitably therefore images of Jesus tend to look like the people who made them. In France, Jesus looks a bit like Emmanuel Macron. In Ethiopia (which quite possibly instituted Christianity as its state religion before Rome) Jesus probably looks a bit like Haile Selassie and Mary a bit like Ilhan Omar. In Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il vangelo secondo Matteo everybody in the Gospels (even the Archangel Gabriel) tended to look like whatever teenage rent boy the director was trying to get over on that week.
One of the earliest surviving images of Jesus is the Christ Pantocrator in the Saint Catherine Monastery in the Sinai in what is today modern Egypt. Since the image was painted by Greeks, it’s not surprising Jesus looks rather Southern European. A surprisingly realistic image for the 6th Century, it’s still not a realistic depiction of Jesus, since the monks who built the St. Catherine Monastery were chronologically further removed from the historical Jesus as I am from Columbus. So let’s just say the original model was “some Greek dude in Egypt.”
If I were Shaun King, however, I would think twice about vandalizing the image of Christ Pantocrator in the Saint Catherine Monastery, whatever his race. He has a powerful protector, Muhammad himself (yes that Muhammad). At the beginning of the 7th Century, the Prophet of Islam wrote a letter instructing his followers not to vandalize the St. Catherine Monastery or harm any of the monks living there. I don’t know if Muhammad ever saw Chris Panocrator (note: he probably did), but it wouldn’t have offended him. Muslims forbid images of the prophet but not necessarily images of Jesus.
The Ashtiname of Muhammad, also known as the Covenant or Testament (Testamentum) of Muhammad, is a document which is a charter or writ written by Ali and ratified by Muhammad granting protection and other privileges to the followers of Jesus the Nazarene, given to the Christian monks of Saint Catherine’s Monastery. It is sealed with an imprint representing Muhammad’s hand.
So don’t touch Christ Patocrator. But I guess Michelangelo’s statues in the Vatican are fair game. Go for it.