Dec 16, 2013

Dr. Tim Wise is one of the best experts on race relations so of course I expected him to put out a thought provoking commentary on Megyn Kelly's insistence that Jesus and Santa Claus were white.

Read a snippet of his essay here:

Which brings us to Jesus.

In some ways, one can’t blame Megyn Kelly for so quickly having insisted that Jesus was white. That is, to be certain, the image to which most of us have been exposed, and the blue-eyed, blondish Christ is the one reproduced over half a billion times, literally, in Warner Sallman’s famous “Head of Christ” painting. So if Megyn Kelly and the FOX faithful have come to believe that “A Child is Born in Bethlehem” was a reference to modern-day central Pennsylvania, we ought not be surprised I guess.

Tradition is, after all, the conservative guidepost; it is their very raison d’ĂȘtre. So once the image of a white Jesus has become established — as with Santa — that, and only that (rather than other niceties like historical accuracy) is what matters. This is why Rush Limbaugh’s defense of Megyn Kelly, which rested upon the simple exhortation that Santa (and presumably Jesus too) has “always been” white, strikes most right-wingers as perfectly sufficient. Facts are irrelevant. Tradition and the way things have always been are what matter. Tradition is what gives conservatives meaning. They are rudderless without it. And so to change (or even challenge) religious iconography, or even that of secular symbols like Santa takes on much grander psychological meaning for a bunch such as this. They long for the past, and fear change, so much so that it becomes the harbinger of their own doom. Tradition trumps fairness: so because heterosexual and monogamous marriage has been the norm for so long — though not nearly so long as they would have us believe — any attempt to “redefine marriage” is seen as a threat to their entire way of life. If Christianity has been the dominant and “normal” faith in the U.S., religious diversity becomes not a social good but a tainted and monstrous evil, the growth of which suggests that the oppression of Christians lies just around the corner. A greeting of “Happy Holidays” at the Wal-Mart, rather than one that prioritizes and presumes the supremacy of the Christian particular, becomes tantamount to the Nazis inviting Jews into the showers: a set-up, said with a smile, all the while hiding the pernicious intent of these peddlers of pluralism. This, and it really must be said, is derangement of a most disturbing kind.

What this means for most white people is simple enough. Even though no anthropologist or historian of first century Galilean Jews — which is to say Palestinians — would believe that Jesus could have been white, if that’s the image in the stained glass of one’s church, or on the Christmas card sent to you by your great-aunt Millie, well then, what do anthropologists know anyway? What is science compared to what makes us feel better? Indeed, this is the irony of Megyn Kelly’s rant last week: while she was lambasting an African American essayist who had argued that a white Santa was insufficiently inclusive — by telling her that “just because something makes you uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change” — the fact is, it is Megyn Kelly and white conservatives the world over who apparently need Jesus to be white. Which is why they changed him so as to make him such, even though many of the earliest depictions of him hewed more closely to the logical and historical truth. This truth is one that, it should be noted, has been explicated clearly by forensic anthropologists based on the available period-specific evidence, in their reconstructions of the face of Jesus. Suffice it to say that their scientifically more compelling image is one that would not only be rejected by most whites (and surely most who rely on FOX for their news), but would likely provoke them to deep and abiding anger.

Which brings us to the far more important point: namely, why do white people apparently require white heroes, icons and saviors? Because we quite obviously do. Surely one cannot think it coincidence that Jesus has been so rendered ever since Christianity came to be used in the service of European supremacy? Surely one cannot find it a capricious and fanciful whim — or mere artistic contrivance — that would cause Michelangelo, Mel Gibson and thousands more between to envision Jesus as essentially one of ours? Likewise, and on a far less serious note, do we really believe that Santa has “always been white” as Limbaugh put it — or as Kelly herself did in her defense, when referencing films like “Miracle on 34th Street” — because there were no darker actors capable of chortling “ho ho ho,” and rubbing their prodigious bellies?

No indeed, there are no coincidences here, and however much Megyn Kelly now wishes to play victim, proclaiming herself the unjust target of “race baiters,” such a conceit is rich and even precious coming from her: someone who spent several hours a few years back hyping an entirely nonsensical story about the New Black Panthers, and how they were intimidating white voters at a polling place in Philadelphia in 2008. And this she did, even though in all the hours of coverage she could produce not one actual voter at the precinct who claimed to have been intimidated (and indeed, there were none), and although even the leading conservative on the Civil Rights Commission, which investigated the charge called it much ado about nothing.

Megyn Kelly is not the victim. And it is not race-baiting to suggest that there might be something troubling about the racialization of Jesus as a white man, or that there might be something even more troubling about a grown and well-paid news figure insisting that Santa is anything. Whether one wishes to address it or not, there is a reason these icons have been rendered white, especially Jesus. It would hardly have done, one supposes, to allow the more historically accurate Jesus to predominate in the church paintings, as Europe branched out, seeking to conquer the globe in the name of money and power and land, proclaiming the inferiority of the darker types all the while (and most ironically, their spiritual inferiority). It would have been decidedly more difficult, one might imagine, to enslave and brutalize and rape and murder the black and brown, if those who did the deed had then to enter their churches on the Sabbath and pray to a savior whose visage bore an uncanny and haunting resemblance to the man they had just lynched the night before, as the Romans had done on a cross with another brother so many years before.

To make the savior of the universe (at least in Christian eyes) a white man is to make possible, literally, the enslavement of brown and black peoples, the evisceration of still others and the conquest of their land in the name of white superiority. These historic crimes are almost unthinkable in a society where truth and historical accuracy were valued more than white skin. Which is to say, when conservatives insist Megyn Kelly’s comments — and the beliefs of millions — that Jesus was white are only a matter of personal preference without consequence, they write and speak as if history didn’t happen. But it did, and it matters, however painful it might be for white people to face.

Because to admit that such a man as Jesus would have been brown — at least the color of, say, Osama bin Laden, if not darker — would be to admit that the very foundations of this country, and its normal operating procedures for most of its history — were a sin not merely against our professed civic and political principles, but a sin against God and the very Christianity upon which conservatives, at least, insist, this country was begun. And given the tendency of conservatives to view their God as particularly vengeful and given to wrath, one can quite easily understand why they might prefer to ignore their own transgressions in his eyes, and to change the subject — or at least the object of their theological affections — as quickly as possible.

Click here to read the article in its entirety.