The Many Faces and the Many Colors of Christ


by Alfred D. Turnipseed

Ethiopian icon

I know and am friends with Addison Hodges Hart, author of “‘White Jesus’ and Shaun King,” published at Public Orthodoxy on June 26, 2020. And I should also note that I am in full agreement with Fr. Hart’s main thesis there: Notwithstanding the fact that the historical Yeshua of Nazareth, as a first century, Palestinian Jew—and therefore, of Semitic, Afro-Asiatic stock—was, in all likelihood, a deeply tanned or brown-skinned man (with facial features, hair texture, and bodily proportions probably as depicted on the Shroud of Turin), artistic images of a “white Jesus” are “good and harmless”—certainly as originally intended by their Western European (and European American immigrant) creators. Moreover, attacking them as necessarily racist undermines the Black Lives Matter movement, giving an excuse to those who want to label BLM and its efforts to secure racial justice and human rights for African Americans (and, by extension, for all), as “imbecilic and dangerous.” After all, Christianity has always been an iconophilic (“image-friendly”) religion. That is, even as Christianity proclaims the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus from its beginnings 2,000 years ago, it has always favored spiritual and aesthetic expressions that awaken the “active imagination” (to use a term dear to Carl Jung) through vocal and instrumental music; architecture; and visual, textile, and performing arts.

Likewise, Christianity has been an ethnically and culturally diverse religion from its inception. Again, its Divine Founder lived and ministered in Galilee, Decapolis, Perea, Samaria, Syro-Phoenicia, Judea (today’s Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria, respectively), as well as Egypt, for a brief time during his early childhood. This region of the Eastern Mediterranean world is the land bridge connecting three great continents—Africa, Asia, and Europe—the “crossroads” of the ancient world. Christ Jesus’ apostles—including those known to Scripture and Tradition as “The Twelve” (representing the twelve tribes of Israel) and “The Seventy” or “Seventy-two” (symbolizing the number of Gentile nations)—were a richly diverse group. We see this in the very ethnic diversity of their names (like Simon, of Hebrew or Aramaic derivation; or like Andrew, a Greek name; and so on) and places of origin (like Tarsus, in Asia Minor or modern-day Turkey; or like Cyrene, that is, Pentapolis-Cyrenaica, or modern-day Libya; and so forth). The same is true for those apostles called after the Resurrection. No doubt, when the Risen Lord published his “Great Commission” (cf. Matthew 28), he was inaugurating a mission of evangelizing and discipling that would be genuinely catholic (universal), in cultural, ethnic, and geographic scope.

Thus, according to Orthodox Christian tradition, James, “the brother of the Lord,” was the first Bishop of Jerusalem, where he, like Christ Jesus, poured out his life’s blood unto the establishment of God’s heavenly Kingdom on earth. Mark, a Libyan Jew whose family moved to Jerusalem, founded the Church in Alexandria, Egypt, and was martyred there. (Notably, Mark’s family home was the site of the Cenacle, where the Last Supper was held.) Matthew evangelized as far south as what’s now known as Sudan and Ethiopia. As we know from the New Testament Book of Revelation (or the Apocalypse of John), the traditions of the earliest Johannine communities locate John’s ministry in Asia Minor (again, modern-day Turkey), centering around Ephesus where he lived with Our Lord’s Mother, Mary the Virgin Theotokos, from after the resurrection until her death and translation into heaven. Andrew evangelized in Georgia and the Black Sea region (including the ancient city of Byzantium, which became the great metropolis of Constantinople, New Rome, in the fourth century). Rather than remaining in the East, one of the Jameses went as far as Spain. (This is why there is “Santiago de Compostela,” the shrine at the very northwestern edge of the Iberian peninsula.) Thomas founded Christian communities in Parthia (today’s Afghanistan), western China, and as far southeast as Kerala, India. According to the traditions of these Indian “Thomas churches” (as they’re called), he was martyred there. Most famously, Peter and Paul—who first ministered in Antioch, Syria, where “the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:26, OSB/NKJV)—were martyred at Rome, during Nero’s imperial reign. And so on and so forth… 

By the close of the Apostolic Age, Christianity was established throughout the ancient (classical) world, among all ethna (“nations” or “peoples”), at least as early as the 2nd century. Christians began to refer to themselves as a new species of humanity united in the Holy Spirit through Christ Jesus (the “Second” and “Last Adam,” cf. Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15) even though they were diverse ethnically and culturally. As such, they comprised a kind of “third race” in these Last Days at the advent of the New Age. (Jews and Gentiles were the first two “races”. See the Apology of Aristides; also, the works of Eusebius of Caesarea, among several other examples.) It is for this reason that all Christians, in all times and places, have felt free to depict through all the arts the Mystery of Christ Jesus, the Virgin Theotokos, the apostles, the prophets, the martyrs, and all the saints, after their own “racial” or ethnic and cultural types, always mindful of the fact that, in the Incarnate Word, God has “become” every human being. In other words, the One manifesting “in the flesh” (cf. John 1, 1 John 1, etc.) as the first century Galilean Jew, Yeshua of Nazareth, unites humanity to God—and through humanity, the microcosmos (“little cosmos”), all creation to God as well—because he is the Divine Hypostasis of the Word, the Source and Destiny of all. In that sense, he is no mere individual (that is, no mere individuated instance of humanity in the abstract), but is also the eternal truth of humanity in its fullness. He truly is what the Kabbalists call “Adam Kadmon,” what Sufis call the “Universal Man,” what the Vedas call Purusha (“Cosmic Self”), what Ekayana Buddhism calls the “Buddha-Nature,” and what Orthodox divines and Sophiologists (not to mention mystical Christians of every kind, including Swedenborgians) call the “Divine Human” or Theanthropos. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, OSB/NKJV). “For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body [in Christ]” (Romans 8:22-23, OSB/NKJV).

It is for this reason, too, that racism is, perhaps, the greatest illusion. Of all sins, racism (which is really, for lack of a better term, a “sin-cluster” or “sin-complex” that combines idolatry, pride, envy, anger, greed, lust, and almost every other mortal vice), is Christianity’s “arch-heresy.” Not unlike a virus or a cancer, racism also attacks humanity’s identity—its very being and existence—in Christ. As such, racism is not merely one transgression among others, and its defeat is not merely a matter of personal holiness. If humanity is called by God to “evolve” into the One Human Being of the New Creation, the Whole Christ who is also the whole of humankind, racism must first, and irrevocably, be defeated by an intelligent, active, “muscular” love. Such love alone can knit us all together into One, into the oneness of Christ to which we are called from everlasting.

I have often been asked why I, an African American, am a member of the Greek Orthodox Church. And it is, in fact, a perfectly fair question. Why did I become Orthodox, four years ago this fall? Was it the sublimely beautiful liturgies? The radiant, copper-colored and gold-faced icons? The Biblical (Middle Eastern and Northeast African) cultural heritage? An ecclesiology (or vision of the Church) that faithfully follows that of the ancient Fathers of both Christian East and West? The love and hospitality, and commitment to a living and vibrant faith-expression, of my parish community? Well, yes, I was indeed moved by all those things. Nevertheless, in the end, it came down to the genuinely Christian witness of individuals: Orthodox Christians who saw me not as a “political and socioeconomic problem,” much less as a “racial inferior,” but rather as a person, a living icon of God in Christ Jesus (cf. Genesis 1:26-27, Colossians  1:15-20), and this, despite sins and shortcomings that are obvious to all. God willing (inshallah), the Day will soon come when the appearance of a “white Jesus,” a “black Jesus,” and a “brown Jesus,” a “male Jesus” and a “female Jesus,” a “celibate Jesus” and a “married Jesus,” and so on and so forth (our only limits are the exigencies of grace), will no longer give any cause for scandal, but rather generate spontaneous ecstasies of joy and wonder. Why? Because on that Great Day, the world will see Christ Jesus “holographically” represented in each and every one of his members, and in the aggregate of his complete, undivided, Eucharistic and Mystical Body. For such things, let us labor and pray together.

His disciples said to him: On what day will the Kingdom come? <Jesus said:> It will not come while people watch for it; they will not say: Look, here it is, or: Look, there it is; but the Kingdom of the Father is spread out over the earth, and men do not see it.—Gospel of Thomas 113, Blatz translation

Jesus said: If they say to you: Whence have you come?, say to them: We have come from the light, the place where the light came into being of itself. It [established itself], and it revealed itself in their image. If they say to you: Who are you?, say: We are his sons, and we are the elect of the living Father.—Gospel of Thomas 50, Blatz translation

Alfred D. Turnipseed is an African American Orthodox Christian whose primary avocation is religious education. A beloved brother, uncle, and father to one terrific cat, he lives in South Bend, Indiana.