Our minister writes a weekly column for our local newspaper, the Roanoke Beacon. We’ve included the latest edition below.
Did you know that Jesus was Black?
That’s the assertion of Black Hebrews or Black Israelites, African Americans who believe they are of Israelite descent. The view originated in the later years of the nineteenth century with former American slaves who identified with the Israelites of the Old Testament who had been freed from their captivity in Egypt. The Black Hebrew movement gained momentum in the 1980s, spreading across the United States from Kansas to New York. These folks believe that true Israelites are Black and that when the story of Jesus was carried into Europe, Europeans rebranded Jesus from the historically Black person that he was into a white man.
Within the larger group of “Black Israelites,” there are subsets of people, many of whom disagree with one another. Some sub-groups are so militant that, in 2008, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) classified them as hate groups and “Black Supremacists.” The SPLC noted that while most Black Hebrews are non-violent and are not Black Supremacists, there is a fringe of the Black Israelite movement that teaches “that Jews are devilish impostors and … openly condemn whites as evil personified, deserving only death or slavery.”
Journalists reported that some members of this fringe Black Israelite movement were involved in the verbal altercation between students from Covington (KY) Catholic High School and Native American activist Nathan Phillips. Veteran journalists who analyzed video of the incident noted that Black Hebrew Nationalists were shouting racial and homophobic slurs at the students. The students said that they began chanting to drown out the hateful speech that was directed at them. Phillips claimed that he stepped between the two groups, saying, “These young men were beastly and these old black individuals was their prey.”
The real truth of that incident may never be known.
The truth of Jesus’ racial identity might be easier to discuss. Bible scholars point to the fact that Jesus is Jewish and that most Jews had light to dark-brown skin. While there were Blacks who were Israelites, most Jews were lighter skinned than most Africans. It’s likely that Jesus’ complexion was light brown or “olive.” But scholars also note that the skin color of Jesus is never identified in the Bible, nor is the skin color of most other people. The Bible gives no attention to the modern concept of race. In the Bible, people seem to have associated freely with one another while paying no attention to differences in skin tone.
It is true that later Europeans rebranded Jesus, giving him more of a “white” appearance in their artwork. It’s also true that Black Africans rebranded Jesus to appear more “Black,” and Asian believers rebranded Jesus to look more Asian. This rebranding occurred long after Jesus’ earthly ministry was completed and probably finds its roots in the desire of each culture to identify with Jesus on a personal level. Each of us wants to believe that Jesus is “like us,” so that we can identify with Jesus in a deep and personal way.
Here’s the thing: We can identify with Jesus on a level deeper than skin color. Just prick your skin. You bleed red. An eighth of an inch deep, we’re all the same; we’re human and we bleed red.
Just like Jesus. When Jesus died, He bled red for all of us.
In Ephesians 2:11-16(NIV), the Apostle Paul makes much of this truth. To a world that divided itself only two ways – Jew and Gentile – Paul said, “Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.”
“One new humanity,” a humanity free from hostility. That sounds right.