Every now and then, a meme comes to light that helps clarify the ongoing debate about the person and work of Jesus. Though generally simplistic and inaccurate, such memes are helpful foils as they force our hand in revealing our own biases. As a pastor who is always on the lookout for newsletter material, I was lucky enough when a meme that had been making the rounds on the internet came to my attention!
The meme shows two pictures of Jesus. One is a portion of a traditional French School painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that has been labeled “Colonizer Jesus”, along with a list of all the characteristics that have allegedly been attributed to him. The other is supposed to be a realistic image of Jesus that looks like it was done using some forensic facial reconstruction software, along with another list of qualities that are associated with that particular Jesus.
Seeing as this meme perfectly ties in with so many of the social and political issues of our day, it would be worthwhile to consider both of these caricatures of Jesus and ask fundamental questions about their accuracy and even the project of forcing any kind of square Jesus into an inevitable round ideology, including the Jesus that I prefer.
But first, it should be said that we should avoid making lists about Jesus anyways, as they cannot possibly do Him justice because of our own limited worldviews. For the sake of our sanity, we cannot help but form worldviews that will always be more limited in scope than Jesus’ comprehensive understanding of all things. By the time we are in our 20’s or 30’s, most of us have usually decided what our limits are going to be on a range of topics and ideas, and we generally live, read and argue in that safe range. Call it a “worldview” or your politics or your religion, but this narrow frame of reference helps us to quickly make senes of our world. It may even help you to make friends, find a spouse, or choose a career.
With that in mind, when it comes to the two lists accompanying these two different views of Jesus, clearly they are trying to place Jesus within two divergent and simplistic worldviews, with one portrayed as obviously evil and the other as an obvious champion of humanity. But trying to place the Lord of Glory within our own limited (and inherently sinful) worldview is foolish. Jesus is not limited by such a way of seeing the world. He will always be more to the “left” or to the “right” than any of us ever could be.
Sure, Jesus believes that certain things are absolutely right and absolutely wrong, but he also demonstrated that he is willing and able to call all to account, from the demonic to the hyper-religious and everyone in between. For example, while we love to limit our worldview to being either in the “rule-following” (the right) or the “compassionate” (the left) camp, any honest reader of the Bible will see that Jesus was a defender of both the Law and compassion.
Thus every follower of Jesus will constantly be pushed and pulled by his example that won’t neatly fit into our tidy boxes or worldviews. So let’s dig in, for as we shall see, any of these side-by-side “contradictions” are not contradictions at all, and are in fact, more often than not, both true!
Colonizer Jesus- “Christian” vs. Historic Jesus- “Jewish”
These terms are simply anachronistic. “Christian” is a term applied to followers of Jesus after his resurrection, so it cannot apply to Jesus himself. And while Jesus clearly identifies himself as a Jew, he also identifies himself as God’s Son and as God Himself, who institutes a “new covenant” that brings an end to certain Jewish identifiers such as temple sacrifices and Kosher food requirements, while proclaiming doctrines like the Trinity. Since Christians are identified by those distinctions, it would be better to say that yes, Jesus is truly a Jew and that he ushered in Christianity.
Colonizer Jesus as “King” vs. Historic Jesus as “Homeless Man and Child Refugee”
First off, the word “refugee” is a politically-loaded word foreign to the Bible, but it is also a fact that Jesus proclaimed in Scripture to be both the King of Kings and an itinerant preacher who for three years had “nowhere to lay his head.” These two realities do not contradict one another. One speaks to Jesus’ divine nature, his eternal authority, and office as king, while the other one speaks to the humility he endured as a human being.
Colonizer Jesus “Sends Sinners to Hell” vs. Historic Jesus Is “Friend of Sinners and Outcasts”
Here again, an apparent contradiction is being asserted when in fact both are true, albeit the language here is rather inartful. Jesus clearly teaches that there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” for those excluded from the Kingdom of God, for those whom Jesus “never knew.”
Also, Jesus fellowshipped with sinners and called them to repentance during his earthly ministry. There is no problem believing both of those things about Jesus, unless one quality is emphasized over the other. For example, if Jesus is only a judge who condemns and not a savior who frees, that would be a problem. Likewise, if Jesus is only a friend of sinners, then his saving grace has been tragically cheapened.
Colonizer Jesus “Upholds Traditional Family Unit” vs. Historic Jesus “Had Half-Siblings”
Jesus upholds marriage and the family as a great institution of God (Matthew 19), but the fact that he had half-siblings does not contradict that facet of his ministry in the least. For if he was miraculously conceived, what other kind of siblings would he have? Only someone with a profound confusion about the true nature of Jesus’ identity could ever conceive of such a contradiction.
Colonizer Jesus “Died for Your Sins” vs. Historic Jesus “Killed by Church and State”
It is true that Jesus both “died for your sins” and that he was “killed by Church and State" [Actually the Temple-another anachronism here]. The perpetrators of Jesus’ execution and the effect of the God-man’s death are categorically unrelated. It would be like forcing one to choose between the following statements: “The Astros traded George Springer” and “George Springer hit the game-winning home run for the Blue Jays.”
Colonizer Jesus “Condemns Sinners” vs. Historic Jesus “Critiques Religious People”
These two assertions fall into the “they are both true and so what?” category. Jesus condemns sinners and critiques religious people, for the simple reason that they are often the same people! Of course, the makers of this meme want us to believe that the “historical” Jesus was only critical of religious people while the “white” Jesus is an unjust judge of everyone.
The truth is that Jesus hated every kind of injustice and sin, from the mockery of marriage, to the exploitation of power, to adultery, and pride. Jesus’ attacks on the Pharisees does not translate to a universal judgement against all religion in his day or today, and it does not mean Jesus would not judge sinners of all types today. Including all of us. (But remember, we are saved by his grace!)
Colonizer Jesus “White” & “Silence in the Face of Oppression” vs. Historic Jesus “Middle-Eastern Brown Skinned” & “Liberates the Oppressed”
One of the more controversial aspects of this meme has to do with the way Jesus is portrayed as a white judge rather than a brown liberator. First, every culture depicts Jesus in their ethnic likeness. So while it is silly to portray Jesus as a white guy with blonde hair and blue eyes, I am not critical when Africans portray him with black skin or Asians portray him with Asian features, etc.
It is one of the ways we come to appreciate that Jesus died for us, that he is one of us, that he is truly our brother, our friend, and our Lord. Hence superficially portraying Jesus in our own likeness is, on the order of things, not a moral wrong, even if it is historically inaccurate.
But is the “white” Jesus really silent in the face of oppression? What oppression? Whose oppression? Jesus actually did not encourage political liberation in any way, but preached obedience in most occasions. It may be true that the Church is often weak in the face of evil; but that doesn’t mean Jesus is in favor of a higher minimum wage or police reform. The truth is that Jesus’ liberation is primarily spiritual and secondarily political. I am in favor of both, but Jesus was simply not a leader of a political revolution.
I do agree that Jesus is often wrongly portrayed as a champion of America and that a proper understanding of one’s relationship with the state is best done by remembering one’s Christian residence in heaven while recognizing that we are often ruled by tyrants here on earth. America is defensible as a “Christian nation” by first laying a principled groundwork and then a consistent flow of ideas that follow. For example, human beings have dignity, therefore they have innate human/civil rights, therefore government should be representative and limited.
Colonizer Jesus “Endorses Church and State” vs. Historic Jesus “Subverts Empire”
I would be curious to know, in what way did Jesus “subverts empire” or what it even means to “endorse church and state” in his day or our own. Does the colonizer Jesus endorse the separation of church and state as distinct institutions or does he endorse a merging of such institutions? The meme is unclear on that.
Jesus’ teachings, I agree, do subvert all empires, including socialistic ones that, in theory, bring about “justice through restoration” and “liberate the oppressed” poor. Christians always are the leaven in whatever society they exist, subverting a whole range of principalities and powers by not being defined by power and hate, but instead by love and service.
That is exactly why Christians can advocate for a separation of church and state in the sense that states cannot mandate faith and also believe that the state’s laws should reflect God’s eternal Law.
Colonizer Jesus “Endorses Holy War” vs. Historic Jesus Is “Non-Violent”
Finally, the bit about endorsing “holy war” … yeah, that phrase is just not in the Bible. I will agree that there have been occasions when Christians have launched devastating wars in the name of Jesus in contradiction to his teaching, but to glibly teach that Christians are to be “non-violent” in every circumstance is short-sighted.
Faithful Christians have found themselves in situations of such profound evil that violence was preferred over the increased victimization of innocents. God Himself vanquishes evil through violence, and it may be the case that an “empire” is to be “subverted” precisely through the use of violence, as God has done before in Scripture.
So, who is the real Jesus? The truth is that our limited worldviews mean we will almost always create Jesus in our own image. If we can at least be aware of that reality, then we will better equipped to step out of our traditions and draw closer to the real Jesus. The best we can do is read Scripture with an open mind and try to embrace the radical vision that Jesus really does offer, and hold it all together. But at the very least, don’t use memes like this to limit Jesus. That’s just mean.
Photo Credit- theoldblackchurch.blogspot.com