from the Pax Christi USA Anti-Racism Team
NOTE: The Pax Christi Anti-Racism Team created the following resource for prayer, study and action for our community to take inventory as we segue from Christmas into Ordinary Time. This inventory is designed to help us deepen our commitment to anti-racism in our practice and celebration of future holiday seasons by analyzing the ways, conscious and unconscious, that white supremacy is reinforced throughout our holiday traditions, and how we might change those ways next year.
“Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness.” – Genesis 1:26
At this time of year, many of us take a fond, final look at holiday greeting cards sent to us by family and friends. The messages on those cards delight, buoy, and cheer us.
But many of the images on those cards may, even if unwittingly, be distorting our perceptions and beliefs. That is because Christmas cards that purport to depict the Nativity most often show the Holy Family as being white.
And thus, those images suggest, God is white.
We are all familiar with these images: a white, light-brown-bearded, straight-haired Joseph; a pale, blue-eyed Mary; and an infant Jesus whose swaddling reveals a glimpse of white skin. (See https://www.history.com/news/what-did-jesus-look-like, noting that depictions of an older Jesus frequently show a bearded, fair-skinned man with long, wavy light brown or blond hair and blue eyes).
Many of us celebrate and embrace these images – never questioning what they reflect. Well-meaning individuals, Catholic organizations, parishes, congregations of religious women and men, “missionary” associations, humanitarian-aid groups, and assorted charities (both religious and non-) blanket our communities with these familiar images, year after year.
By so doing, they – and we – continue to perpetuate the myth that God is white.
Yet historians have long recognized that a Jewish family living in the part of the world in which the birth of Jesus occurred, and at the time Jesus was born, would not have been white, with fair skin and light-brown or blond hair and blue eyes. That family would, instead, have been brown or Black. (See, e.g., https://www.cnn.com/2002/TECH/science/12/25/face.jesus/index.html)
Why is this important?
For many of us, our images of God were formed very early in our lives, through the statuary and stained-glass windows of our parish churches; the holy cards we collected and treasured; the colorful drawings that illustrated our bibles – and the Christmas cards that our families sent and received each year. These images also affected our images of ourselves. And for white people, seeing God as white confirmed that they were made “in the image and likeness of God.”
But if God, as incarnated in the birth of Jesus, were brown or Black, what would that say about God’s people? As Rabbi Rami Schapiro muses:
“Seeing is believing. … Every Jew in the Bible was brown or black: Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, David and Solomon, Mary and Joseph, Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Paul and the apostles – all of them were brown or black. … Racism among whites will fade when white people realize that black and brown people represented the image and likeness of God long before they did.” (Spirituality & Health, July-August 2021, p. 10)
Let us become more conscious in our choices, and mindful of their impact.
Let us recognize how paying homage each Christmas to a Nordic Nativity distorts our thinking of God, and of each other.
> Examine the images on the Christmas cards that you have received – and the Christmas cards that you have sent. Do they reflect the reality of who Jesus and his family were?
> And when you are able, visit churches in white parishes, and in Black, Asian, Latino/a, and Native American churches. Look at their stained-glass windows. View the statues, banners, and pictures adorning their walls. Examine the images on their bulletins. Do those images reflect the people who lived during the time of Jesus? Do they reflect the people sitting in the pews? Or do they, instead – even in parishes comprising primarily People of Color – reflect a superiority of whiteness?
> What steps can you take to make Christmas 2022 more authentic in terms of visual representations of the Holy Family? Are there images in your own home that misrepresent the Holy Family? Are there such images at your workplace? And in your place of worship?
> Are you willing to discuss these issues with your friends and relatives? With your social circles? Do you anticipate that these discussions might be difficult? If so, why?
Why not start now to develop a plan of action that includes an implementation timetable, so that you will no longer participate in reinforcing harmful misrepresentations.