Short and sweet tonight. Yes, I promise.
Well, short anyway…
Jesus wasn’t white. Jesus was not a white baby with blue eyes and blond hair. Mary was not a fair-skinned teenage model. These things I know for certain. I doubt the angels were giant, muscular Aryan youth. And as long as we’re at it, Santa Claus, about whom these Advent reflections are not, is Turkish and not caucasian, if he exists at all.
I consider a white baby Jesus a symptom of imagining the world resembles us, of remaking everything in our image. It’s not surprising that we see all the world as if it were just like us.
A few days ago, someone asked on a Facebook post concerning the refugees seeking asylum from Honduras and Guatemala, “Why didn’t they find out the laws before they came to the United States?”
That would be a reasonable question if everyone in the world were just like us. Could I do some research, sitting here in my comfortable home on my couch, listening to both the dishwasher and the dryer running, looking at the lights on my Christmas tree: Could I do a thorough search to learn the immigration or asylum laws of Mexico or Honduras or Guatemala, if I was going in that direction? I could. I have two post-secondary degrees. I have a computer and constant internet connection. I know how to find accurate government information and how to filter out false information.
What if I were illiterate? What if never went to school because my family needed me to make money? What if someone had shot at my child today? What if the neighbors had their house burned down while they were inside? What if I have no car or cell phone or refrigerator or microwave, much less a computer and a modem to provide wi-fi? What if, in my fear and desperation, I started asking people how to flee the country and I got many different stories of people’s relatives or acquaintances or someone they’d heard about who left and now lives comfortably far from the crime and violence here?
What if a man heard we were looking for a way out and came to my house the day after my neighbors’ house burned, while the ashes are still blowing around my doorway and I can smell the smoke stronger than I can smell the baby I’m holding, and this stranger tells me he heard I was looking for a way out and for $200 he can get me and my children to safety. He says he’s helped people out before, he knows a safe route, he has connections with the guards at the US border. What if all my life I’ve experienced that if someone has connections with the right guards or police or officials and slips them a little money, the restrictions go away?
White baby Jesus and the person’s comment on Facebook have this in common: they assume that one’s own experience is the normative experience.
Baby Jesus experienced racism. Adult Jesus experienced racism. Whipped, beaten, spat upon and crucified Jesus experienced racism. He was not white. He was Jewish. He was Jewish in a country in which Romans held the power and gave the power to whomever they chose. The Jews who held power in Roman-occupied Israel were largely those who would cooperate with their invaders. They were people who liked having power over their fellow countrymen and didn’t mind appearing traitorous.
What does racism have to do with Advent? Why were Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem? Their home was in Nazareth of Galilee. They went because Emperor Caesar Augustus wanted more money from the people he controlled, the colonies he ruled, so that he could pay for his empire, keep up a huge army, and continue to control and rule and expand. Verse one of Luke chapter two is not a benign historical detail. It implies suffering leveled against people who had no power. Is it not inherently racist for one people to decide they should conquer and subjugate another? Or does might simply make right? As followers of Jesus, we don’t believe that God desires people to hate, own, or control people of other races.
A main reasons always cited for the American Revolutionary War is “Taxation Without Represenation.” If you search the term “taxation” on Google, the first autofill prompt is “Without Representation.” The colonists considered that, and the subsequent failed efforts to negotiate with Great Britain, sufficient reason to start a war of independence. That’s taught in every United States history book in the U.S. (Britain’s history books may teach it differently) and we celebrate the Fourth of July every year to commemorate winning that war. Independence Day.
Mary, a Jewish teenager, was traveling while pregnant, childbirth imminent, because a foreign Emperor, leading a people who looked down on Jews, demanded more taxes from his Jewish colony. How much representation in the Roman Senate do you think the Jews had?
I have purposed in this series to 1)connect Jesus’ birth and all we call Advent to the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry, and 2)re-root the Nativity as a real-world historical event. I don’t consider this a fairy story that happened in a magic snow globe. Jesus was a little Jewish boy. He was not white. He heard racial slurs for being Jewish. If that makes us uncomfortable, we have missed a crucial understanding of our faith.
A white baby Jesus is a symptom that we do not know our Bible, that we have rooted our faith not in history but in cultural fantasy. I’m not being PC here, I’m keeping our faith rooted in history. In the Incarnation, God chose to root the Trinity within our physical and chronological space: God took on a certain body at a precise moment in time.
That body was Jewish and in that moment, the Jews were an oppressed people experiencing racism. Into this world God chose to enter. That is our faith.