In a recent interview on BBC Radio 4’s “Today Programme” (conversation starts at 2hrs 34mins into the broadcast), the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, made a number of comments about the statues and images of Jesus in Anglican places of worship. The comments were prompted by a question from the host about statues around the world that have been removed in the wake of the recent Black Lives Matter protests and the further calls, made by some, to extend this campaign to statues (and other artwork) of Jesus that are seen to be perpetuating “a form of white supremacy”. The Archbishop’s response to this question was to say that some of the statues in, for example, Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey would be coming down.
This was a startling admission. On national radio, the Archbishop all but confessed that some of the grandest and oldest images of Jesus in the country are to be taken down. What will happen to them after they will be taken down is perhaps another matter. The backlash from a number of Christians to the Archbishop’s comments have been scathing. Some argue that he is caving to a radical mob. Others saying that this is being used by people antagonistic to Christianity to conintue to beat the faith out of national prominence. Still others advocate that historical statues and artifacts, in general, should not be removed simply because we don’t agree with or like them.
Perhaps all of these complaints against the Archbishop’s choice to act in this manner at this particular time in history is true. I doubt it is an idea he has come up with independently of the recent protests. But it is worth examining the argument that has convinced people, including the Archbishop it seems, that these statues of Jesus are problematic.
The main thrust of the complaint is that Jesus wasn’t ‘white’. It is argued that since the vast majority of images of Jesus (specifically in the West) portray a white man, this is not only historically inaccurate, but perpetuates an idea of ‘white supremacy’. Since Jesus is God incarnate, to portray Him as white would therefore imply that to be white is to be inherently ‘purer’ that others.
What is undeniable about this argument is the initial premise. Jesus was not a white European/Caucasian. He was Jewish. But the reason He is inaccurately portrayed as white is not due to some idea of racial superiority, but rather that the people who made these pictures of Jesus made them with features similar to their own. It is, perhaps, a natural tendency to think of people we have never met as having features similar to ours, and it takes a conscious effort to break out of that natural tendency.
But what is the antidote to this admittedly inaccurate historical representation of Jesus? Certainly the Archbishop’s answer seems to be to simply promote alternative depictions of Jesus. In a tweet, Welby displays some images of Jesus from ‘around the world’. These images portray people who are black, Chinese, and other shades of colour. Interestingly, this presents a further problem for the ‘white supremacy’ argument. Is portraying a picture of Jesus with black skin a monument for ‘black supremacy’?
If the concept of a ‘white Jesus’ is problematic because Jesus was not white, then how are these other images any better? All of the other images have different skin colours, so how can they possible all portray an accurate representation of Jesus’ skin colour? Of course, they can’t. The Archbishop, and those who agree with his removal of white depictions of Jesus but encourage ‘coloured’ images of Him, present a self – contradictory argument. By their own logic, only images of Jesus with His exact skin colour would be permissible. Since there cannot possibly exist an image of Jesus, carved or painted, that could possibly match His exact skin colour, why aren’t these alternative images also equally controversial? The inevitable conclusion is this: all images of Jesus are as bad as each other. None of them are accurate representations of Him.
The conversation around these statues and images has all been about skin colour. By why stop there? Which depiction of Jesus has His correct eye colour? Hair colour? Muscle tone? Height? Facial features? And which of them has all the above correct? Surely none. As mentioned above, people have made images that mostly look like themselves or people they know. This, by the by, is the reason why in Justin Welby’s tweet, there are pictures of Jesus with multiple skin colours. Portraying Jesus with similar features to your own is not a uniquely ‘white’ tendency.
This really gets to the heart of the argument about the images and statues of Jesus. We makes our images of Jesus in the image of our own person. We make Him in our image, so to speak. However, Jesus Himself says that He is not the image of any man, but He is the true reflection of the Father. He says “whoever has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). When we look upon Jesus, we should see a perfect reflection of the Father. When Jesus walked on Earth, the angels could look down from Heaven at Jesus and say “He’s just like the Father.” Everything, from His facial expression, to His body language, to the way He healed the blind, to the way He treated children, to the way He rebuked the Pharisees, to the way He comforted His disciples, was a perfect image of God.
Ultimately, any image of Jesus that we produce is going to fall hugely short of a perfect reflection of who God is. No angel could look down on any statue or picture of Jesus and think “That’s just like the Father.” Every image of Jesus is, therefore, an inaccurate and corrupted representation of God because it is a flawed representation of Jesus. The Bible references inaccurate representations of God by a particular name: an idol.
By necessity, the images we have of God affect, to a greater or lesser extent, how we worship Him. Yet the Bible says that we are to worship God “in spirit and truth.” (John 4:24). The flawed images we have of Jesus do not help us fulfil this imperative since our knowledge of God is being affected by images that are material and inaccurate (the very opposite of spirit and truth). Moreover, such images run straight into problems when we consider the 2nd Commandment.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in Heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the Earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:4 – 5a)
To explain the meaning of the 2nd Commandment, I defer to the words of the Heidelberg Catechism,
“Q96. What is God’s will for us in the second commandment?
A. That we in no way make any image of God nor worship Him in any other way than has been commanded in God’s Word.
Q97. May we then not make any image at all?
A. God can not and may not be visibly portrayed in any way. Although creatures may be portrayed, yet God forbids making or having such images if one’s intention is to worship them or to serve God through them.”
And, similarly, from the Westminster Larger Catechism,
“Q. 109. What sins are forbidden in the second commandment?
A. The sins forbidden in the second commandment are, all devising, counseling, commanding, using, and any wise approving, any religious worship not instituted by God Himself; the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever; all worshipping of it, or God in it or by it; the making of any representation of feigned deities, and all worship of them, or service belonging to them; all superstitious devices, corrupting the worship of God, adding to it, or taking from it, whether invented and taken up of ourselves, or received by tradition from others, though under the title of antiquity, custom, devotion, good intent, or any other pretense whatsoever; simony; sacrilege; all neglect, contempt, hindering, and opposing the worship and ordinances which God hath appointed.”
So ultimately, I, at least in part, agree with the Archbishop. I certainly think that statues and images of Jesus in places of worship need to be removed, but not for the reasons he intimates. The fundamental problem is not that pictures of Jesus perpetuate ‘white supremacy’ but that they perpetuate an inaccurate picture of Jesus, who as the Son of God incarnate is the perfect image of God. Even if we are not worshipping the image itself, the purpose of that image is to draw our focus and attention to what is being depicted – a corrupt view of God.