There was a point in my life when my staunch belief in God had me read the entire Bible. I found strength in the reminders that the abuse, financial hardship and all the other struggles I endured were part of God’s wonderful plans to prosper me and not to harm me, as I read in Jeremiah.
I waited for those plans for more than a decade in my home country of Zimbabwe. I continued to pray, sometimes on an empty stomach since I believed fasting would help me break those chains that tied me to a life of pain and lack. This was until I ended my relationship with God and Jesus in 2015.
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At the time, I had already stopped going to church because studies kept me busy. I am queer, and I was also unsure of my place in a church where many people believe homosexuality is a sin. (I had thought this, too, and unsuccessfully attempted to “pray the gay away.”) But when I broke up with God, it wasn’t because I was queer and didn’t feel God’s love and acceptance. It was because I felt God had dangled salvation in front of me like a carrot while my own life resembled a battlefield.
I turned to Facebook as an outlet for all my emotions. Interestingly, as I questioned and rejected the existence of God, Jesus and what I had been taught about Christianity, some of my Black Facebook friends were questioning and rejecting the portrayal of Jesus as a white man. According to them, not only was this portrayal inaccurate, but it upheld the narrative that white is superior.
I had called things off with my faith, and here I was faced with this truth: Jesus of Nazareth can’t have been the white man Warner Sallman depicted in the famous Head of Christ. Not once had it occurred to me that there was a misalignment between the biblical descriptions of Jesus and how he was represented in the images that hung in nearly every church I had attended. In Revelation, it says his feet were like bronze! But I didn’t notice this discrepancy until I paid attention to the arguments raised by my Facebook friends.
My belief in him aside, I can accept the representation of Jesus with dark skin for geographical and historical accuracy. However, I struggle to accept Jesus’ Blackness on a spiritual level. This is because my experiences navigating an anti-Black world tell me Jesus doesn’t represent me and isn’t fighting for me.
Jesus presented as white makes sense to me because then he reflects those he seems to support. White supremacy has continued to thrive and to benefit white people, while Black people continue to fight for their freedom. Despite what the Bible says, Jesus does not seem to hear the cries of Black people who endure suffering born out of colonialism and perpetuated by neo-colonialism.
If you look at Africa, the majority of people living in it are Black. And several African countries, including my own, are riddled with poverty, drought or conflict. We can argue that leaders have a hand in all this, but one also wonders: where is the deity in this suffering? If Jesus is the blue-eyed, blond-haired white man as he is usually portrayed, I’m able to reconcile how he allowed his word to be used to enslave people who look like me.
On a personal level, Jesus being Black would also mean that I was let down by two Black fathers. I consider Jesus a father, since Jesus and God the Father are one. But, in my experience, Jesus wasn’t a father who provided or protected. Instead, he had become just like my biological father.
I endured years of emotional abuse from a man who maligned my achievements while disregarding my efforts to win his affection, which ought to have come unconditionally. By the time he died when I was 12, I had decided I wouldn’t shed a tear. His death wasn’t a loss. It was a relief from the pain of having a father who was there but wasn’t really there. Rapper Tupac Shakur said it best in his song Dear Mama: “My anger wouldn’t let me feel for a stranger.”
Decolonizing Jesus’ image hasn’t made the deity any more relatable to me. In fact, it is a painful reminder that writer Zora Neale Hurston was correct when she said “all my skinfolk ain’t kinfolk!”
Joyline Maenzanise is a writer based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
This story was first published in Broadview’s April/May 2021 issue with the title “I Cannot Accept Jesus’ Spiritual Blackness.”
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