Friday, April 1, 2016

Jesus' Color Brings Reza Doubletalk Into Relief

Whatever the value of Megyn Kelly's claims about Jesus' appearance, they are not based on her being unable to imagine a darker Jesus, but are based on some very old, if questionable, documents.  These documents are contested in terms of the authenticity or the pedigree is in question.  I think it is ultimately hard to base anything definitively on them, any more than on even earlier documents claiming that Jesus was "small and ugly."  Kelly believes that her image is a historical image.  Ultimately it is probably no more historical than Reza Aslan's depictions in Zealot.  But Aslan, in response to Kelly, greatly muddies the waters.

People might be surprised at the role of religion growing up in the South.  Southern churches are where I learned the song "Jesus Loves the Little Children."  The purpose of the song didn't seem to be to categorize people into colors but to drive home this singular point:  Nobody's color matters to Jesus.  A theme repeated in the epistles of Paul.  A theme repeated in the educational materials of the church-run school I attended.  Reza Aslan's Zealot conveys a very different Jesus whose prescriptions of love are only meant between fellow Jews, and who is completely for a violent ousting of European occupiers from Palestine (is it Jesus or Reza that wants this?).  In the following exchange, Reza seems to say each socioeconomic group has its own Christ:
So, it's a much more interesting issue that arises from her statement: Megyn Kelly is right. Her Christ is white.
What is it about Christ, historically or religiously, that leads people to want to convey him in their own images?
That is the entire point of the Christ.

from Killing Jesus
No, Reza. That is not the entire point of the Messiah/Christ.  The Christ of the apostles is something surprising.  The point of the New Testament is not to have an unhistorical Messiah who can be made into whatever we want--it is a Messiah that is as uncomfortable to "white suburbanites" as he was to the Pharisees and Jewish zealots, and as he obviously is to Reza Aslan.  The New Testament presents an unexpected sort of Messiah, who in a certain sense is "neither Jew nor Gentile nor barbarian" because these ethnic and socioeconomic distinctions disappear in him.  Reza's Jesus is a small and uninteresting class warrior, not remotely as interesting as Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., who both stand out as much more evocative of the transcendence of Jesus of Nazareth than a Che Guevara character.

Reza's responses to Megyn Kelly do two things.  They draw a red herring across the substance of her statements (the question of which historical assertions are credible), and they change the topic to Reza's tortured notion of Christ vs. Jesus.  The oneness of the people joined in spirit to Jesus the Messiah is a central theme in the letters of Paul the Apostle.  In Paul's integrated synagogues of the early church where Jews and Gentiles alike rejoiced in the Messiah together, the point of the Christ/Messiah (that Reza claims Paul invented) is not so the Greek can have a European Jesus while his Jewish brother has a Middle Eastern Jesus.  The point is that this historical Galilean Jew was "the express image" of one Father God who made all mankind in His image.  The point of Jesus removing the "division" and the "enmity" as stated in Paul's letter to Ephesus is lost completely in Reza's pseudo-historical Jesus.  The "Jewish context" of Jesus and the Hebrew scriptures pervade the New Testament. 

Jesus, as Reza claims, might well have been the same color as Reza.  Maybe darker, maybe lighter.  That is more likely to me than that he was fair-skinned.  But neither scenario makes Jesus any less an empathetic Savior for all peoples.  Unless you are someone who defines people by their socioeconomic environment, or identifies "color" with such; unless you see everything through a lens of identity politics which ignores the extraordinary way in which the Resurrection started transcending ethnic and social boundaries, "first in Judaea, then in Samaria, and then in the uttermost parts of the earth."  Ultimately, it is the "content of his character" (a pertinent MLK phrase) that defines Jesus, not the color of his skin, be it fairer than Kelly's or darker than Aslan's.

Reza's comments about the "real" color of Jesus' skin put me in mind of an article by Harvard alumnus and native Israeli Natalie Portman:
Faisal Chaudhry writes . . .  creatively framing the same article with a conversion into a “white” vs. “brown” struggle (Op-Ed, “An Ideology of Oppression,” April 11). At one point, Chaudhry even compares the situation to apartheid. This is a distortion of the fact that most Israelis and Palestinians are indistinguishable physically.
Having visited Jerusalem on occasion I've noticed that there is considerably more ethnic or "racial" diversity among the Jewish than among the Arab.  All the Arabs look Caucasian, if swarthy.  The Jews look like Ethiopians and like European Caucasians and like Bedouins, and like everything in between.  Some Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem bring identity politics into the gospel:  In this revisionist take, Jesus is a Palestinian who is ethnically different from the Judaeans who deliver him to Pilate.  It is an anachronistic reading into the tension between the Galileans of the Israelite North and the Judaeans, and something about it is disturbingly reminiscent of Hitler's state church of revisionist "Positive Christianity" for whom Jesus was not Jewish but Aryan.  (Incidentally, the non-Jewishness of Jesus is an idea categorically rejected by the American Fundamentalist movement--a movement much more interested in recognizing the distinct Jewishness of Jesus and the early church than the liberal movements it rebelled against.) 

Contrary to what Reza Aslan claims, Christianity is not about divorcing Jesus from his time and place and people; it simply doesn't see the need to define Jesus solely by his environment or color.  We can't do that with Gandhi, nor with MLK Jr., nor with Bonhoeffer--and from a historical point of view, we have every reason not to do it with Jesus of Nazareth.  Whether or not Reza Aslan is being deliberately obtuse about the motivation of New Testament theology, it is important to see how the very essence ("the fabric and nature") of the NT is detrimental to his "Zealot" thesis.