When Eric Metaxas tweeted that “Jesus was white” on Monday the small corner of Twitter in which Metaxas is sometimes a conversation piece erupted quickly, and with wild speculation. Is he looking for attention? Being provocative? No one actually believes that Jesus is white, do they? Surely Metaxas is smart enough to know that this claim is easily refuted. But, it appears that he didn’t misspeak; he said what he meant to say.
There are a few serious issues with this tweet. The most obvious, of course, is that its central claim is patently false. Jesus wasn’t “white” in any sense of the word, and there’s no clearer way to state this. He was born and lived his entire life in the Middle East. What’s more, “white” as a category is a social construct, and a relatively recent one at that, so the claim is thoroughly anachronistic.
Of course, Metaxas isn’t the first to depict Jesus as something other than a Middle-Eastern man, and it’s a well-known fact that artists frequently take enormous liberties when they paint Jesus as a subject. Frank Wesley often depicted Jesus as having blue skin, for example, like the Hindu deities Shiva, Rama, and Krishna. Janet McKenzie’s “Jesus of the People” seems to depict Jesus as both genderfluid and mixed-race. Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ,” possibly one of the most recognizable images of Jesus in the world, depicts Jesus as unmistakably white. In short, Jesus is very much “a messiah in our image.”
But the real issue with Metaxas’s tweet has nothing to do with “artistic license.” The problem lies in the fact that, at the heart of his statement that “Jesus was white,” is a claim of ownership that’s inextricably tied to the problem of power. “Jesus was white” = “Jesus is one of ours.” And coming from Eric Metaxas, this claim could not be more perverse or more dangerous.
Claims of ownership aren’t new for Metaxas. Those familiar with his work know that in 2011 he penned a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was imprisoned and executed by the Third Reich for participating in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. After it was published, Metaxas’s biography was strenuously criticized by Bonhoeffer scholars around the world, and for a variety of reasons, from its failure to draw from primary source material to its misuse of German texts (a language Metaxas doesn’t speak). But among the most scathing criticisms were those who argued that Metaxas’s portrait of Bonhoeffer is essentially that of a neoconservative evangelical. Richard Weikart called it “counterfeit,” and “sanitized,” while Clifford Green concludes that a better title for the book might have been “Bonhoeffer Hijacked.”
Metaxas’s book went on to be a New York Times Best Seller, which suggests that more than a few readers were drawn in by the notion that “Bonhoeffer is one of ours.” Claims like this are thoroughly and unequivocally utilitarian in nature, whether they apply to Jesus or Bonhoeffer. They treat people as instruments and rob them of their dignity as unique individuals, instead treating them as if they exist for the purpose of bolstering those in positions of privilege and of power.
But the claim that “Jesus was white” is only the first sentence of Metaxas’s tweet. The rest is equally problematic, if not more so. The tweet is actually in response to another tweet from Neil Shenvi, an amateur Christian apologist and avid blogger, who noted that Dr. Robin DiAngelo, best known for her book White Fragility, had partnered with the United Methodist Church to explore the topic of white privilege in a video lecture.
Metaxas took this announcement as an opportunity to mock and critique the notion of white privilege: “Did [Jesus] have ‘white privilege’ even though he was entirely without sin? Is the United Methodist Church covering that? I think it could be important.”
But here he betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what “white privilege” actually is and what it entails. In her book DiAngelo defines it as “a sociological concept referring to advantages that are taken for granted by whites and that cannot be similarly enjoyed by people of color in the same context (government, community, workplace, schools, etc.).” And, as she also notes, “stating that racism privileges whites does not mean that individual white people do not struggle or face barriers. It does mean that we do not face the particular barriers of racism.”
White privilege is primarily a systemic issue, not an individual one. Aside from the fact that (again) Jesus was not white (and that whiteness did not exist as we understand it today), the fact that Metaxas spotlights him to ask whether he had white privilege is to miss the point entirely. It’s also curious that he ties the concept of white privilege to the notion of sin. From a theological perspective, “white privilege” could certainly be understood as a sort of “social sin,” namely, as a flawed system that white people often unknowingly benefit from and participate in. But this doesn’t fit at all with Metaxas’s individualistic misunderstanding of white privilege. This statement just further betrays the depth of his ignorance.
What he seems to be getting at is: if white privilege is sinful, and Jesus was sinless, but Jesus was also white (again, he wasn’t), then did he enjoy white privilege? If he did, then it stands to reason either that Jesus wasn’t actually sinless (a point that Metaxas is not likely to concede), or that white privilege doesn’t exist (a point that Metaxas is very likely to support).
And if Jesus didn’t have white privilege, then white privilege is something that white people can presumably “escape” or “opt out of.” The formula is a logical disaster because it rests on a flawed understanding of whiteness, of white privilege, and of Jesus’s identity as a human person.
It’s difficult to tell which of these conclusions Metaxas was actually after. It also doesn’t much matter since each is fundamentally without merit.
As I write this, Metaxas’s tweet has been severely “ratioed,” which means that the number of responses far exceeds the number of “likes” and retweets. This is generally an indication that a tweet’s contents are either deeply controversial or profoundly ignorant (or both). In short: Twitter users have pushed back on Metaxas, and they’ve pushed back hard. In response he’s deployed a Trump-ian combination of backpedaling and doubling down on his initial claim.
When one user pointed out that Jesus was Jewish, Metaxas responded: “Exactly! Which shows how arbitrary and self-contradictory racial categories can be. Many consider Jews ‘white’ and accuse them of having ‘white privilege.’ But if Jesus is beyond racial categories, why aren’t other Jews? And what about Egyptians? And Greeks? Who gets to decide?”
Here, both Metaxas and his interlocutor fail to appreciate that “Jews” doesn’t imply a homogeneous “racial” category. The claim that Jews are “white” or even “mostly white” is as nonsensical as the claim that Christians are “white” or “mostly white.” Like Christianity, Judaism is a global religion that is socially, ideologically, and racially diverse. But it’s also curious that Metaxas proffers the claim that “Jesus is beyond racial categories,” especially since his misidentification of Jesus with a “racial category” is what started the conversation in the first place.
When another user pointed out that “Jesus likely looked like modern day Palestinians-not Scandinavian,” Metaxas responded: “So it’s about how you look? About the actual color of your skin? So most Jews today are ‘white’ & have ‘white privilege’ but some don’t? Who decides? Are Stephen Spielberg & Woody Allen not white? My point is that these identities only seem to apply when woke people say they do.” Metaxas, making very little sense here, is clearly attempting to wiggle out of the mess he’s gotten himself in. Perhaps the best response to this tweet comes from another RD contributor, Sarah Morice Brubaker, who tweeted:
“*pinches bridge of nose, sighs heavily*
A social construct, being social, exist[s] in some contexts and not others. Jesus was a 1st c. Palestinian Jew so he didn’t have white privilege, a signature style, a favorite country song, or an opinion about the designated hitter.”
It remains unclear exactly what Metaxas was after in his initial tweet. While not universal, the notion that the historical Jesus was not white, as we understand that category today, is fairly widely accepted, and this is the case regardless of religious or political affiliation. Does Metaxas really believe that Jesus was “white”? Judging from his understanding of how whiteness works, the answer would seem to be yes. And this is an assessment that he both confirms and denies in his responses, which only adds to the difficulty of determining his motivation.
The sentiments expressed in Metaxas’s twitter feed are more serious than just one person tweeting ignorantly about things he doesn’t understand. Rather, his ill-formed ideas about race and racism are indicative of a much deeper and more widespread disease. They’re symptoms of ignorance, but they also serve to invigorate and reinforce it.
Metaxas’s ignorance is especially dangerous because he has an audience eager to make sense of the world. But the vision he provides is fundamentally misguided. It’s a lie. And as long he and others remain unchallenged, this cycle of misunderstanding and hatred will continue to manifest itself. Today we see it in the vitriol directed toward supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. Tomorrow it may take a different form. Some claim that we have lost the ability to talk charitably about race, but I would argue that we have never been able to talk charitably about race. We have done a fantastic job, however, of ignoring the issue and pretending that all is well. And all is definitely not well.
The subtitle of Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility book is “Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism.” When all is said and done, the true value of Metaxas’s tweet and its aftermath may be as a case in point, or at the very least, as an illustration that in terms of our collective understanding of “whiteness” and how it functions, there remains much work to be done. And there certainly is value in that reminder.