Kianna was in third grade. She, her younger brother Cam, and I were spending the summer running around the church parking lot in Jesus’ name (a “blacktop” neighborhood ministry). On some thickly hot days, we found refuge in my air-conditioned church office, which was also a refreshing place to talk about God.
“What is baptism? Isn’t that when they splash water on you in church?”
“Why can God do anything He wants? Doesn’t He have to follow His own rules?”
Then one day, she and her brother brought up Jesus and began to wonder about what He was like as human being. I pointed out that Jesus still is a human being (somebody say “Hallelujah”) and asked them what they thought Jesus looks like.
Kianna paused and said, “I think he has long hair. And a beard… and… he has skin like yours…”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, ‘cause that’s like in the pictures.”
“Oh, yeah, I know those… Did you know Jesus lived in the Middle East? Do you ever see pictures of people from there, like Egypt or Iraq?” (That year, there was turmoil in the Middle East, and Middle-Eastern faces of pain, sadness, and terror were constantly in the public eye. I guess that could have been almost any year, then.)
“And what do they look like?”
“Dark hair, dark eyes.”
“Exactly. Darker skin.”
“So Jesus looked like one of those people?”
“Most likely. We don’t know exactly. We don’t have any pictures or paintings. Maybe one description in the Bible book of Isaiah suggests Jesus wasn’t handsome.” (Isaiah 53:2, last clause)
“But I always kind of thought He looked more like you,” she puzzled. Then she touched the top of my hand, gently chafing the pale skin as if the color might rub off. Touched my blue veins visible even through the summer tan. Touched the pink knuckles.
“Oh, no, Kianna, He had skin like yours.”
Her eyebrows lifted. Her eyes widened. A careful, steady breath passed her teeth.
“Oh, hm.” Going into third grade, she understood. Her previous impression that Jesus was a white guy had put a mistaken distance between them and had made God seem as unreachable as the racial ideal presented all around her.
No, Kianna, Jesus does not look like the people you’ve been taught everybody was supposed to want to look like. Nobody ever told you in words, but you got the message all the same. It is on most cosmetic product bulletin boards, in most sitcoms or news shows, even in “enlightened” department store ads featuring racially-mixed or racially-multivalent models. Lighter skin is the ideal. But every band aid would stick out starkly on Jesus’ body. “Skin-tone” crayons would fail to draw Jesus realistically. The face of salvation would be markedly different than the faces of most of the historical people you’re learning about in school.
Kianna, you have a caramel skin tone, and Jesus probably looked more like you than like me. The distance between you and Him is so much less than color and so much less than the slowly closing canyon of structured inequality between whites and blacks (and others) in the United States. The distance between you and God is not a racialized distance, but the spiritual distance between sin and holiness. And that distance, along with others you may sense, Jesus has already crossed. For you. For you. For you.
And for me. I am a middle-class American white male. Because of how I understand my place within recent human history and the rolling snowball of advantages that have affixed themselves to me, I am relieved that my Savior chose to come to His world from the place of the minority, the supposed inferior, from below, from underneath the scornful gaze of the worldly glorious. His backwater birth and life in backwater towns free me to work out my salvation with grateful fear and trembling. Can anything good come from Galilee?
I do not know where Kianna is now, but she’s a young woman. I imagine her trying to impress boys, trying to decide if there’s anything she should decide other than what her family or friends or culture want to decide for her, and trying to claim her identity as an African-American.
But, Kianna, one more thing. Remember that you are called to be like Jesus, which is not the same thing as being like me, nor being only like your current self, nor being like any other human being ever, except Him. And not even like Him in His own race or culture, which rejected Him. Rather, we strive to be like Him because He was God and was involved in making us human beings, every one, in His image (Genesis 1:27). Somehow, we are all like Him, and we know ourselves most fully in His identity. All other human identities find their rightful place in relation to Jesus’ identity as both human and God. Jesus was unique, and while you may need Him to look a little more like you, and I may need Him not to look too much like me, we both need to hear the call to be like Him.