Jun 27th 2020

Tear them down? “White Jesus” statues have an Unsavory History in Aryan Racial Theory that also Influenced Nazi Theology

by Juan Cole

Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History and the director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan. His latest book, Engaging the Muslim World, is just out in a revised paperback edition from Palgrave Macmillan. He runs the Informed Commentwebsite.

 

Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Emily McFarlan at the Religion News Service explores the controversy over depictions of Jesus as white in American statues. She notes that Brooklyn activist and podcaster Shaun King wrote that

  • “Yes, I think the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down. They are a form of white supremacy. Always have been. In the Bible, when the family of Jesus wanted to hide, and blend in, guess where they went? EGYPT! Not Denmark. Tear them down.”

It should be noted that many depictions of Jesus in the partially Near Eastern Byzantine Empire had showed him with a healthy melanin component:

Bysantine Jesus

McFarlan discusses the enormously influential 1940 “Head of Christ” painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman.

I don’t know what Sallman’s politics were, but his painting actually stands in a longer tradition of racialist theology in European Christianity that goes back to the nineteenth century and the rise of Aryan racial theory.

Eighteenth-century thinkers in Europe tended to believe that race was produced by climate– by geography, weather and so forth. When Scots went out to India for the predatory and ultimately imperial East India Company, they were afraid European medicines would not work there, given the starkly different climate.

In the mid-nineteenth century a genealogical conception of race took hold in Europe, whereby it was a matter of “pure” “blood,” i.e. descent. The discovery of Sir William Jones out in India in the late 1700s that Sanskrit and Bengali were related to Greek, Latin and other European languages (including English) had produced a linguistic theory of “Aryan” languages. People who spoke those languages came to be thought of as descending from the Aryan people who gave their name to Iran and Ireland.

Hesh of Jesus by Warner Sallman
Head of Christ, 1940, by Warner Sallman

Aryan linguistic theory, however, is not racial. Lots of people speak Indo-European languages who aren’t genetically similar. African-Americans speak English, and so do millions of Africans. The Hazaras of Afghanistan, thought to be descendants of Mongols, speak Persian, an Indo-European language. But Aryan-ness was misinterpreted by racist thinkers like Ernest Renan and the Comte de Gobineau as racial.

This new descent-based theory of racial difference, inflected with language, made all sorts of problems and contributed many decades later to the Nazi Holocaust against six million Jews.

Proponents of Aryan racial theory had to deal with their new and often unwelcome kinship with Iranians and Indians. The British found ways to demote Indians as inadequate Aryans who had become pantheists. Though, Gobineau, who was French ambassador to Iran, actually seems to have become enamored of Iranian culture.

Another big problem was that if “Aryan” or Indo-European languages were racialized, then so were other language families. Hence, Jews and Arabs were “Semites.” Genetic studies have shown, in contrast, that Ashkenazi Jewish women of European heritage are overwhelmingly have the haplotypes of Germans, Poles and Russians rather than those of Lebanese, Syrians and Middle Eastern Jews.

But Aryan racial theory rose and fell before people knew anything about genetics. So Jewish elites in Europe were suddenly depicted as inferior “Semites,” in contrast to superior Aryans. Aryans were portrayed as dynamic, intelligent, creative, inventive, conquering and civilized. Semites were assimilated to Bedouins and the French in Algeria depicted Algerians as lazy, unprincipled, unintelligent, and so forth.

That created a big problem for Christians. All of a sudden they were following a lowly, abject Semite in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

So Renan Aryanized Jesus, as Ralph E. Lentz II pointed out in his thesis.

Theories were developed that Jesus was from an Aryan stock that came to the Middle East, whether Iranians in the Galilee (yes) or even Europeans.

It was also argued that the periods of Iranian, Persian, rule of Palestine endowed that culture with a dynamic Manichaean contrast between good and evil, and dark/light imagery that is all through the now-Aryan New Testament.

In the nineteenth century US, Aryan racial theory appealed to Protestant Know-Nothings and contributed to the barring of Asians from the United States. A popular theological position at that time came to be that “the writings of St. Paul reflected an ‘Aryan tone'” and “that anyone who called Jesus a Jew was a fool or a liar.”

By the 1930s there was a full-blown Nazi theology of Jesus as an Aryan in Germany and Nordic countries. Suzannah Heschel has written about the Aryan, Nazi Jesus in Germany. (See her summary in the LA Review of Books). Alas, in this version, Paul was de-Aryanized and made the sinister Jewish figure who distorted the Aryan teachings of Christ.

Both Nazi theology and one strain of US evangelicalism had roots in nineteenth-century Aryan racial theory as applied to Jesus.

US Evangelicals’ love affair with Donald Trump is wrought up with this tradition of whitening Christianity. Trump is of German and Scottish extraction, and when he was trying to defeat Ben Carson for the presidency, he emphasized his “mainstream” Presbyterianism against Carson’s sectarian 7th Day Adventism. These themes sere all underlain by race (with the implication that African-Americans are more often cultists, as opposed to White Christianity).

And, so, whatever Sallman’s own politics, his famous portrait has a sinister context. White Christians need to come to terms with the century of Aryanized Christianity that ensued from Renan, and which often demonized Jews and Black and brown people. And, yes, let’s put the creepy Nazi art away, guys.

 

For Juan Cole's own web site, please click here.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Oct 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah came to Britain in the 1960s as a refugee. Being of Arab origin, he was forced to flee his birthplace during the revolution of 1964 and only returned in 1984 in time to visit his dying father. Until his retirement, he was a full-time professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury."
Oct 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "As the 25th James Bond film No Time to Die hits the cinemas, we are once again reminded of the way that disability is depicted negatively in Hollywood films. The new James Bond film features three villains, all of who have facial disfigurements (Blofeld, Safin and Primo). If you take a closer look at James Bond villains throughout history, the majority have facial disfigurements or physical impairments. This is in sharp contrast to the other characters, including James Bond, who are able-bodied and presented with no physical bodily differences. Indeed, many films still rely on outdated disability tropes, including Star Wars and various Disney classics. Rather than simply being part of a character’s identity, the physical difference is exploited and exaggerated to become a plot point and visual metaphor for villains" ----- "The British Film Institute (BFI) was the first organisation to sign up and has committed to stop funding films that feature negative representations depicted through scars or facial differences – a step in the right direction."
Oct 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "The trillions of microbes inside of our gut play many very important roles in our body. Not only does this “microbiome” regulate our metabolism and help us absorb nutrients from food into the body, it can also influence whether we are lean or obese."
Sep 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurised chamber. In the chamber, the air pressure is increased two to three times higher than normal air pressure. It is commonly used to treat decompression sickness (a condition scuba divers can suffer from), carbon monoxide poisoning,......" ---- "Blood flow to the brain is reduced in people with Alzheimer’s. This study showed increased blood flow to the brain in the mice receiving oxygen therapy, which helps with the clearance of plaques from the brain, and reduces inflammation – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s." ----- "The researchers then used these findings to assess the effectiveness of oxygen therapy in six people over the age of 65 with cognitive decline. They found that 60 sessions of oxygen therapy, over 90 days, increased blood flow in certain areas of the brain and significantly improved the patients’ cognitive abilities – improved memory, attention and information processing speed."
Sep 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Hollywood for years called on Charles Boyer to typify one French look –  bedroom eyes, sly maneuverings, the dismissive look. A face of another type, the massive mug and narrow eyes of Charles de Gaulle, provides the same disdain of the foreigner but also a superiority based on his belief in his own destiny."
Sep 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "The burden of loneliness for older people is intimately connected to what they are alone with. As we reach the end of our lives, we frequently carry heavy burdens that have accumulated along the way, such as feelings of regret, betrayal and rejection. And the wounds from past relationships can haunt people all their lives."
Sep 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Gardens help restore the ability to concentrate on demanding tasks, providing the perfect space for a break when working from home in a pandemic. Natural things – such as trees, plants and water – are particularly easy on the eye and demand little mental effort to look at. Simply sitting in a garden is therefore relaxing and beneficial to mental wellbeing."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Whether or not a person achieves remission, reducing blood sugar levels is important in managing the negative effects of type 2 diabetes and reducing risk of complications. But when it comes to choosing a diet, the most important thing is to pick one that suits you – one that you’re likely to stick to long term."
Aug 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "In our latest study, we show that by taking the microbiome from young mice and transplanting them into old mice, many of the effects of ageing on learning and memory and immune impairments can be reversed. Using a maze, we showed that this faecal microbiota transplant from young to old mice led to the old mice finding a hidden platform faster."
Aug 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Fukuyama argued that political struggle causes history. This struggle tries to solve the problem of thymos – an ancient Greek term referring to our desire to have our worth recognised. This desire can involve wanting to be recognised as equal to others. But it can also involve wanting to be recognised as superior to others. A stable political system needs to accommodate both desires." .... "Counter-dominant spite can weaken liberal democracies. During the 2016 Brexit referendum, some people in the UK voted Leave to spite elites, knowing this could damage the country’s economy. Similarly, during the 2016 US presidential election some voters supported Donald Trump to spite Hillary Clinton, knowing his election could harm the US. "
Jul 31st 2021
EXTRACT: "If we want to live in a world that is good for pollinators, as well as the rest of us, big changes are needed in our environment, and our food system. This is why many beekeepers change their diet and their shopping, eating more locally grown vegetables that aren’t treated with pesticides. ...... Being willing to buy fruit and vegetables that may have the occasional insect living in it is better for us and for nature. To live more harmoniously with the natural world, we need to relax about larvae in the lettuce and slugs in the spinach."
Jul 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "You’d think our brush with mortality through the pandemic would have brought some of this home to us. You’d think it would give us pause for thought about what really matters to us: the kind of world we want for our children; the kind of society we want to live in. And for many people it has. In a survey carried out during lockdown in the UK, 85% of respondents found something in their changed conditions they felt worth keeping and fewer than 10% wanted a complete return to normal."
Jul 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "English artist Damien Hirst’s latest project, “The Currency”, is an artwork in two forms. Its physical form is 10,000 unique hand-painted A4 sheets covered in colourful dots. In the same way as paper money, each sheet includes a holographic image of Hirst, a signature, a microdot and – in place of a serial number – a small individual message. The second part of the artwork is that each of these hand-painted sheets has a corresponding NFT (non-fungible token). NFTs are digital certificates of ownership which exist on the secure online ledgers that are known as blockchains. ---- The way that “The Currency” works is that collectors will not be buying the physical artwork immediately. Instead, they will pay US$2,000 (£1,458) for the NFT and then have a year to decide whether they want the digital or the physical version. Once the collector selects one, the other will be destroyed. ---- So what is going on here, and what does it tell us about art and money?"
Jul 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "Ellison was an abstract expressionist painter, who, having come to New York City from West Texas in 1962, was as he said “unable to find traction” as a painter. At the same time, he began collecting ceramic objects and educating himself about this field of art as he went along. In 2009 he bestowed on the Metropolitan Museum of Art over 300 extraordinary examples of American ceramics, spanning the years 1876 through 1956. Since then, Ellison has gifted to the Museum over 600 works – including a significant collection of European art pottery in 2013, and most recently over 125 modern and contemporary clay vessels and objects – making the Museum one of the most significant repositories of Art Pottery in the world. ---- The current exhibition presents nearly 80 pieces drawn from Ellison’s latest donation, and it is a thoroughly captivating show; even where (or perhaps especially where) the works are outlandish, bizarre, sometimes almost monstrous, but nonetheless enthralling."
Jul 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the course of England’s journey to the Euro 2020 final, one of the most fascinating plays has been happening just off the pitch. Whenever the TV camera cuts to the team’s manager Gareth Southgate, he is occasionally seen standing alone on the edge of the field, urging his team on. ---- But most of the time he is deep in conversation with his assistant Steve Holland. ---- A recent study of English football culture points to a shift away from what the authors term “Beckhamisation”, after the former England captain and Manchester United star player David Beckham – a popular and instantly recognisable symbol of that period of football history (though, it is not suggested the culture was his creation). ---- During the 1990s, the study claims, this “Beckhamisation” saw high octane management practices imported from the corporate world into football. ---- In recent years, this has been replaced by “Southgatism”, a leadership style which that study describes as “modest, self-deprecating, down to earth, diverse and progressive”. "
Jun 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "New York’s Museum of Modern Art is currently presenting an exhibition devoted to an in-depth review of Paul Cézanne’s drawings. If there is any criticism to be made of this extraordinary show, it is that it is frankly overwhelming: with roughly 280 pencil, ink and gouache drawings and watercolors (and even a handful of oil paintings), there is so much to take in that two or three visits to the exhibition may be required to do it justice."
Jun 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Cognitive flexibility provides us with the ability to see that what we are doing is not leading to success and to make the appropriate changes to achieve it." .... "Flexible thinking is key to creativity – in other words, the ability to think of new ideas, make novel connections between ideas, and make new inventions." .... "The good news is that it seems you can train cognitive flexibility."
Jun 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."
Jun 11th 2021
EXTARCT: "A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can."
Jun 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we apply that test to the world as a whole, how much moral progress have we made over the past two millennia? ...... That question is suggested by The Golden Ass, arguably the world’s earliest surviving novel, written around 170 CE, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire. Apuleius, the author, was an African philosopher and writer, born in what is now the Algerian city of M’Daourouch."