This past Christmas, while thinking about my next blog, I envisioned an experiment that I call “the manger test.” Imagine that you’re walking around town enjoying the colorful Christmas lights and brightly decorated store windows. You pass a church whose life-size nativity scene invites you to approach the statues of Mary, Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. You lean in to see Jesus and find a perfectly proportioned black doll, his curly hair adorned with a halo.
Your first reaction, whether you’re black or white, is probably surprise. Although paintings of a black Madonna and child exist, we’re accustomed to a white baby Jesus in our public nativity scenes. You might then question the historical accuracy of a black baby Jesus. But, since we also know that the historical Jesus wasn’t the blond-haired, blue-eyed white baby of many nativity scenes, why consider historical accuracy at all? The manger test asks how you feel about a black Jesus. If you’re Christian, can you accept this black baby as God’s gift to man, as His son and your savior?
I find my manger test disturbing and enlightening. For me, all babies are beautiful, pure, and full of promise. A black baby Jesus is unusual, but I think I could accept Him. However, little boys grow up into men. I realize that I cannot imagine a black adult male on the cross. Why not? Perhaps because I’ve seen so many crucifixions of a dark-haired, brown-eyed Jesus with either ghostly white or olive complexion, but never a black one. Why is it that historical accuracy weighs more heavily with the crucifixion than the nativity? After all, I accept that in numerous paintings of the Madonna and child Jesus is a blond.
It’s more pertinent to ask whether I could accept an ebony Jesus on the cross. I confess it would take work. But why should race or ethnicity matter? Christians worship a once-living person whose physical appearance was never described. Do we have to make him look like us?
The manger test reveals traces of a deeply rooted racism that I thought I’d conquered, and it challenges me to weed them out. But, if the historical Jesus really had been a black man, imagine how that would have affected perceptions of race today!