What's so special about Jesus?
Let me start this off with a confession: I don’t believe that Jesus actually existed.
Ouch! Well, hello there, hot water!
Did I mention that I’m currently serving as an elder of a church? Hmm…I suppose I should clarify.
I actually do believe that there was a historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth. What I mean is that I don’t believe the image of this person (whatever it may be) we’ve conjured up in our imaginations is entirely accurate. I agree with the scholarly consensus when it comes to Jesus: yes, he almost certainly existed, but there is actually very little we can know for sure about that existence based on the materials we have.
First, we’re talking about a figure who lived two thousand years ago—before the use of modern historical methods. Accounts of most figures in antiquity tend to be larger than life, and they must all be examined scrupulously to determine historical accuracy by modern standards. But, more importantly, the only records we have of Jesus (besides a few passing references) were produced by his followers. Inevitably, bias and rationalization are going to creep in when your friends are writing stories about you.
But despite all of this, let me be clear: I do believe in Jesus.
How can I say that I don’t believe I can know much at all about what Jesus was actually like and still say that I believe in him? Easy. Because my belief in Jesus has nothing to do with his historical reality.
What interests me is not the extent to which the Gospels can be interpreted as concrete history; rather, what interests me is what drove Jesus’s followers to write them in the first place. What was it about Jesus that made him so magnetic that a movement should arise around him? What was unique about Jesus? What made him so special?
A caveat: I am not writing about Jesus’s uniqueness in an exclusionary way. I am a huge proponent of interfaith dialogue. I recognize that there are other valid paths to the divine, as well as valid paths that don’t involve the divine at all. When I ask, “what makes Jesus so special?” I’m asking what makes him meaningful and worth following to the people who choose to do so. In other words, what makes Jesus so special to me?
God of the Oppressed
When most theologians and proponents of the Christian faith attempt to develop an argument for the uniqueness of Jesus, they do so in order to demonstrate why Jesus is more worthy of following than anyone else. As I mentioned, that’s not what I’m trying to do here. What I want to call attention to is an image of Jesus that I do think is worthy of devotion, even if it may not be to the exclusion of devotion to any other.
The classical Christian assertion regarding Jesus’s uniqueness centers around his divinity. Jesus was unique, because he was God in human flesh. Well, that’s certainly something. It would be nice if Christians could claim this special distinction. But, alas, there was already a long history of humans being recognized as gods by the time Jesus came around. Egyptian Pharaohs were considered deities. Japanese and Chinese emperors were considered deities. Even in Jesus’s own day, Roman emperors began to take up the mantle of gods.
But look at this list of people and try to notice what they have in common. How is a person like Jesus different from others who have been recognized as divine? In 42 BCE, Julius Caesar was declaring himself to be the “Son of God.” Then, not quite a century later, Jesus came along and made the same claim. Not very original, was he? So, what’s the difference? What made Jesus’s claim so great? Well, here’s what I believe is the focal point of Jesus’s uniqueness:
Both Julius Caesar and Jesus of Nazareth claimed to be divine. But Caesar was a Roman emperor…and Jesus was a Jewish peasant.
Jesus is special not because he was a god, but because he was a god of the oppressed. He represented significance among the overlooked, power among the powerless, and liberation among the enslaved. The Jews at the time were subjugated by the Roman Empire, and here this Jewish commoner arises from within the occupied territory laying claim to the same title as the emperor himself. If that doesn’t stand out as exceptional, I don’t know what does.
I’m not a historian. I am confident that there have been other figures who have similarly arisen from occupied territories claiming power in the face of oppression. Jesus may not be alone in this respect from a broader vision of history. But I do believe that this orientation toward empowering the powerless is what made people initially recognize him as special. I believe the movement surrounding Jesus that would eventually evolve into Christianity started out as a resistance movement.
Jesus was a god of the resistance.
The Problem with White Jesus
If this image of Jesus strikes you as odd, that’s probably because it has not been the image propagated by mainstream Christianity. What Western Civilization has believed and forced upon others is a pacified, imperial image of Jesus. Starting out as a grassroots movement pushing back against oppressive power structures, Christianity quickly became a religion in perfect alignment with those very power structures. Thanks, Constantine.
Over the last several centuries, as conquest and colonization of indigenous people became the driving force of European civilization, white Jesus was born. You know the one I’m talking about—the pale skinned surfer dude guiding sheep quietly through a pasture or staring out at you with piercing blue eyes as a halo crowns his head and light emanates from his blindingly white complexion.
As depictions of Jesus in art became whiter and whiter, the message from Europeans to indigenous people became clear: “Jesus looks like us. Oh, and by the way, did I mention that Jesus is God?”
The problem with transforming Jesus into the image of power and privilege in order to justify conquest is that—well, first of all, it’s unethical, dehumanizing, and just plain wrong. But, additionally, it bastardizes the image of Jesus that made him such a powerful figure in the first place. If Jesus is white, then he’s nothing special; he’s just another big shot in the line of Pharaohs, Emperors, and rulers who used their status as deities to conquer, exploit, enslave, and assimilate. I don’t know about you, but that’s not my Jesus.
(Side note for the uninitiated: “whiteness” is not about skin color so much as it is about social status. For a greater understanding of how “whiteness” has undermined the Christian faith, I’d highly recommend Trouble I’ve Seen by Drew Hart).
At the end of the day, Jesus is special as a symbol more so than he is as a person. Regardless of where their beliefs fall in terms of politics or social issues, people who say they follow Jesus are really following a version of Jesus that conforms to their sense of justice. Many of those people follow “white Jesus,” but that’s not the Jesus I know and love. The Jesus I follow is “resistance Jesus.”
I am not the only one. In fact, as a white person who has benefited in some measure by the phenomenon of white Jesus, I and others like me are actually behind the curve on recognizing Jesus as the god of the oppressed. There is a whole theology built around this—particularly developed by Latin Americans in the face of extreme poverty at the hands of exploitative regimes and African Americans in the face of slavery and subsequent discrimination at the hands of white people—but increasingly being adopted in various ways by the disabled community and the LGBT+ community, among others.
The empire does not own Jesus.
In fact, I would argue that if there is anything meaningful about Jesus at all, it is that he is a symbol for subversive resistance to power and privilege. Jesus is the champion for the underdog. He is the god of the oppressed. That’s what makes him unique. That’s what makes him special. That’s what makes him revolutionary.