Seriously, What's The Deal With ‘Manifest Destiny Jesus’?

The mainstream image of Jesus Christ is a pasty white guy. He doesn't even have much of a tan. Yes, J.J. painted a Black Jesus in an episode of "Good Times" and Madonna might have hooked up with a Black Jesus in her "Like a Prayer" video, but Jesus is usually presented as a blonde surfer dude, who the disciples might've nicknamed “Moondoggie."

When I was a child, family members would point out the Bible verse that described Jesus as having hair like wool and “feet like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace" (i.e. a dark brown complexion like someone from the Middle East). This didn't wear down my religious skepticism, because a Jesus of any other shade is still a scam. It's like when a corporation makes its CEO a woman or a man of color without actually changing any of its awful policies.

I've been contemplating the conflicting images of blonde surfer Jesus and Soul Brother Jesus after watching the Seattle-area documentary Manifest Destiny Jesus from filmmakers Josh Aaseng, Daemond Arrindell, and T. Geronimo Johnson, who also serves as narrator. Aaseng and Arrindell met author Johnson in 2017 when they adapted his novel Welcome to Braggsville to the stage. I know Aaseng from our time at Seattle's Book-It Repertory Theatre, where he was literary manager and later associate artistic director. He adapted and directed an amazing version of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five in 2015. Aaseng's a white guy from Montana, but he nonetheless questioned the popular conception of Jesus as white.

He told South Seattle Emerald:

"I was in New York City during 9/11, and I started thinking, 'Jesus looks more like Osama Bin Laden than he does Mel Gibson,'" Aaseng said. "There is this complete fantasy of what Jesus looks like and how mind-altering that is for the people who think that's an accurate representation of Jesus."

As Black men, Arrindell and Johnson have lifelong experience confronting the perverse fact that so many Black Americans worship what is arguably the idealized image of their oppressor. Johnson describes white Jesus as an "extension of our bondage," and the documentary features the searing line from James Baldwin about how "Black people are victimized by an alabaster Christ."

Christianity is part of America's legacy of slavery, and there were always two racially distinct interpretations of the scripture: The still-prominent white prosperity gospel that claims rich white people have earned the favor of God because they are rich and white, which is convenient. An incredibly on-the-nose demonstration of this nonsense is when Senator Joe Manchin from West Virginia frets about an “entitlement culture" while chilling on his yacht as his broke-ass constituents appeal to him from tiny kayaks.

However, enslaved Black people had a different brand of Christianity forced upon them: Submit to the horrors inflicted upon them in this life and perhaps, if they're very good, they'll enjoy salvation in the next one. There was no indication, however, that the white enslaver was destined for hell.

Theologian James Crone called the crucifixion a first-century lynching. I've resisted that comparison on the grounds that Jesus's brutal death and eventual resurrection were supposedly his grand plan. No Black person ever wanted to be lynched. But perhaps I've looked at this from the wrong angle. White liberals especially have an unfortunate tendency to romanticize Black suffering. Slavery, segregation, and even today's racial oppression aren't indelible stains on American history but part of some benign narrative where the nation is in a state of perpetual self-correction. America was always great, even when it's a slave state, because eventually slavery will end. Go, America! Untold numbers of Black bodies must suffer for generations so Abraham Lincoln can end up on Mount Rushmore. Black people are forever dying for America's endless sins.

When I moved to Seattle almost decade ago, I lived in the Central District, which was what realtors would call a "neighborhood in transition." Manifest Destiny Jesus features interviews with Black people who grew up in the neighborhood and watched as white Amazon employees "discovered" the area. The documentary makes a clear link between gentrification and colonization. Even the terminology, while racially coded, is similar. White "settlers" arrive and set about “civilizing" a place where "savages" live. White people think nothing of saying a neighborhood is “improving" when in reality they mean it's getting whiter. Meanwhile, the very presence of Black people in sufficient numbers implies an area in decline, one white people are warned to avoid. It's a "critical race theory" everyone grows up learning.

This is deliberate, of course, as redlining barred Seattleites of color from "good" neighborhoods — segregation through real estate covenants that explicitly forbade selling or renting property to anyone who wasn't white.

There's an interview with a Black man who recalls how his father, despite having worked for decades to save up for a down payment, was told that buying a home in West Seattle in 1955 was an “unrealistic option for a negro." Instead, he would have to settle for a neighborhood that the city actively oppressed by refusing to invest key resources (consider which neighborhoods have the most convenient public transportation routes, newer schools, well-maintained grocery stores). My own father was my son's current age in 1955. This was not so long ago.

The image of white Jesus is directly connected to European and American imperialism. The documentary's title is a reference to a church in Columbia City, another rapidly gentrifying Seattle neighborhood. The church features a stained-glass window bearing the image of a white Christ seemingly directing his followers westward. A pastor visiting the church once asked, “What's the deal with Manifest Destiny Jesus?"

Johnson states that the racial wealth gap and the myth of Black inferiority is the product of a racist feedback loop that we must break to move forward. Evidence from local schools boards implies that white America will choose the ostrich's head in the sand option, but the people willing to at least try can start by watching Manifest Destiny Jesus.

You can view the documentary online here through the end of October.

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Stephen Robinson

Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."


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