By JANICE SIX
The Simpsons have been called on the carpet for the portrayal of the Indian-American character, Apu, who speaks with a thick Indian accent, and is less than ethical as the owner of the fictional Kwik-E-Mart, where he sells food long past its expiration date and rips off his customers. According to an article in the New York Times (April 9), after almost 30 years since Apu made his debut on The Simpsons, people are voicing their objections. Concern is that Apu reinforces stereotypes that lead to bullying, self-loathing, and embarrassment. Interestingly, the voice of the animated character is that of Hank Azaria, a white Jewish man who was raised in the Bronx. A curios choice in light of Apu’s portrayed heritage, don’t you think?
Shortly after reading about the current uprising over Apu, I was reviewing a DVD entitled Thomas: Close to Jesus, produced in 2001 when it occurred to me that the casting decisions of The Simpsons are not the only ones that may indicate a lack of ethnic sensitivity. I was impressed with the Thomas movie until Thomas opened his mouth. The strong British accent dashed my expectations. Why is it that in this age of global awareness, readily available access to people around the world, do directors continue to portray Jesus and his followers as Anglo-Saxons? Are there not talented actors of Middle Eastern heritage who could be cast in these roles for a more authentic portrayal of Christ?
Even illustrators of children’s books and this year’s most popular VBS materials depict Jesus with chestnut colored hair and light skin. Couldn’t the animation artists just as easily have chosen a richer flesh tone and darker shade for the hair? Why is this? Being as concise and direct as possible, I typed, “What color is Jesus.” Instantly a whole string of articles popped on the screen. The first that caught my eye was a book entitled, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, published in 2012. Apparently, this question has been on the table for years. As a culture fixated on the physical, the omission of such in Scripture has generated a great deal of speculation over the centuries.
Blum and Harvey do a good job of addressing this in their book. After reading only a few pages, my conviction was confirmed: In this age of hyper-sensitivity to misleading stereotypes, and suspicion of motives, it’s especially important that the church not be culpable of perpetuating an image of Christ that is blatantly inaccurate. By so doing, are we not undermining our own credibility? If we do not take seriously the little we do know of Jesus the man, by attempting to be as accurate and true to what is revealed through Scripture about him, then how likely are others to believe what we say about matters requiring great faith—such as his miraculous resurrection and ascension.
We know from Scripture that Jesus was born into a particular geographic region, and that his ministry on earth took place in this same area. We know the physical characteristics of others, like Jesus, who were born and reared in this place, so why do artists and casting directors continue to present Jesus as being from a culture other than the one into which he was born? Whatever the reasons, I cannot imagine them to be good. Rather than dwelling on what has been, perhaps it is more fruitful to consider the positive impact the Christian community might have by acknowledging Jesus’ Middle Eastern roots instead of perpetuating this false image of him. How much more believable might the good news of Christ’s inclusive nature be if his ethnicity were no longer altered for some nebulous reason?
If children were taught at an early age that Jesus was from the Middle East, would this reduce fear and prejudice against people from the same region? What difference might it make as far as acceptance and respect for people of other ethnicities if children were exposed to images of Jesus with dark eyes, hair and skin? I wonder if seeing Jesus with dark skin and hair might prove to be affirming to children who share the same. Would children in our congregations be surprised to learn that Jesus never spoke English, and certainly didn’t have a British accent? If I’m making more of this than is warranted, then why has Jesus’ ethnicity been ignored all these years? Why do we continue portraying him with chestnut colored hair and white skin.
Janice Six is associate pastor of First Central Presbyterian Church