On February 5th, 2019, Brendan Fong, Emily Mata and Olivia Stowell sent the following letter to members of the Administration:
To Whom it May Concern,
It has recently come to the attention of us and other members of the Westmont community that a stained glass image of Jesus Christ in the Voskuyl Memorial Chapel...
appears to represent Jesus as a White-appearing man, standing on North America. There are some members of the Westmont community, including students, alumni, faculty, and staff, who feel concerned about the symbolic and theological impact of having such an image centrally located on our campus, and we request that the Westmont administration and/or board enter into dialogue about this image, toward the end of removing it. We feel that this image is not reflective of Westmont’s mission or values for several reasons.
First and foremost, this image is historically inaccurate. As a first-century Palestinian man who, according to most Christian orthodoxy, never set foot in North America, an image of Christ as a fair-skinned, White-appearing North American simply does not align with historical fact. Furthermore, this image (and other representations of Jesus as a White, Western European man) comes out of a troubled chapter in both our college’s history and the history of the evangelical church.
This particular image of a White Jesus standing on the United States evokes emotions stemming from an incredible sin that the evangelical church participated and was complicit in. In attempts to follow the work of the Great Commision, White evangelical church leaders saw themselves as the saviors, rather than Christ. Under the image of a White Jesus, salvation became about being or becoming White. Rather than defining salvation as coming “by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ,” as Westmont defines the salvific process in its statement of faith, evangelical Christianity aligned becoming Christian with becoming like White Europeans, as outlined by historian Dr. Peter Choi in his recent on-campus talk, “The Race Problem in American Christianity.”
We as a college community, wanting to embody the kind of love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing that Christ’s life and work exemplify, have the privilege to repent and experience the grace of a good and loving God. We are not captive to the sins of our tradition’s history; rather we are free to embrace the “gift of the Holy Spirit, who calls, restores, and equips us uniquely for service in the eternal kingdom by a Statement of grace,” as Westmont states in its Diversity Statement.
In addition to concerns about historical accuracy and positioning, we, alongside many prominent theologians such as James Cone, Willie James Jennings, Karen Teel, and others, believe that representing Jesus Christ as a White man, given the context and history of global racism and colonialism, only furthers the marginalization and oppression of people of color within Christian frameworks, while also ignoring the theological implications of God incarnating into the world as a marginalized body. As Teel writes in her essay “What Jesus Wouldn’t Do,” “the historical person of Jesus was not white, historically or analogically; he was neither European nor privileged. Noting that this and none other is the context in which God chose to become incarnate, and mindful of the Christian belief that God does not do things by accident . . . this taking on of oppressed human flesh must have been intentional.” Representing Jesus Christ as a White, North American man not only alters history, it alters it in a way that belies and shrouds the significance of how, when, and where God became incarnate, and into what kind of body.
Cone, Teel, and others trace how Christ’s marginal societal position dovetails with his earthly work of welcoming those society considered “other”--from the bleeding woman in Luke 8, to the children in Matthew 19, to the lower-class fishermen turned disciples in Matthew 4, to the calling of Levi the tax collector in Luke 5, to the Samaritan woman in John 4. Christ’s work continually centers and includes those who society deemed less privileged, and this work includes becoming incarnate into a body that was considered marginal in first-century Roman-occupied Palestine.
Westmont’s motto, “Christus primatum tenens,” highlights the centrality and preeminence of Christ in all things we do at this college. If we truly aim to center Christ in all of our doings, we ought not to prominently display images that erase, minimalize, or misrepresent Christ’s person, life, mission, and work. In addition, Westmont’s mission is to create “thoughtful scholars, grateful servants and faithful leaders for global engagement with the academy, church and world.” If this is the goal of the college, an image that represents Jesus as standing on North America seems to run counter to the goal of making a Westmont a place that meaningfully engages with global diversity. Representing Jesus as North American places our geographical context as central, at the expense of the real historical Jesus’ spatial positioning, and at the expense of God’s work in the world, which is not limited to one country, nation, or region.
The image of White Jesus represents the colonization of the most central figure of our faith. To depict Jesus as fair-skinned is to downplay the fact that our savior, God incarnate, was a person of color. This is not only historically inaccurate, but also suggests that the embodied realities of people of color do not belong within a realm of holiness--that light skin is the appropriate skin for a savior.
Students of color that attend predominantly white institutions live in a context of marginality, as did Jesus throughout his life and ministry. The United States, historically and currently, is a nation where phenotypical racial expression is a marker of lived and historical oppression. To take away the darkness of Jesus’ skin is to remove him from the context of the oppression that he lived in. It also strips students of color of the opportunity to find spiritual refuge and renewal in knowing that their savior understood what it was to live outside a dominant social group. Images of Jesus as a White person create a visual story that further excludes people of color, and this makes the Lord’s resilience smaller and lessens his gospel.
We acknowledge that the chapel has spiritual significance for the College and was built in memorial of Nancy Voskuyl, a Westmont student who passed away. We also do not seek tarnish her memory or her significance to the college. However, noting the spiritual significance of the prayer chapel, as well as its central location on our campus, we believe it would be a healthy and healing move for the college to repent of colonialist imagery and further embrace its commitment to “diversity in a biblical vision of God’s Kingdom.” In our view, removing the image of a White-appearing Jesus from the spiritual heart of the college is a manifestation of the Westmont College's commitment to witnessing to the entirety of kingdom of God, and would therefore be an “act of restorative justice.”
We hope that the Westmont administration is ready to engage in conversation about the impact of this image at the spiritual center of Westmont College and its eventual removal.
Yours in peace,
Brendan Fong, Emily Mata, and Olivia Stowell, on behalf of those who strive to make our campus a place where all are welcome into the Kingdom of God