The Colour of Christmas

by Aaron Sathyanesan | neuroscientist and Dark is Beautiful supporter

What skin colour did Jesus have?

This question, I believe, is at the storm-eye of a scandal for the ages.

Recently, this scandal made the rounds in media outlets, social networks and the uttermost parts of the blogosphere. It started out as a reaction to an article in Slate magazine about a case for why Santa Claus or Father Christmas should be an inclusive figure rather than a jolly-old white dude. Here’s how a talk show host reacted to the article during an on-air discussion:

Jesus was a white man, too. It’s like we have, he’s a historical figure that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa, I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy in the story and change Santa from white to black?

Foot. In. Mouth.

Apart from the fact that this talk show host wanted so dearly for children to “believe” in Santa, there’s a white elephant in the room (pun intended), trumpeting its heart out for attention.

I would like to point out, though, that attempts to “repaint” Jesus with broad brush-strokes of our modern sensibilities are not new. The Late Rev. John R.W. Stott, a Christian scholar and statesman, in his book Contemporary Christian (1995) lists thirteen versions of Jesus. Some of them are worth mentioning for illustration. There’s Jesus the founder of modern business, based on Bruce Barton’s then best-selling book, The Man Nobody Knows (1925). Barton, who reacted against a soft, namby pamby Jesus who would pass off as the class sissy, produced a picture of Jesus as a chiseled, muscular, tough man who probably was involved in many “outdoor activities.” This Jesus’ entire life was a story of success and most importantly, he taught the secrets of modern business. Then there’s T.N. Carver’s Jesus the Capitalist, as sketched out in his book The Economic Factor in the Messiahship of Jesus (1922) and Jesus the Freedom Fighter as Cuba’s Fidel Castro so many times claimed. And then there’s Jesus the Pale Galilean spoken of in Swinburne’s Hymn to Proserpine (1866) where the English poet laments the rise of Christianity, saying:

Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath;

This pale version of Jesus was also captured in the works of the Renaissance masters, where Jesus’ skin complexion is really, really, really light…bordering anemic. The Rastafari reacted against this portrayal of Jesus as colonial and racist; some of them even citing bible verses claiming that Jesus was in fact black.

And then there was the historical Jesus, who was probably not white nor black, but most probably, dare I say, brownish, as you would expect a first century Jew from Palestine to look like.

From all these ‘versions’ of Jesus, one thing seems to be clear – that as human beings, we love to label things. As neuroscience has so clearly shown us, the human brain excels at pattern identification. Our biological nature predisposes us to label x as “white” and y as “black.” But we go a step further and in addition to classification, knowingly or unknowingly, we assign values to these labels. The way we assign these values is intricately tied to our in-group bias. In other words, we like those who look like us and/or agree with us. And this bias seems like something we are born with, not just learned. As research from the Wynn & Bloom labs at Yale have shown, infants as young as three months old display this social bias. It seems like it is in our nature to form groups and classify people as “Us” and “Them.”

What does all this have to do with Christmas? Well, a lot.

Some two thousand years ago, in an obscure town called Bethlehem, a baby was born. His name was Jesus. He hung out with poor. He had fishermen and tax-collectors as chums. He had friends who had lesser melanin pigmentation in their skin (Roman soldiers), more melanin (his disciples) and even no melanin (lepers). This Jesus – the historical Jesus, came for us all. His humanity identified with us. His deity transformed us, and still transforms us. His work continues even to this day –when we clothe the naked and feed the hungry. When we stand up to oppression and injustice. When our enemies hurt us, and we pray for them instead. When we love our neighbours – black, white, brown or anything in between. When we follow him, and lay down our lives, so others, even those who don’t look like us, may live.

This Jesus – the historical Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate on Christmas, came for all of us – for all the billion shades of beautiful.

So this Christmas

If you’re green with envy

Or blue and gloomy

If you’re in the pink of health

Or gracious and gray

Just remember

That the colour of Christmas

Is the colour of perfect love

Come from above,

And it is deeper, much deeper

Than the deepest red.


Thinking About Beauty

A Philosopher’s View

By Ajoy Varghese | A Dark is Beautiful Supporter

Humans not only perceive beauty, but also have the unique ability to describe it and to judge it.
The “Dark is Beautiful” campaign has an underlying assumption— that Beauty existsIt is a clear reference to the ubiquitous existence of beauty in our world. It is also a bold challenge to social attempts to fracture beauty. One attempt to do so is by pitting one skin colour against another. The campaign asserts that that beauty is not contained in one colour but in many— individually and together. The campaign also asserts that beauty is not skin deep.
Prior to the Dark is Beautiful campaign, when was the last time you actually heard a public debate on beauty? Not likely that you did. Not surprising, either. It’s easier to use a TV ad to assault your senses than to present a logical argument to challenge your reason. 

I recently heard a male celebrity protest that he had every right to choose his skin colour. How can you argue with that? Except that when a personal preference is advertised as a public good, it has made itself a subject of public scrutiny and judgment. So, if a celebrity says that endorsing a product is his right, then the public has an equal right (and I think, an obligation) to judge it. Else, his personal preference must be parked within the confines of his own thinking.

It’s a pity that we have allowed the contemporary discourse on beauty to be hijacked by beauty pageants and advertisers. Both groups are in bed together— cultural elite who seek to control and manipulate the minds of the masses by entering the citizen’s mind through the backdoor of the senses and not through the front door of Reason.  

Beauty exists. Science cannot reduce it. Religion cannot deny it. (Photo: western4uk)

How can we begin to think more deeply about beauty? Here are some preliminary considerations.

We don’t all agree on what it means to be beautiful. Some find Madonna beautiful. Others disagree. They find Mother Teresa’s face beautiful. I should not be surprised that not everybody finds babies and sunsets beautiful. We implicitly recognize that beauty defies straightforward objective standardization. 

Not surprisingly, all cultures have their own notions of beauty and happily disagree about what it means to be beautiful. The fact of beauty is an objective reality. Our interpretationsof beauty are subjective and culturally influenced.  

Beauty stirs us: A blade of grass glistening in the sunlight, a child’s laughter, haunting lyrics, the face of a woman, the integrity of a truth-teller and a graceful prowling tiger. There are moments in life when we encounter beauty and we have a heart-arrest, an out-of-body experience, transportation outside of ourselves. When beauty grips us, we are less preoccupied with ourselves. Sometimes, it makes us blush. At other times, it evokes awe. 

It appears that we are the only species that recognizes beauty. This is no mere evolutionary superiority. While animals’ instinctive biological drive is excited by colour, scent, sound, etc., humans’ perception goes beyond the sensory. We have the unique ability to describe beauty and to judge it. We write songs about it or produce pieces of art around it. We even fight over what we consider beautiful. Pascal wryly remarked that “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.”   

Beauty exists. Science cannot reduce it. Religion cannot deny it. 

So, what does this unique ability to discern beauty tell us? Does it say anything at all? Is it simply brute fact or a signifier?
Well, that’s a discussion for another day.