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The human brain is the most fascinating organ in the human body. All of the sensory information that comes from our eyes, ears, touch, taste, and smell are all processed by this organ, but it doesn’t stop there. What individuals experience and their perception interpret various stimuli differently. Five people can witness the same event and have very different recollections of what happened. Surprisingly, this even happens in science where individuals are trained to be very thoughtful and meticulous in their interpretations. Let me give you an example. What do you see in the following picture?
You see a face. Right? You are not alone. There have been scores of cultural references to the picture. Just to name a few: Mission to Mars (2000); TV series include The X-Files (“Space”, 1993), Invader Zim (“Battle of the Planets”, 2002), Futurama (“Where the Buggalo Roam”, 2002), Phineas and Ferb (“Unfair Science Fair”, 2009); video games include Zak McKracken (1988), Final Fantasy IV (1991), Ultima Martian Dreams (1991), X-COM: UFO Defense (1993), SWIV 3D (1996), Cydonia: Mars – The First Manned Mission (1999), Red Faction: Guerrilla (2009), Kerbal Space Program (2015), Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (2016); comic books include Martian Manhunter (#1, 1998), Battle Angel Alita: Mars Chronicle (2014); and music includes Cydonia from the album Implant by Eat Static (1994), Telemetry of a Fallen Angel by The Crüxshadows (1995), Cydonia by Crimson Glory (1999), “Knights of Cydonia” by Muse (2006) and Hunting & Gathering (Cydonia) by Sunn O))) (2009).
This is a picture of Cydonia and it was first imaged in detail by the Viking 1 and Viking 2 orbiters. Eighteen images of the Cydonia region were taken by the orbiters, of which seven have resolutions better than 250 m/pixel (820 ft/pixel). The other eleven images have resolutions that are worse than 550 m/pixel (1800 ft/pixel) and are of limited use for studying surface features. Think about that for a moment. One pixel in this photograph equals 820 feet. Good thing our camera tech has gotten better!
Now look at this picture.
Yes that’s the same picture. This picture was taken decades later by a satellite in orbit around Mars with a camera that has technology much closer to the type that you have in your smartphone. Think about that. An entire genre was created based on the imaging technology we had available to us in the sixties and seventies. There is a name for the phenomenon that we are describing. Pareidolia. Pareidolia is the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern. Have you ever looked at a cloud on a sunny day and thought that it looked like an animal? That is pareidolia. Our brains seem to be wired to look for recognizable patterns. What patterns an individual’s brain actually perceives is based on the sum total of the experiences of the individual. Going back to my earlier example, people can look at the same thing but see two totally different things.
That’s how our brains work in the abstract. But let’s use a much less abstract example. What do you see in this picture?
This depiction, that has been marketed around the world for centuries, is the accepted appearance of Jesus Christ from the Bible. You will notice that the man in this picture is extremely European in appearance. If you don’t believe this is the most popular depiction of this character from the Bible, Google “picture of Jesus” and select images.
The purpose of this article is not to get into a discussion about religious truth. Rather this is a conversation about the psychological impact of subjecting individuals in a class system to iconography that reinforces that system based on race. You probably don’t believe me. Go ahead and Google “picture of a slave”. Almost every picture in the results are pictures of African slaves in the Americas.
Is it starting to make sense? This isn’t an abstract exercise that causes an individual to see something that is interpreted by their brain. If you are Caucasian, and you live in a society where the predominant religion is Christianity, then the depiction of Jesus as Caucasian will reinforce a sense of pride and superiority. If you are black, and you live in a society where the predominant religion is Christianity, then not only will you subscribe to the belief of the “godlike” similarity between Jesus and caucasians, you will also subconsciously internalize a sense of inferiority. After all Jesus the son of God is white.
This distinction is far more than academic. This distinction was the foundation of the African slave trade. The belief in the superiority of caucasians based on beliefs found in Christianity was the principal motivation for enslaving any group who was not Caucasian. Poor Caucasians were given the privilege of indentured servitude: a seven-year sentence of servitude that was bartered for transportation to the new world at the end of which the now free servant was given freedom and land. Obviously this model was not sustainable. It is far more profitable to buy humans and subjugate them to a lifetime of servitude. Slave owners also had the added benefit of automatically owning and enslaving the children of slaves without the original cost of traveling to another continent for the acquisition of additional human labor.
This entire global industry that persisted for several centuries was predicated on the belief that the depiction of Jesus as a European white man was accurate. However, in 2001 forensic anthropologist Richard Neave created a model of a Galilean man for a BBC documentary, Son of God, working on the basis of an actual skull found in the region. He did not claim it was Jesus’s face. It was simply meant to prompt people to consider Jesus as being a man of his time and place, since we are never told he looked distinctive.
For some Christians this discussion borders on heresy. Years ago I participated in a conversation about the movie Passion of the Christ at a local black Baptist church. The moderator was a black minister from the baby boomer generation. The conversation turned to race as there were no black or Arab actors in the movie. Strange given that the movie was set in the Middle East. Furthermore, the actor who played Jesus is a white man. When this was brought up in the conversation, the moderator simply stated, “I don’t care what color Jesus was as long as his blood is red.”
That is the legacy of the false depiction of a white Jesus. If you can’t even discuss the psychological impact of the iconography of the race of Jesus as depicted in a religiously themed movie in a black church, it is little surprise that the depiction of a European Jesus has persisted in a world where Caucasians are the dominant culture.
Here’s a little thought experiment. Imagine you go to sleep tonight and wake up 1000 years from now. As you are from the 21st century, you will be able to offer a unique perspective having lived today. Martin Luther King Jr. is still revered in this time, and you are taken to a museum built in his honor. However, when you get to the museum, you see a picture of Dr. King as a white man. You immediately interject during the presentation. “I’m sorry for interrupting, but something needs to be corrected. Martin Luther King Jr. was a black man. I don’t know who this is in this picture.” The moderator looks at you and smiles. “It really doesn’t matter what color he was. The power of his message is all that is important.” When you understand this, the importance of the race of Jesus will make sense.