by Beverly Aarons
“This film is dedicated to the future memory of white supremacy, the new world’s original gangster,” a deep voice declares. That’s how Manifest Destiny Jesus begins. Orchestral music blares, white text fades onto a black background, the words of English writer William Gilpin come into view: “The untransacted destiny of the American people is to subdue the continent — to rush over this vast field to the Pacific Ocean.”
Seattle’s crane-filled skyline comes into view. Logos of the richest and most powerful corporations in the nation glide down towering skyscrapers. Weathered tent cities cling to a dusty underpass. Seattle: a paragon of westward expansion and capitalist conquest. Fast forward: Displaced Seattleites lament the relentless hammer of gentrification. “I can’t even afford to live here,” a man says.
A woman sits in Columbia City Church of Hope, a stained glass Jesus hovers above, his ivory hand points westward.
Manifest Destiny Jesus, which screens at this month’s “Local Sightings” film festival, is a documentary that explores how the widespread portrayal of Jesus as white influences everything from gentrification to police brutality. And how one small church in a gentrifying South Seattle found the courage to ask, “What does it mean to worship a white Jesus?”
“[No one is] looking at me and saying ‘That Black guy looks like he must be the son of God,’” said T. Geronimo Johnson during an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. Johnson, who is Black and one of three Manifest Destiny Jesus filmmakers, argues that the pervasive iconography of Jesus as a white man dictates how People of Color are perceived and treated in society. He’s seen it in his own life.
When he tells people that he’s a professor, they often assume he’s an elementary or high school teacher, not an instructor at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Their imaginings of his life are constrained by the collective narrative of what a Black person’s life looks like. The roots of those constraints are what Johnson and his fellow filmmakers, Josh Aaseng and Daemond Arrindell, question and disrupt in Manifest Destiny Jesus.
“I always felt like something was kind of off,” said Arrindell, who grew up surrounded by images of a white Jesus. “But I don’t think I ever said it out loud. There were just aspects of the Christian faith, of the Catholic faith, that just didn’t quite click with me.”
In his freshman year of college, Aaseng began questioning the popular vision of Jesus as a white man. “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.”
Johnson pressed further, he described People of Color’s worship of a white Jesus as an “extension of our bondage.” Though he also acknowledged the ways oppressed people have leveraged Christianity in pursuit of liberation.
The filmmakers believe that imagining Jesus, and by extension God, as a white man, inculcates the mind with the idea of white superiority. And that kind of thinking is difficult to leave behind even if you consciously reject the white supremacist value system.
“I was constantly presented with this idea that the white kids were inherently better than me,” Arrindell said. As a young competitive swimmer, he was often the only Black kid at swim meets. “I got questioned. I got teased. I got attacked verbally on a regular basis. So my rejection of [white supremacy] was, ‘No, you can’t beat me just because of your skin color.’ However, the unconscious beliefs, the internalized inferiority complex, I’ve been unpacking that and I’m still unpacking that now. I think that’s lifelong, intentional rejection.”
In Manifest Destiny Jesus, a mental health counselor sits in Columbia City Church of Hope. Wooden pews fill the background. A stained glass Jesus is covered by the “tree of life.” He recounts childhood visits to his grandmother’s house in the Philippines where he was surrounded by “little white boys” – tiny statues of Jesus. It shaped his perception of the world. “That’s the thing to be,” he said he believed as a child. “That’s what holiness and God looks like.”
T. Geronimo Johnson wonders if a person can fully reject the white supremacist notions they have inside of their own mind. “The thing about white supremacy is it’s sort of like Catholicism,” he said “They say you can be an apostate but you can never actually escape it … Even if I were to say I don’t believe in it, I know that it’s still lingering almost like an accumulation of heavy metal in the blood.”
Acclimation to white supremacy is more dangerous than belief, Johnson added. “Because there’s always a huge disconnect between what we claim we believe and how we behave.” And it’s through this acclimation that we often continue to advance the aims of white supremacy even as we claim to not believe in it.
Religious people aren’t the only ones breathing in the pervasive depiction of a white Jesus.
“You can be atheist and still have a cultural image of what Jesus looks like in your head,” said Aaseng.
The filmmakers believe that “unchurched” and non-religious people on the West Coast need to confront and question white Jesus iconography and not mistakenly assume that white supremacy is a problem confined to the South.
“You can be a white atheist and say, ‘Well, this is not part of my problem,’ but you’re still a direct beneficiary of a system that reinforces your position in this society as being representative of the Supreme Being …” Johnson said.
The ideals of white supremacy are so deeply embedded into the collective psyche of western society, Johnson said, that it will take centuries to transform the culture.
“I don’t think we’re going to see [white supremacy] evaporate until people of European descent have worshiped a God of color, preferably female, for a good 700 to 2,000 years.” Manifest Destiny Jesus screens at NWFF’s “Local Sightings” film festival Sept. 26, 2021.
Beverly Aarons is a writer, artist, and game developer. She works across disciplines, exploring the intersections of history, hidden current realities, and imagined future worlds. She specializes in making unseen perspectives visible and aims to infuse all of her creative work with a deep sense of emotionality.
📸 Featured Image: Film still from “Manifest Destiny Jesus.” Filmed by and photo courtesy of Jon Aaron Aaseng.
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