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Politics of Scripture

Transgressing ‘white’ Transfiguration

A political theology of the transfiguration of Jesus has to expose and transgress the elevation of whiteness as divine, as a norm and as something superior to multi-coloured local expressions of faith. It also calls us to celebrate the mystery of transfiguration as trans-figuration of the body ethic of Jesus and of all humanity.

2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling bright,* such as no one on earth could brighten them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us set up three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Mark 9:2–9 (NRSVue)

*In many English translations, “bright” is translated as “white.”

On Sunday, I did a baptism of a one-month-old baby boy, whose parents are Indian citizens now living in the UK. This is their second child, and last year I also had the honour of baptising their older child, who is now two years old. What was interesting to notice in this recent baptism was that the one-month baby boy was dressed in blue, unlike his older brother, who wore white at his baptism. Why white?

White supremacy has been successful in whitewashing the worldview of Christian practice globally, celebrating the superiority of whiteness, asserting white to be the colour of the divine. The baptised child who wore blue on Sunday offers a symbolic critique of the distorted views of Christian practice that have been influenced by white theology, white supremacy, and white spirituality. Jesus did not get stuck with his transfiguration experience, but together with the disciples, got down the mountain to carry on his life and ministry among people with no mention of ‘dazzling white bright’ face or clothes in the rest of his ministry, affirming that Jesus was transgressing ‘whiteness’ as a norm for divinity, theology and spirituality. 

As per my local Indian Christian tradition, people wear white for occasions such as baptisms, confirmations and even for the monthly holy communion Sundays. The colonial missionary enterprise has taught us that ‘white’ symbolises divinity, holiness and purity, and so for occasions aforementioned, white is a suitable and sanctified colour to wear. Over a period of time, it has become a norm in the life of the church to wear white for such occasions.  However, I am at dis-ease to gather that the colonial episteme (which is the knowledge of the powerful) has found selfish use in affirming ‘white’ as a colour of the divine, pitching their rationale in the scriptures – particularly from the ‘dazzling whiteness’ of the transfigured Jesus Christ.

It was a subversive act to see the little child at the recent baptism in blue, and not in white. Colours are political in our world today. Dalits, the people who have been outcasted because we are born outside of the caste system, associate ourselves with the colour blue, representing our resistance to the forms of caste oppression and our hope. Blue is the colour of the sky, affirming everyone is equal under the sky. So the child wearing blue for a baptism is an expression of celebrating on one hand our indigenous Dalit cultural identity, contesting the normativity of white as superior, and on the other hand is an expression of celebrating God’s grace that is affirmed in baptism – where everyone is equal in the sight of God. 

A decolonial and a racial justice reading of the story of the transfiguration is an invitation to transgress the deeply embedded whiteness of Jesus’ transfiguration, for Jesus did not carry his ‘white dazzling clothes and face’ for the rest of his earthly ministry. The episteme of coloniality (again, the knowledge of the powerful) thrived by making the readers of scriptures ‘colourblind’: where God has been imaged and imagined in white – with white as a marker of the divine and the powerful – making white Jesus universal. Particularly, the story of Jesus’ transfiguration has been a white story. Here I use ‘white’ as both a colour and as a marker of coloniality.

The mystery of Jesus’ transfiguration is d(r)educed to merely the change of his face’s appearance and to the reflections of his clothes.  The three recountings of the gospel variations explain it as follows: “Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3) “And there he transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light” (Matt 17: 2). “As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning” (Luke 9:29).

It is interesting to notice that the NRSV Bible uses ‘white’ in the two recordings of Mark and Matthew. As above, the NRSVue has now changed it to ‘bright,’ which I think is a conscious move to change it from ‘white’: for they have recognised how ‘white Jesus’ is a theological scandal motivated by colonial and racist hermeneutical dynamics. 

With these scriptural warrants, the colonial episteme explained the transfiguration of Jesus as the brightness, light and eventually whiteness of Jesus. Furthermore, one of the traits of coloniality is to thrive on binaries, and so it has ascribed the transfiguration to Jesus’ divinity: dichotomising the divinity and humanity of Jesus into two separate identities, rather than regarding them as one inseparable identity. The white colonial episteme reduces the mystery of transfiguration to a white story, normalising whiteness as a mark of divinity, holiness and purity. 

The white colonial episteme thrived by making the transfiguration of Jesus a white story in the Bible.  The whiteness of a transfigured Jesus became a strong weapon for the white masters of the empire in claiming their specialness and superiority over the colonised people. With white privilege as their hermeneutical weapon, the empire exported a blue-eyed white Jesus to the colonised communities, making white Jesus normative and universal.

In their colonial conquest, the empire not only humiliated indigenous and subaltern theological expressions, but also demonised and destroyed local creative theological affirmations. A case in point is from my own Dalit contexts, where our Dalit expressions of faith have been blamed and misbranded as ‘uncivilised’, ‘uncultured,’ ‘unspiritual’ and even ‘unscriptural’. The immediate example I can quote is the very use of our own Dalit drum, which has received all these blames and misbranding.  

Therefore, a political theology of the transfiguration of Jesus has to expose and transgress the elevation of whiteness as divine, as a norm and as something superior to multi-coloured local expressions of faith. It also calls us to celebrate the mystery of transfiguration as trans-figuration of the body ethic of Jesus and of all humanity.

In the events during and after the transfiguration, I recognise Jesus’ responses as decolonial engagements that invite us to transgress the white transfiguration narratives.

The gospel writers were trying to make a pitch for Jesus’ transfiguration episode being similar to that of Moses encountering the divine on Mount Sinai where his face shone with the glory of God after receiving the two tablets of the covenant (Exodus 34:29-35). For Moses, only after an encounter with the divine did his face shine. Jesus is doing something related, but is doing it differently. For Jesus, it was he, himself, who took the three disciples up to a high mountain and transfigured before them. It wasn’t the cloud that overshadowed the disciples that transfigured Jesus, or a voice that came from the cloud that transfigured Jesus; rather, it was Jesus himself who transfigured before the disciples.

Then, one might ask, why did Jesus transfigure? 

In the context where people have been disfigured due to the oppressive systems and structures of the society, Jesus’ transfigured body is his identification with those whose bodies have been battered, bruised, humiliated, excluded, and rejected, offering hope and dignity to all. The colonial Roman empire in Jesus’ time disfigured several bodies using violence and unjust public executions on the cross, and Jesus’ transfiguration is a symbol of offering hope to all bodies. In the context of the racial justice discourse, Jesus’ transfiguration is offering hope to the disfigured bodies who have been disfigured because of colour, caste, gender, and sexuality: for Jesus transfigures to identify with everyone, celebrating new life in all bodies, transcending all barriers.

The transfiguration of Jesus is not a monopoly of whiteness; rather, it is an affirmation of all bodies of all colours. As soon as Jesus gets down the transfiguration mountain, he heals a boy whose body has been disfigured due to the evil spirit he was possessed with. It was an embodied healing, and that boy experienced the transfiguration spirit of Jesus in his healing.   

If the dazzling whiteness of his face and clothes were so important to Jesus as divinely ordained things, then Jesus should have obliged Peter’s request of staying on that mountain, seeking goodness in that dazzling whiteness, and in conversations with Elijah and Moses. But Jesus and the disciples came down the mountain, which for me is a transgressing act. He did not see dazzling whiteness as precious to his life and ministry, as much as he saw meaning in healing and transforming people’s lives down in the valley.

If he considered dazzling whiteness as something divinely ordained, Jesus should have lived with it, even after coming down the transfiguration mountain, and should have gone to Jerusalem for the trial and the cross with such ‘divine’ whiteness. But since he did not carry that dazzling whiteness with him for the rest of his mission and ministry, it was a transgressing act, transgressing the white transfiguration.

If a dazzling white experience was something very dear and special to Jesus, he should have at least agreed with Peter in building a dwelling (again, at least for him): it would have been a living monument, that would have upheld the sanctity of that dazzling whiteness, and whiteness could have been celebrated as a norm in imaging and imagining Jesus. But again, Jesus rejected such a construction, and did not approve of building a tent for him, nor for Elijah and Moses. Jesus’ mission is a transforming movement and not a lifeless monument, and in that process he transgressed the white transfiguration. 

Colonial hermeneutics have always emphasised in the partial voice that came out of the cloud, “This is my Son, the Beloved…” not listening to the voice that followed, “listen to him.” A decolonial political theology of the transfiguration is in listening to the voice of Jesus in this story. As they were coming down the transfiguration mountain, Jesus for the first time speaks in this story by ordering his disciples not to tell anyone of what they have seen until the Son of Man has been resurrected.

In other words, if we are listening to Jesus’ decolonial theology here, Jesus was ordering his disciples to recognise resurrection as the ultimate transfiguration and transformation of his body, and to thus transgress the white transfiguration. The risen Jesus was found in a stranger or gardener, in multi-coloured local expressions of people and their faiths – which is the ultimate transfiguration – rather than in the dazzling white forms that white supremacy asserts.

If the dazzling whiteness of Jesus is sanctioned by the divine, then the voice that came from the cloud should have affirmed such a whiteness, and should have spoken out about it. The voice that came from the cloud only said that Jesus is the beloved Son. He is the beloved Son of God because he transgresses oppressive power and authority of any form and shape, and affirms the pluriform identities of people and communities.

In this instance, it is the divine voice that came from the cloud that transgresses the white transfiguration. In fact, why did the cloud overshadow the transfiguration mountain at that time? It reminds us that the whole experience of transfiguration is only like a cloud that stays for a while and when it rains, it waters the creation towards transformation. The overshadowing cloud overshadows the white transfiguration.

The second Sunday in February, which this year in 2024 is on the 11th of February, is observed in the UK as Racial Justice Sunday. This decolonial reading of the transfiguration story offers a signpost in reading our texts today, where one is called to consciously transgress white narratives in the texts, affirming that whiteness is not divinely sanctioned and that whiteness is not normative for the faithful. Like Jesus, the church today is invited to join with him in transgressing dominant, colonial and white stories of faith, and to celebrate multi-dimensional and multi-coloured identities as an expression of that faith commitment. 

The call of this text is to stay committed to racial justice today. Racial justice is at the heart of the Christian gospel, and the followers of Jesus are called to live it out in every sphere of life. Jesus’ followers are called to champion racial justice in every locality by creating preferential options of affirmative action for people of different ethnicities and colour. Churches should be in the forefront of such a racial justice mission engagement today, transgressing white supremacy and transforming communities towards peace and justice. 

It was indeed a joy baptising a child in a blue outfit, for the little one might not know what he has worn for his baptism but his baptism blue dress spoke volumes about celebrating God’s equal grace for people of all colours, ages and identities, transgressing ‘white’ supremacy.

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