Most of us, I would hope, know by this time that Jesus was not a White man. But do we think about this fact enough? It has many far reaching implications — and ones that are relevant right now. Just as importantly, most of the earliest Christians were not “White” and a good number of the early Church Fathers from north Africa were “non-white.”
Of course, the concepts of “whiteness” and “race,” as they have come to function in the Western world during the past 500 years, were not categories per se for the Romans and for Roman law. But Roman law did have a category quite similar: A “peregrinus” was a person who was subject to Roman rule of law, but who was not a Roman citizen. Up until the year 212 CE, 80% to 90% of the free inhabitants of the Roman Empire were actually “peregrini” (the Latin plural), who had very limited protections under law. They were subject to summary judgment, including execution, by the provincial governor of their province. Peregrini, unlike citizens, had almost no rights, could be tortured, had no access to legal counsel, and no right of appeal. They could not marry a Roman citizen. The peregrini were technically not slaves, but they were one tiny step above slaves. They were often dealt with brutally.
Does the above sound vaguely familiar? It should. The legal status of Black Americans after the Civil War and well into the 20th century was quite like that of a peregrinus. This aspect of ancient Roman law was well-known to 19th-century American jurisprudence, lawyers and legislators, and was used as a model over and over again. Learning the basics of ancient Roman law was a normal part of Western higher education.
Of course, Jesus of Nazareth, as well as all his early followers in Judea, Samaria and Galilee, were all peregrini. And when the Christian movement of the first two centuries of the Christian Era spread into other sections of the Roman Empire, the vast majority of the converts were also of peregrini status. They were all members of an “inferior” class that was established by law, by custom and by what we would today call “institutional racism.”
To anyone who reads the New Testament carefully, it is clear Jesus objected to the “institutional racism” of both the Roman law and the law of the Jews. The parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke shows how Jesus rejected the typical “institutional racism” the people of Judea had for the people of Samaria, which was located just to the north of Judea. Much of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount can be understood, on one level, to be a condemnation of Rome’s rule by force and brute power and a praising of the condition and character of the peregrini: ”blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the Earth,” and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:5-6).
In point of fact, Christianity was not born as a European or “white” religion. From the point of view of the ruling elite in Rome during the time of Jesus and immediately after, everything from Palestine and Syria was coming from “the East” and was suspect. Romans liked the spices, fabrics, wheat and oils from the East — but they had severe distaste for the cultures and peoples of therefrom. To most of the Roman upper classes for the first three centuries CE, this new Christian religion was not only a low class Eastern superstition, but it was also a potential menace to the state and the absolute power of Rome.
And what would Jesus and his first followers have looked like? They would have had the appearance of what today would be considered “non-white.” Their skin and hair would have been dark. The very first Christians, both in Palestine and elsewhere in the empire, were Jews and they would have looked distinctly Middle Eastern Semitic. Remember, at this early date, there were no European Ashkenazi Jews on the planet — all the Jews of the empire came recently and directly from the Middle East, no matter whence they may have migrated.
Furthermore, many of the early and important Church Fathers were from North Africa, such as: Tertullian (160-225), Origen (185-254), Athanasius (296-373) and most importantly, Augustine (354-430). Their roots were not from the Jewish people, but rather from Africa. In all probability, a good number of early Church Fathers would have looked Black and their roots were also largely from the peregrini class. Augustine was an exception to this in terms of his social class origins, but not his “race.”
A huge part of the message of early Christianity was: “Peregrini Lives Matter.” It was no mere accident that Jesus died crucified on a cross. That form of capital punishment was distinctly Roman. It could not be applied to a Roman citizen, but it was commonly applied to slaves and the peregrini. When you traveled along the roads of the Roman empire, you very often would encounter people who had been crucified, their carcasses left hanging on the crosses for birds and animals to eat — a not-so-subtle reminder of Roman power. This was true long before Jesus was crucified. Such state-sponsored violence and execution was commonplace in the Roman world — just as disproportionate state-sponsored violence against, and execution of, Blacks are commonplace in the United States.
The life and teachings of the Rabbi Jesus are not always pretty — not pretty at all. It was, and remains, a crucial part of his message that he was a non-white, non-citizen with almost no legal protections. It was, and remains, a crucial part of his message that he was brutally beaten and put to death by crucifixion, the most brutal form of execution under Roman law. There is so much there in the life and teaching of Jesus that is absolutely relevant to Black Lives Matter. It is staring us in the face.
One of most important messages from the earliest days of Christianity is simply this: The lives of the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, the disrespected, the disowned, do matter. The fact is, there have been countless religions and social systems that have placed high value on the “members of tribe” and their leaders. But Christianity was the first one to turn that completely around and demand the recognition of value for every human person — especially for those who are discriminated against and persecuted. This was a huge and important step for humanity.
Did Christians always and everywhere stay true to that demand? No. But the demand was, and is, still there. We can do better. It is our duty to do better. One cannot claim to be a Christian and not also support the Black Lives Matter movement that is sweeping the globe.
This is a moment of supreme importance. Black people can’t fix this problem by themselves. All of us have to demand of ourselves what the Rabbi Jesus demanded of us — and he never said it would be easy.
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.