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Fear of a Black Jesus

October 5, 2012

One of the failures of our modern times is not that we draw lines, but that we draw them in the wrong places. We play up unimportant conflicts and ignore important ones. We give importance to petty things and ignore great ones. We are not so much characterized by willful evil or even intentional neglect as by a “missing of the mark,”  emphasizing the wrong things and downplaying the right ones, framing a conflict one way when it should be another.

This can be illustrated by an exchange in the recent Presidential debate. (Pardon me, friends of opposite political persuasions, if I offend you. I do not intend to do that in this post. If you want to be offended, check out my essay “Why I Became a Democrat.) I only caught the last twenty or so minutes of the exchange where Romney and Obama were debating their views on the role of the state in education. Both of them accused each other, in the traditional political way, of not wanting the American Educational experiment to succeed. A wise and charitable observer will say that neither one of the candidates wants the American Educational experiment to fail–Romney isn’t planning on buying out our schools and selling them to China, nor is Obama initiating a secret plan to force our children to pledge allegiance to the communist flag. Both of them want our schools to succeed–the problem was that they framed the debate in terms of money (or lack of) that the schools receive. Certainly, if public schools are to succeed, they will need cash. But cash alone can’t solve their problems. Instead of digging into the methods of teaching, administrating, and managing the schools, both candidates acted like money was the only problem–“If we just spend more money, everything will be fine.” But the problem here is not money–it’s method. Good methods beat good money every time, and all the funding in the world won’t save a bad business model.

This is a political example of how we focus on the wrong things and draw the wrong sorts of lines, setting up a false dilemma and ignoring a true one. I would like to move from the political sphere to a much more important and relevant one–the sphere of art, specifically art in the church. And I would like to re-consider one of the subjects that I have covered, and sometimes ridiculed, in the past–the Effeminate Aryan Jesus.

The Warner Sallman Jesus. In my ignorant past I would have mocked this picture. I know better now.

When I was young, I was annoyed by the pictures of black Jesus. When I grew older and more pretentious, I was annoyed by the pictures of white Jesus. Now that I have grown more perceptive, I think I may have a bigger problem–perhaps I’m just annoyed with Jesus. I have often ridiculed the corny American Christian art that floats around, and oftentimes the art is justifiably ridiculous. But a recent conversation I had with my art professor, Dr. Milliner of Wheaton College, gave me a new perspective on things.

In our strange postmodern world, we tend to frame false antitheses. For example, we may think that if someone says that he loves his country, then therefore he must hate other countries. We could take this further and say that if a girl says she loves her boyfriend, then she hates other guys. This is a case of taking one fact and acting as if it was mutually exclusive to other facts. Perhaps a man that loves his country hates other countries, but, on the other hand, perhaps a man that loves his country understands why other people love their countries and loves their countries as a result. Liking one thing does not necessarily imply disliking everything else that is not that one thing.

What I realized is this: A picture of a “black Jesus” and a picture of a “white Jesus” aren’t in competition. It isn’t like White Jesus is trying to suppress Black Jesus or that Black Jesus is a more politically correct alternative to White Jesus or that White Jesus and Black Jesus and Korean Jesus are teaming up to take down Mexican Jesus. People on both sides are seeing a fight where there is none. The point of pictures of Jesus isn’t to say that Jesus was white, black, hispanic, korean, japanese, or “has Irish blood.” The point is that we are representing Jesus in a cultural context that is familiar to us, and showing that Jesus, being the representative of humanity, the Last Adam, is part of that cultural context. Jesus brings all races to himself. Jesus isn’t defined by being “white”, just as he isn’t defined by being “not black.” He transcends these cultures and in doing so redeems them. His purpose in coming to earth was to “draw all men to himself.” Part of that involves drawing men of all races, ethnicities, melanin count, etc. to himself.

I realized then, that there is nothing inherently wrong with representing Jesus as being part of a certain culture. As the old song goes, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” We are not out to convert Jesus to our own mission; Jesus is out to convert us to his mission.

I now have no qualms with representing Jesus as white, or any other skin tone, as long as it is done in such a way that is designed to represent Jesus as redeeming a certain cultural context rather than being racially jingoistic. (And 90% of the time, I think it’s going to be the first rather than the second.) My only problem now is the way that the “white” Jesus is often painted. The problem is not that he looks like a white guy–rather, he looks like no white guy ever known to man. He certainly doesn’t look like a carpenter or stonemason. The Jesus of the popular imagination is effeminate, with long silky hair, a white robe, a pale otherworldly expression, and the wimpiest looking beard known to man. He is not, to use the language of the political campaigns, a Jesus you could “have a beer with.” If we’re going to draw pictures of Jesus in the context of “white” culture, good, but let’s make them accurate. We need more of the working man’s Jesus, the good ol’ boy Jesus, the carpenter or car mechanic Jesus, the Jesus who could actually be a true friend to the working class, and less of the otherworldly Jesus, the spotless white robe Jesus, the effeminate indie-rocker-ish Jesus, and the Jesus with the hair that looks like it was taken from a L’Oreal commercial. Jesus needs to look like he actually was–a real, down-to-earth, practical man, a person who hung out with fishers and tax auditors and Southern Baptists, a man who liked a good fish fry, a man who hated sickness and death, a real “people person.” What we don’t need is a Jesus who looks like he should be a fashionable New Age guru for the
“one percent.”

Current listening: IV, Led Zeppelin, Johnny Winter, Johnny Winter

2 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2012 11:17 pm

    Reblogged this on Unapologetics | aint nothing sacred.

  2. October 6, 2012 12:03 am

    From the poem “The Kingdom of God” by Francis Thompson:
    Yea, in the night, my Soul, my daughter,
    Cry,–clinging Heaven by the hems;
    And lo, Christ walking on the water
    Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!

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