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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Black Jesus

Before I could even view the trailer of Adult Swim's upcoming television series, Black Jesus, I read articles condemning it and protests against it...despite the fact that one full episode had yet to air.  Like many people, I've long awaited Aaron McGruder's return as a producer and was surprised to hear that an entire series would center around the life of a religious figure.  The protest from various Christian groups center on the "blasphemous" depiction of Jesus in the show - a drinking, weed-smoking, black man from Compton who spends his days hanging out on street corners with his boys, involved in all manner of nefarious activities.  Charges of heresy, blasphemy, and sacrilege dominate the critique being leveled at the show.  Groups are calling for the show to be taken off the air, arguing that its level of satire is unacceptable and a mockery to the Christian faith.

But part of me wonders what the protest is really about...is it really about the level of satire that the show displays or is it about a level of woeful ignorance that Christians have about the Bible and the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth?  Frankly, the fact that the targeted demographic of the show (18-40 year olds) is also the group most likely to not attend church makes me want to applaud the show's courage for taking on the topic at all.  As a minister, I would rather 18-40 year olds have something to say about Jesus, even if prompted by a television show, than to completely ignoring the topic. Perhaps the people protesting the loudest are those whose pews are empty, Sunday after Sunday, for failing to find a way to connect the life of the historical Jesus with a younger demographic.

I think part of the protest has to do with the depiction of Jesus as African-American.  Even in satire, there is no room in our culture for anything but a white-washed depiction of Jesus.  Whether on stained glass windows or in the current slew of so-called Christian movies, we are only comfortable when Jesus is white, has blonde hair and blue eyes, and sports six-pack abs.  Our culture is still uncomfortable with the facts about the historical Jesus: a first-century Semitic man; living in the region we now know as Palestine; likely very short in stature; with wooly hair and feet the color of brass; and with no remarkable or attractive features.  We still demand a white Jesus even in our satire...

The Black Jesus of the Adult Swim television show lives in the urban "ghetto," drinks, smokes weed, curses, hangs out with criminals and thugs, freeloads off his friends, engages in illegal activity, all while performing a miracle or two.  It's easy to think that McGruder is simply making a mockery out of the masses of unemployed black men living throughout various urban centers in our country.  But if we are more careful thinkers and if we know our scriptural context well, we know that there are quite a few resemblances between the premise of the show and the historical Jesus of Nazareth:

The Jesus of Nazareth was essentially homeless; he had no where to lay his head.  He, and his disciples, wandered from village to village, dependent upon the kindness of fellow believers to feed, clothe, and shelter them.  The Jesus of Nazareth befriended and consorted with criminals, preferring their company and companionship over the educated elite of his time.  The Jesus of Nazareth dared to defy various laws of his day: refusing to stone a woman; overturning tables at the temple; breaking the rules of the Sabbath; and defying Roman authority.  The Jesus of Nazareth was tried, found guilty, and executed as a criminal.  And interspersed throughout his life, the Jesus of Nazareth fed some folks, healed some folks, told some stories, and performed a few miracles.  With his motley crew of both male and female followers, the Jesus of Nazareth spent far more of his time hanging out on proverbial street corners than he ever did in a religious sanctuary.  The Jesus of Nazareth was fully human, though (for Christians), no less divine because of that humanity.

I have no clue where McGruder's television series will take the character of Black Jesus.  But as a Christian, I am not afraid of varying portraits and depictions of Jesus, even satirical ones.  A genuine belief and relationship with the Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians claim as Christ and Savior, cannot be shaken by any mere human efforts.  Perhaps the show will actually challenge how we contextualize race, gender, and socio-economic status in our religious conversations.  But maybe the show won't do anything but make some people laugh or other people uncomfortable.  I'm okay with that.  I think I'm much like Flannery O'Connor in my beliefs.  She writes: "a distorted image of Christ is better than no image at all."  I'd rather have the conversation about Black Jesus, fictional and satirical though it may be, than to shut down a dialogue that may include some new voices - voices that haven't found a place of sanctuary in our churches and houses of worship.


(You can listen to my NPR interview about Black Jesus for "All Things Considered" at: http://www.npr.org/programs/all-things-considered/)

© Yolanda Pierce

1 comment:

BlackJesuscom said...

It is the false Caucasian image of Jesus Christ that been perpetuated
around the world that is the underpinning of white supremacy.
The Truth will set us Free.