Archive for July 18th, 2007
Today I visited a funeral parlor in downtown Baltimore. A few days ago one of my co-worker’s lost his 23 year old son in a drive-by shooting. This was just another tragedy in a fairly long litany of violence that has affected the people of the school where I work. Almost all of our students and many of my co-workers live in the inner city of Baltimore so there are very few of us that don’t know someone personally who has died by gunfire.
The viewing was in the afternoon and I took off a little early from work to pay my respects. Although we were not close, I liked and respected the father, who was still recuperating from a serious surgery. Having a son in his early twenties myself, I can easily imagine what he was going through. When I got to the funeral home I was directed to the chapel, where the body of the young man lay in an open casket. He was dressed in a formal business suit and his beard made him look older than his age. His picture, propped up by the registration book, showed a good looking and happy young man.
I did not know the particulars, but I knew that shootings like this were common in the city. People are always saying that you had to be insane to live downtown, you should move out, especially if you have kids. (What’s really insane are the outrageous real estate prices throughout Maryland, making that option nearly impossible for many of the city’s residents.)
My friend was not at the funeral, having gone home to catch some rest. I sat in a pew by myself, in the chapel, with about a dozen people that I had never met before. I assumed that most of them were family of the deceased. I was the only white person there. Feeling awkward ( I am terrible at meeting new people) I figured that this was as about as good a time as any to do some quiet praying. I thanked God that these people seemed to know Jesus because in my experience he was was able to help carry us through these sorts of trials.
I looked up above the boy’s casket and fixed my eyes on the statue of Jesus hanging from the ceiling, without a cross and his arms outstretched, as I have seen him posed in dozens of other churches. I was surprised to see that this time Jesus was a black man.
I’d heard of this little fringe controversy for some time now; Some people (almost always white) take exception to Jesus being portrayed as a dark skinned African. To them this was a type of historical revision that bordered upon the sacrilegious. It’s not so much a problem that he is portrayed as a black that they find offensive; they wouldn’t be any happier if he was seen as a Chinaman, a Mexican or a Red Indian. They just feel that we should stick to church tradition – which means continuing to portray Jesus as a Northern European. He most certainly never is depicted with the Semitic features one would expect of a Palestinian Jew. In fact, I think most Christians have put it out of their minds that he really was a Jew.
So for years and perhaps centuries, Jesus’ face has been that of a handsome, light complected and blondish young man. My memories as a young Catholic are of all our statues and crucifixes in my home, school and church following this model. Over my bed, the peaceful and contented face of this man (who could easily have been one of my German ancestors) gazed solemnly down upon me every night as I said my prayers. (This painting, by Walter Sallman is posted on this page. Some of you may recognize it as well.)
Later, this inaccuracy took on absurd dimensions and we find Jesus portrayed on stage and screen by the likes of Jeffrey Hunter, Chris Sarandon, Ted Neely, William Defoe and Max von Sydow. Not a Semite (or Semite looking) face in the bunch.
So what’s the problem with Christians of African descent seeing the risen Jesus, who lives among them and within them, as being physically like them? Or for people of any ethnicity to find it easier to relate to Jesus the man if he is more sympathetic to their culture and their lives when portrayed as one of them. Certainly that is one lesson of the Gospels, that Jesus shares our joys and sufferings. I would think that it might be difficult for people who had been oppressed for years, either as slaves, or colonial subjects, to accept an icon that so closely resembles their oppressors.
There is the risk of making Christ into our own image, a risk that the church has run afoul of for centuries. We must never forget that Jesus the man was a Jew; living in a Jewish land, with Jewish family and friends, and practicing a Jewish religion. With that in mind, the African-American faith traditions have done a much better job of remembering the Jewishness of their black Jesus than the Caucasian-American church has done with their white one. Being the slaves and the oppressed of the dominant American culture for so long helped them identify closely with God’s chosen people, the perennial underdogs of history, the Israelites.
Artistically speaking, it is probably more accurate to portray Jesus as a black man rather than as what most Western Christians have become accustomed.
In an article on http://atheistperspective.com , the author at one point has this to say;
The longer I spend talking about creationism, the more I feel I’m validating something which is just patently stupid…. Creationists are not interested in science, they are interested in defending their religion.
I have to agree with him here, I think he is close to the mark (although maybe a little insensitive). I hate to say it, but the vast majority of Creationist arguments are weak at best and do not stand up to honest scientific scrutiny. When I was an atheist (and even today) I felt as he does now. And of course when you abbreviate the Bible to a couple of sound bites then it does sound absurd. There is a great danger when we take the Bible too literally. We end up missing the point and it seems that, to many of us, the Bible often stands in place of God.
On the other hand….if we are nothing more than the most advanced animal on the planet, in which all of our activities may be explained as functions of our instinct to survive, then why do I continue to be moved by sunsets? Why do high mountains, with their harsh and inhospitable terrain attract me so? Why is there a Beethoven, a Duke Ellington or a Buddy Guy? How come Rembrandt, Degas and Picasso are all able to represent beauty in their own individual ways? What is beauty? Or even,Why is beauty and to what is its purpose? I have no need to eat lichen on a mountain peak’s hostile environment. I cannot procreate with a painting. Myriads of orchstrated man made sounds do nothing to help me detect the approach of my next meal.
Why do I become teary eyed every time I see “It’s a Wonderful Life“? I know what is going to happen, is my hardwiring faulty? Perhaps this emotional response is sourced somewhere in my DNA from when I was a savage hunter. (I guess my ancestors were just a bunch of weepy gatherers)
Why is a sense of right and wrong written on every person’s heart for him or her to consider or ignore? My cat certainly doesn’t have this capacity . For that matter, why do I have a cats? (I have three, talk about lacking a survival instinct.) They are rude, dirty and expensive, yet I spent a lot of (non-expendable) money last year at the feline ER after one got into a drunken bar fight. Where did I get that ridiculous gene?!
Why are the stripes on some animals, such as cats, beautiful to some of us? To what real purpose does it serve to have these varying shades and hues of thousands of individual hairs? It can’t be not to attract a mate because as we know, all cats are gray in the dark, right? Is it for camouflage? I guess there are more white cats in Finland than in Brazil.
Why do I love my wife, my children and my friends when they at times can make my life hell? Why l do Iove at all? To take pleasure and joy in the beauty that we find in nature, the arts and each other hardly makes sense if all we are is the sum of millions of years of random natural selection, a collection of particles bumping in the night.
Look at pacifists like Gandhi. We all admire them for what they do but usually it gets them killed. Some of the first people killed by the Nazis and the Communists were the pacifists and those who gave their lives protecting others. Of course, many more did not choose self sacrifice, their sense of survival overriding their sense of justice. Now that secon course of action makes much more sense in a merely naturalistic world. Yet we still admire those who give their lives for others. Is there a passive self destructive gene as well?
Why are we curious about things that cannot really benefit us? To what concievable, materialistic benefit is astronomy? What are we looking for? Why waste the time on any scientific research that does not help put a chicken in every pot? Because of scientific research we have the capability to destroy ourselves and much of this planet. It would seem that science has become very detrimental to the specie’s survival. Has the evolutionary process gone awry?
What has gone awry is the seeping away of our collective conscience and it is not unique to the secular world. It is my belief (and I am sorry if this sounds arrogant) that the vast majority of religious people in the world have completely missed the point. And because of this we have made God out to be so unpalatable that some of us will prefer almost anything in his place. This is why God gave us Jesus. Not to act as cosmic traffic cop, laying down the law, the ‘oughts’ and the ‘ought nots’. He did not come to give us the answers to every question we have about the universe. He came to show us how simple and pure it can be to know God while at the same time being who we are, with all of our passions, dreams and yearnings intact.
Science is not the enemy of faith. Faith is not the enemy of science. God is not about giving us all the answers (how boring would that be?). He leaves the answers for us to find for ourselves and this is often accomplished through science. Religious doctrine and scientific dogma have their places but there is nothing wrong with questioning either of them. The study of our universe, what we call science, is one essential ingredient for man to be complete. God made us curious, and it is our passion for his creation that drives this curiosity. The great religious scriptures were not written to answer our questions about natural history nor were they written to discourage us from searching for answers through scientific discovery.
Many secularists accuse people of faith as being closed minded. Perhaps, but much of the world’s problems arise when we consider scientific discovery to be our sole source of truth.
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- "Some men look at constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them like the ark of the Covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment." -Thomas Jefferson
THE PEANUT GALLERY
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