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.