For millions of Christian Americans, Jesus Christ is the central figure of their faith: A pious, merciful, self-sacrificing and, in most representations, white man. But in Aaron McGruder’s latest television series, “Black Jesus,” Christ is depicted as a black man living in Compton, California, who drinks, swears and, in one scene, gets shot by agnostic gangbangers.
Unsurprisingly, religious groups have called the show “blasphemous” and condemned what they believe is a false representation of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the Jesus of Sunday school teachings does not peddle drugs, swear or live in California. But perhaps more significantly, “Black Jesus” hits a touchy subject: Was Jesus black or white, and does it matter?
While none of the religious groups has cited race specifically as a point of contention in “Black Jesus," "any broad sense that Jesus is black hits a deep gut level that rings untrue to most Americans,” said Edward Blum, a professor at San Diego State University who specializes in race and religion. “At a deep psychological level Americans have been supersaturated with images of Jesus as white, that any depiction shown of Jesus as nonwhite is met with resistance at the cognitive level.”
“For African American Christians, this show becomes a double-edged sacrilegious sword,” Blum said, describing how black Christians might be torn about the show: They don't like the immorality depicted, but may welcome a rare depiction of Jesus as a black man.
The idea Jesus might not have had white skin is not new. In 2001, forensic studies of the skull of a 1st century Jewish man led British scientists and Israeli archeologists to paint a different picture of Christ. Rather than the white-faced, bearded man with light brown, shoulder length hair, the new portrait depicted a man with a stouter nose, dark skin and short hair. Throughout American history, Jesus has taken on different forms. The Klu Klux Klan used Christ to justify their actions, Mormons gave Jesus blue eyes and slaves saw the white image of Jesus as both a servant with whom they identified and a master more powerful than those to whom they were bound.
Jesus’ image continues to be contested. In December, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly was criticized for calling Santa Claus and Jesus Christ white. Last year, a Saturday Night Live sketch portrayed Jesus as a shotgun-wielding bounty hunter. In 2008, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s comments went viral when he called Jesus a “poor black man.” Why should we expect one of the most powerful figures in history to be exempt from public scrutiny?
“People joke about Jesus a lot,” Blum said. Still, he said the negative response to “Black Jesus,” which finds the religious figure in circumstances more in line with late-night television than a Sunday morning service, is to be expected. “When one group has the most meaningful thing in their life become a parody to others, they take offense.”
Pastor Brandon Lacy from Shreveport, Louisiana, said the “Black Jesus” trailer is particularly offensive to African-Americans. Throughout the clip there are scenes in which black characters are seen swearing at Jesus, hitting him and shooting him.
“Don’t think 'cause you're Jesus I won’t whoop your [expletive] ass!” a female character says as she strikes Jesus in the trailer.
“If that seed is continued to be planted in the lives of our people and we feel it's OK to reject Jesus, then we are in trouble as a community,” Lacy told KTBS, Shreveport.
None of the publicized objections to "Black Jesus" cited the character's skin color. Rather, they were concerned with the behavior depicted.
"Both organizations -- the American Family Association and One Million Moms -- approached this color blind,” Monica Cole, director of One Million Moms, told International Business Times. “The only reason AFA mentioned Jesus being black is because the title of the program is ‘Black Jesus.’ Our decisions to launch a campaign were solely focused on the actions portrayed in the program which are offensive to the Bible-believing Christians that AFA represents.”
While “Black Jesus” is set to air in America on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, Blum predicts it wouldn’t cause the same controversy elsewhere.
“It’s touchy here because faith continues to be so vital for so many people. It’s seen as the end all and be all for many Americans,” Blum said. Not only that, religion and religious organizations, are heavily politicized. “Whenever a religious issue touches on the public sphere, it gets much more media attention. It becomes an organized battle and is taken seriously.”
While race relations are a concern for black Evangelical Christians, they aren’t at the forefront of people’s minds when it comes to Jesus, Blum said.
“African-American Christians do not want to racialize Jesus because everything else in their world is racialized. They can’t go to the store without being marked as a racial group and treated differently,” Blum said. If anything, “Black Jesus” presents a more cynical message for the black community: one in which the man that died for everyone’s sins still isn’t free from ridicule.
“Jesus is the last bastion of universalism and look -- even he gets racialized in media culture,” Blum said.