On a classic episode of Good Times, Michael Evans proudly showed off brother J.J.’s painting of a Black depiction of Jesus, when his older sister, Thelma, took issue with the dark skin and wooly hair. “Black Jesus my foot! That’s Ned the Wino!” she said. The living room scene became even more hostile when Florida Evans walked in. Mama took the painting off the wall and replaced him with a common photo of a White Jesus. When Michael reasoned with his mother to let J.J.'s painting hang alongside the other one, Florida stood her ground. “The only Jesus I know is him," she said, pointing to the White Jesus, "and the one thing he don’t need is a partner.”
This scene points to the ways in which many families (including Black families) in America thought of the man they consider to be their Lord and Savior in the 20th century. That Jesus was omnipresent as he was pictured in Bibles, placed in churches, and mounted on living room walls. Other depictions could not stand a chance against a White Jesus who was engrained into the religious consciousness of the nation.
Some of the reactions to Aaron McGruder’s Black Jesus, which will premiere on Adult Swim on August 7th demonstrate how the image of a White Jesus is still engrained in the religious consciousness of our country at large. With this consciousness, critics sustain the sovereignty of a White representation of Jesus–and by extension, the idea of White as 'right.' As such, there is great willingness to protect the Holy image of Whiteness — at all costs — from a contaminated, Black impostor who lives in the hood.
One Million Moms, a group established by the American Family Association, said, “The foul language used in the trailer, including using the Lord’s name in vain, is disgusting. In addition, there is violence, gunfire and other inappropriate gestures which completely misrepresent Jesus. This is blasphemy!” David Rogers, pastor of the House of Prayer for All Nations Ministries in Chicago, said “We, the Christian community are vehemently opposed and violently offended at this upcoming program soon to air on your channel called, ‘Black Jesus." The American Family Association President Tim Wildmon said, “Christians and anyone who believes in respecting faith must come together to make sure this program never airs.”
While the concerns about the language and other provocative content may be worth exploring, I disagree with how these groups and leaders have reacted to Black Jesus. First of all, there is no space for meaningful contemplation; the pilot has not aired yet. Not only are they protesting with limited information, but I am suspicious that One Million Moms and Tim Wildmon are not only reacting to a Jesus who does not share their pietism, but they are also reacting to a Jesus who does not share their ethnicity, culture, or social location. These responses, including Pastor Rogers', are absurd because they portray an artificial uniformity of Christianity. Christianity is vast, diverse, multicultural, and exists in a range of socioeconomic locations.
The critiques obscure a meaningful discussion on the person of Jesus, his mission and its place in our society. From the limited info we have, I'd wager that Black Jesus may point to the solidarity that Jesus had with tax collectors, sinners and society’s most vulnerable. This solidarity did not contaminate Jesus; it displayed his compassionate humanity. Jesus was able to speak to ostracized people in ways that the religious elite were unable. What representations of Jesus in the media have spoken to places like Compton, Chicago, and Detroit? The Jesus of the Bible does not run from violence, his life is given through it. He engages the communities that need him the most. Just as Jesus upset the religious status quo in the Bible, so has, from what we've seen, McGruder’s Black Jesus. If Jesus were to come back in today’s time, he would probably be in a place like Compton. He would also fail to meet many people’s expectations.
And yet, thousands have come together to take McGruder’s Black Jesus off the wall; the Christian Network has created a “Cancel ‘Black Jesus’ TV Show” petition that has gathered over 8,000 supporters (but was short of it's 10K goal just hours before the show's debut.) One wonders how many of these people have any explanation for the description of Jesus with "skin liken unto the color of bronze and hair liken unto lamb's wool," or if any of them could articulate why Jesus should look like a White person.
I can easily understand why so many Christians are concerned about the manner in which McGruder's program poses a threat to the respectability of Jesus and Christianity, but just as disturbing is how Christians of all ethnicities continue to allow the construct of Whiteness to be the necessary image for a Jesus who the Bible depicts as being for all people. The lily-White conception of Jesus would never hang with the pimps, the drug dealers, and the poor. And any reading of the gospels reveals that couldn't be further from the truth.
There hasn't been any significant backlash from Black Christian groups. Perhaps some things have changed since Florida and Thelma Evans were shook by J.J.'s masterpiece.
Stanley Tyrone Talbert is the assistant minister of the Kings Church of Christ in Brooklyn, and a Master of Divinity candidate at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org