A Fresh Perspective of Jesus in America
Old arguments become new discussions when seen from modern contexts. Such is the case when one considers the arguments to and for who Jesus Christ really was. What was his life like? Who did he hang with? How was he perceived amongst those who knew him? These are all questions that are still contended today. The popular tendency is for people try to answer those questions without properly understanding that Jesus was a human and he is not detached from his cultural context. Today’s modern proclivity is to try and understand the theological construct of the man without understanding the cultural significance of his community context. Jesus, like every human being since Adam, arrives in the midst of not just “culture” but a culture, a specific cultural tradition of a family, a language, a people, a nation. He is not Jesus, full stop—he is not Jesus the Son of God or even just Jesus the Messiah. He is Yeshua bar-Yosef, Jesus Joseph’s son. As was thought, but as to his culture; the horizons of possibility and impossibility that shaped his life from its first days, not just as was thought. He was the son of Yosef and Miriam. He was a cultural being. If he had not been, he would not have been a human being at all (Crouch, 2009, p.135). And yet in the western world, it is often normative to dismiss his cultural significance. It is difficult envision him, a bronze-skinned young Middle Eastern man, lying down next to a low table to enjoy a meal with his friends. (The idea of a Jesus who is so un-Western that he has never used a chair) He speaks Aramaic at home, a language we have never heard, and reads biblical Hebrew in the synagogue (Crouch, 2009, p.134). The reality is that Jesus was born to a particular group of people who were experiencing their own disenfranchisement, disparages, and disconnections from their Roman oppressors. Great parallels can be drawn between first Century Jews and African Americans. So, what if Jesus was born into the oppressed, disenfranchised and disconnected group in America? It would certainly be African Americans. Disproportionately, black people in America are steal feeling the ills of post-traumatic slave syndrome, systematic racism, and unfair treatment/violence from police. Obviously, Jesus was a person of color but what if he were black in America today?
The TV series Black Jesus is an American sitcom created by Aaron McGruder and Mike Clattenburg that airs on Adult Swim. It can be classified as reductio ad absurdum, which is often realized as black comedy and farce. In this odd category one follows or applies an idea, theme, or trait to its logically absurd conclusion (Lindvall, 2016). The series stars Gerald "Slink" Johnson, Charlie Murphy, Corey Holcomb, Kali Hawk, King Bach, and Andra Fuller. The series premiered on August 7, 2014. On December 10, 2014, the series was renewed for a second season. The second season premiered on September 18, 2015. Its third season premiered on September 20, 2019 (Wikipedia, 2020). This controversial comedy shows Jesus and his small band of followers in the context of Compton, California. As unheard of as it may seem, there is something to be observed from this series. It provides a modern and new cultural twist on Jesus’s context. The Gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror all in a lather what he sees is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob That is the tragedy. But it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. That is comedy (Craddock, 1977, p.7). In this TV series Jesus is seen hanging with sinners, occasionally smoking marijuana, and also getting upset to the point of using a few western profanities. Even with these depictions, he still is dedicated to showing love to those around him. Obviously, this hilarious and often abnormal way of showing that love is criticized by those who find this sitcom offensive. A closer look at these depictions will help viewers (at minimum) look at the show with an open mind.
Jesus Hanging with Sinners
In Black Jesus, the savior is seen hanging with and around the inner city “hoodlums” of Compton. In the proper context, these were people you can expect to see in these neighborhoods every day in present-day Compton. At first glance, looking at Jesus with a Western lens, one would cringe at the thought of the Savior of the world hanging with gangsters and thugs. However, biblically it was the normal behavior of Jesus in the context of his day:
5 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. (Matthew 2:15)
And when questioned about why he would eat and keep the company of such people, Jesus emphatically replied:
17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 2:17)
Although it may be unfathomable for the elites of our society to see Jesus eating with such people (as it was in his day) it is certainly not uncommon for Jesus. In her 2012 book Rap and the Gangsta God, Ebony Utley, Ph.D. argues that by all scriptural accounts, “Jesus was gangsta. Jesus fraternized with sexually licentious women, cavorted with sinners, worked on the Sabbath, had a temper, used profane language with religious people, praised faithfulness over stilted forms of religious piety, and honored God more than the government. Gangstas respect Jesus because they see the parallels between his life and theirs” (Utley, 2012, p.49). When one thinks about first century Jerusalem and the group of people Jesus was born into, it was the hood of his day. They were poverty stricken and disenfranchised. Utley adds:
Consider Jesus’s life story. His mother was homeless at the time of his birth. He was reared by a stepfather whose family tree was filled with some unscrupulous characters guilty of murder, incest, and rape. Jesus grew up as a poor minority terrorized by state-sanctioned oppression. As a single male in his late 20s/early 30s, Jesus and his posse of disciples made public appearances at parties where he appreciated his people’s affinity for wine. Jesus was self-taught and unemployed but went about the business of dropping knowledge wherever he could get an audience. Because of his penchant for speaking against what was popular, Jesus had haters. He was betrayed by one of his boys and couldn’t get a fair trial before he was executed. The Jesus story is the gangsta’s story (2012, p. 49).
Perhaps, this comes as distasteful in some American circles because of the Western idea of Jesus being a European man that only is concerned about those who are in power positions of status in society. And so why does it matter at all? Who cares where Jesus came from and who he spent his time with? It matters because we begin to understand the totality of the work of the one who shaped history and changed the world through his teachings. Many and varied are the interpretations dealing with the teachings and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. But few of these interpretations deal with what the teachings and the life of Jesus have to say to those who stand, at a moment in human history, with their backs against the wall (Thurmon, 1976, p. 11). And so, it matters because in Jesus, the thug, gangster, and poor can find hope. They can see themselves when they stare in his face. Jesus would share in their humanity as well as laugh at their jokes, visit their homes, and be sympathetic to their plights because their story is his story.
Jesus Smoking Marijuana
In the sitcom Black Jesus, one of the re-occurring behaviors of Jesus is his affinity for smoking Marijuana. This dark and offensive humor for some, also raises real theological concern but also helps us to imagine for moment the possibility of Jesus engaging in a human delight. So, was Jesus even slightly interested in the smallest affairs and leisure’s of humanity? This Jesus does smoke pot, it’s true, but the propriety of this is as much of an argument about pot as it is about Jesus, who biblically turned water into wine; the Good Book says nothing about marijuana. Although for some Christ is a figure of inflexible rectitude, with perfect hair and feet that never need washing, he was no respecter of authority, money, class or the law (Loyd, 2014). This show shows Jesus as very human and very culturally black. If smoking Marijuana is a sign of rebellion, then keep in mind this was the same Jesus that said in Matthew 5:17–48, “you have heard it said…but I say…” (Hendricks, 2006, p.35). Jesus did not keep all of the laws of his day. In Matthew 12, we read that Jesus was walking through a field with his disciples during the Sabbath. They got hungry and ate the grain. In Luke 6:1 we read that the disciples not only harvested the grain but also began to “rub them in their hands and eat the kernels.” The pharisees saw it and got upset and accused Jesus of breaking the law. We should recognize that Jesus was willing to break the law for the sake of mercy, love, and justice (Vansteenwk, 2019). As far as we can see, smoking marijuana had been illegal in most states until recently, so even if Black Jesus is smoking it, he is doing so because it has fit as part of the context of the culture in which he lives.
Jesus Getting Upset and Using Profanity
One of the other images of Jesus in this sitcom is his occasional tendency to get upset and use harsh language that would be typical in the context of the neighborhood he lives in. It is common to hear of Jesus getting upset. The accounts of Jesus’ encounter in the temple in which he turns over the tables of the money changers (Matt 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-19, Luke 19:45-48, John 2:13-16) referred to as examples of righteous anger or righteous indignation. According to this view, Jesus displays here a form of anger that is not sinful but rather rooted in a strong sense of justice on behalf of those being taken advantage of by the temple authorities. (Baker, 2020). The ambiguity of it all is that we really don’t know in detail if the gospel writers left out any use of profanity from Jesus. What is there however, is the fact that he was bothered and communicated his agitation. Certainly, language in Jesus’s day was different from language today in America but there were instances were Jesus spoke very harshly to people:
You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? (Matthew 23:7)
You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. (Matthew 12:34)
In a similar way, black Jesus uses language that is typical in his cultural context of Compton, California. The depiction of Jesus being an African American man from the hood and communicating with his culture is filled with humor, but it also gives some theological undertones that at least forces listeners to consider the possibility.
In conclusion, Aaron McGruder’s Black Jesus has preferred tastes for listeners. Some will find this show extremely funny, while others will scoff at the idea of Jesus looking anything other than European and American. I agree with Christopher House, Phd., when he says:
Rhetorically rendering Jesus as black is not new. Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, Marcus Garvey, James Cone, and others have long seized and situated the ontological identity of Jesus as that of being black. While it is a foregone conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth was not of European descent with blond hair and blue eyes, it is equally true that the blackness of which Turner, and the like, ascribes to Jesus was not mere commentary about his skin color. Assigning this ontological blackness of being to Jesus allowed oppressed groups to counter prevailing and oppressive ideas of blackness as a sign of biological and intellectual inferiority. In this sense, blackness used as a religious symbol to convey meaning is powerful (Huffpost, 2019).
None of us can be dismissed from our personal stories. Be it good or bad, we all are shaped and molded by our parents, families, and environments. The cultural context of an individual matters because it explains their actions, influences how they communicate, and helps us better understand the world in which they lived. Jesus was no different. He had a family and a culture that shaped how he taught and what he done while here on earth. Listen to his own words:
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18)
So back to the original question. What if Jesus were black in America today? His message would still be the same. His expression would be a little different, but Jesus would still teach love. This is what the show Black Jesus depicts. Maybe he is expressed a little differently, but the message, such as it is, is a question: ‘What’s so hard about love and kindness?’ Jesus wants to know. That one never gets old, or unnecessary (LLoyd, 2014). What an incredible interpretation of Jesus which was etched from the pen of a black man who is able to see Jesus as black. In this, black people too, can find hope in the once unfamiliar Savior that never looked like them. In herein lies the complexity, he died for all people. Thus interpreted, he belongs to no age, no race, no creed. When men look into his face, they see etched the glory of their own possibilities, and their hearts whisper, “Thank you and thank God!” (Thurman, 1976, p. 112).
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House, C. (2014). Black Jesus: Beneath the Drugs and Profanity, Is There a Message of Theological Reflection? https://www.huffpost.com/entry/black-jesus-beneath-the-d_b_5663402
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