Black Jesus

Heaven and the Bible are all the rage at the movies right now—as if Hollywood producers are just now realizing that their’s money to be made in religion. I’ve already written about the string of comedies about the “biblical” end times that came out last summer, and a Left Behind remake is due out in October [sigh]. I walked past a local Red Box machine the other day and 4 of the top 10 featured rentals were about religion or the Bible: ‘Noah,’ ‘Heaven is for Real,’ ‘Son of God,’ and ‘God’s Not Dead.’ Not to mention Ridley Scott’s ‘Exodus’ is due to premiere this December, and some movie I can’t stomach the trailer for called ‘Christian Mingle’ (don’t Google it, you’ll thank me later).

So it’s no surprise Aaron McGruder, creator of The Boondocks (one of my all-time favorite shows!), has gotten in on the action with a new show on Adult Swim called Black Jesus. As many others have already pointed out, McGruder isn’t the first in pop culture to depict Jesus as black, and he isn’t even the first to depict Jesus as a pot-smoker. However, there may be more to McGruder’s comedy than critics have recognized. Sure, reviews have been predictably mixed, ranging from the now obligatory “conservatives are up in arms” reports to the “calm down people, it’s a comedy” reviews. But I predict, not unlike The Boondocks, McGruder’s ‘Black Jesus’ will be packed with astute social commentary.

I’d just like to offer a few initial thoughts on Black Jesus through my hip hop hermeneutical lens, with an eye in particular toward racism.

1. U Mad???

Brooklyn emcee Talib Kwali nearly perfectly encapsulates the correct response to ‘Black Jesus’ critics:

And David Dennis Jr perfectly summarizes the racism of Hollywood casting when it comes to “biblical” movies []:

I’m so goddamn sick of Hollywood and its acceptance of these oppressive images. If studies have shown the way that perpetual violence in movies begets violence in America, then what about perpetual maintenance of the White savior standing over the ethnic servant/villain/imbecile? What damage is this creating for the American psyche? How am I supposed to feel when all the messiahs, last samurais, African kings and saviors are White?

[slow clap] Amen!

Back in March of last year, The History Channel featured a miniseries called “The Bible” that featured a full cast of white actors for the biblical  “heroes” with the one exception of the tragic character of Samson, whom the producers depicted as a Mandingo. Every other character of color was either an extra or some kind of warring angel—meaning, not human.

This approach to casting isn’t accidental nor the result of meritorious auditioning. This approach to casting is “cinematic colonialism.”

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It reinforces the White Supremacist message that has been a part of US American cinema since its beginnings. And it undermines the Christian message of a multiethnic body of Christ and kingdom (e.g. Eph. 2.14-18; Rev. 7.9). So, if someone is actually concerned about the purity of the Christian message as it’s portrayed on film, they should be outraged by the blatant racism of films like ‘Noah’ and ‘Exodus.’

2. “Black” Jesus and “the Church”

Like it or not, McGruder’s ‘Black Jesus’ is more accurate than the portrayals of Jesus played by White US Americans or Europeans. The reason is thoroughly explained by Dr. James Cone in his seminal book Black Theology & Black Power:

Where is ‘the opening’ that Christ provides? Where does he lead his people? Where indeed, if not in the ghetto. He meets the blacks where they are and becomes one of them. We see him there with his black face and big black hands lounging on a street corner. ‘Oh, but surely Christ is above race.’ But society is not raceless, any more than when God became a despised Jew. White liberal preference for a raceless Christ serves only to make official and orthodox the centuries-old portrayal of Christ as white. The ‘raceless’ American Christ has a light skin, wavy brown hair, and sometimes—wonder of wonders—blue eyes. For whites to find him with big lips and kinky hair is as offensive as it was for the Pharisees to find him partying with tax-collectors. But whether whites want to hear it or not, Christ is black, baby, with all of the features which are so detestable to white society.

To suggest that Christ has taken on a black skin is not theological emotionalism. If the Church is a continuation of the Incarnation, and if the Church and Christ are where the oppressed are, then Christ and his Church must identify totally with the oppressed to the extent that they too suffer for the same reasons persons are enslaved. In America, blacks are oppressed because of their blackness. It would seem, then, that emancipation could only be realized by Christ and his Church becoming black. Thinking of Christ as nonblack in the century is as theologically impossible as thinking of him as non-Jewish in the first century. [Tweet this!] God’s Word in Christ not only fulfills his purposes for man through his elected people, but also inaugurates a new age in which all oppressed people become his people. In America, that people is a black people. In order to remain faithful to his Word in Christ, his present manifestation must be the very essence of blackness. [1]

And again:

If the gospel i s a gospel of liberation for the oppressed, then Jesus is where the oppressed are and continues his work of liberation there. Jesus is not safely confined in the first century. He is our contemporary, proclaiming release to the captives and rebelling against all who silently accept the structures of injustice. If he is not in the ghetto, if he is not where men are living at the brink of existence, but is, rather, in the easy life of the suburbs, then the gospel is a lie. [Tweet this!] The opposite, however, is the case. [2]

Jesus’s “blackness” for Cone is his identification in the twenty-first century with oppressed black people in America. It is not a statement about his ethnic phenotype. Clearly, Cone emphasizes Jesus’s Jewishness. And it is precisely because of Jesus’s Jewishness that Cone can draw the comparison to the oppression of blacks in the modern-day US.

Before Christian people criticize McGruder’s portrayal of Jesus on the reductionist grounds that “Jesus wasn’t black,” let them first examine their own conception of “blackness” in the modern-day US and consider Jesus’s relationship to it.

3. Black Jesus and Respectability

Once the racial objections against McGruder’s Jesus are debunked, the next line of argumentation will naturally be that this portrayal is crass and offensive due to the character’s profane language and use of alcohol and drugs. Let’s take these objections one at a time:

a. Profanity

For my podcast on Jeuss, theology, and hip hop, I’ve been reading The Soul of Hip Hop by Dr. Daniel White Hodge, an expert on religious and theological themes in hip hop. I love what he says about profanity in the beginning of the book:

Language is arbitrarily constructed within each society and is a reflection of many things. I do not believe in ‘swear words’ and or ‘curse words.’ A person who has a strong command of any language can use derision, mockery, contempt and sarcasm to belittle, demean and tear down people—without ever uttering a ‘bad word.’ For some people, language considered to be offensive or labeled as ‘obscene’ is a regular dialect and vernacular for the context and environment they inhabit, so the ‘bad words’ actually enter into common language and even thoughtful conversations. Words contain no meanings; people do.

Still, I agree that words that have been labeled ‘profane’ and ‘obscene’ should not be used in every context; wisdom and discernment must be used at all times with any type of communication. However, if we are to really engage and commune with someone or something, then we must deal with the parts of culture that do not always look nice. [3]

It might come as a surprise to those Christians in the US who adhere to a certain amount of “Respectability Culture,” that both Jesus and Paul are depicted as using profanity in the New Testament. Of course they didn’t use twenty-first century profanity; they didn’t live in the twenty-first century! But they did use first-century profanity. Jesus cursed the hypocritical pharisees as a ‘brood of vipers’. I’m certain that wasn’t a term of endearment. And Paul compared his achievements in zealous religiosity to “dung“. We’ve got our own, twenty-first century versions of that word and some consider them “profane.”

Add to all this the extreme particularity of profanity. I recall how absurd the profanity culture was to me when I moved to the South. Words I considered proper replacement words for profanity were considered just as profane to their higher standards. Meanwhile, Southerners have a way of saying “Bless your heart” that means F&$% You! And I also recall that one of my holy roller professors had a Dutch father-in-law who was a devout, conservative Christian and use “Sh!t” regularly because for him it was a “farming word.” Therefore, if you object to McGruder’s Jesus because he “cusses,” you need to grow up or travel more. Because in London the word “bloody” is profane!

b. Drugs and Alcohol

This one is a similar red herring. The New Testament clearly portrays Jesus as drinking wine. And I’ve already heard every argument for why “their wine was different” and “it was really grape juice” and I remain thoroughly unconvinced—so save yourself the time of emailing me—I don’t buy it. If their wine was so watered down, why did the host of the Cana wedding save the ‘good stuff’ to last. And if Jesus was opposed to the ‘good stuff,’ why’d he miraculously make them some?

This is not to minimize alcoholism as a serious disease—it is! And this is not to celebrate drunkenness—that’s a sin. This is to say that drinking forms of alcohol has been a part of different cultures for as long as it has existed. Even (gasp!) “biblical” cultures! Not to mention the devastating, unintended consequences prohibition caused: [Cough] Organized Crime.

Which brings me to marijuana. This is where most conservative Christians opposed to McGruder’s Jesus will make their last stand. Marijuana is clearly an “illegal” drug, some will say. And it clearly impairs judgment. I don’t need to rehearse all the reasons why these objections are spurious at best. Suffice to say, marijuana is far less dangerous than alcohol—and alcohol is legal! Not to mention there are proven medical uses of marijuana, and no medicinal used of alcohol (unless you count Paul’s first-century advice to Timothy e.g. I Tim. 5.23).

Furthermore, if Christians judge what is moral or immoral based on the laws of the US, how much longer do you expect marijuana usage to be “immoral”? At the rate that marijuana is being legalized in the US, churches might be advertising Weed Give-Aways for visiting their church soon!

4. The Message of Jesus

As of the writing of this post, I’ve only seen the first episode of ‘Black Jesus,’ and what I’ve noted so far is very consistent with the message of Jesus:

  • ‘Black Jesus’ forgives his friends for betraying him
  • ‘Black Jesus’ is against violence
  • ‘Black Jesus’ seeks harmony and reconciliation amongst people
  • ‘Black Jesus’ isn’t prejudice against people who look different from him
  • ‘Black Jesus’ wants to do good for his community
  • ‘Black Jesus’ blesses to the female officer who hates him

(Just to name a few)

So, I’m looking forward to watching this series and I think you should too.

  1. James Cone, Black Theology & Black Power (Seabury Press, New York: 1969), p.68-69.
  2. Ibid., p.38. (Emphasis added)
  3. Daniel White Hodge, The Soul of Hip Hop (InterVarsity Press: 2010), p.11.