An iconic image is causing heartburn in the United States. The depicted Jesus is Black and resembles the murdered George Floyd. Conservative Catholics harshly criticize the image as forbidden secularization. Criticizing the picture is in fact justified — albeit for a different reason.
Just before Christmas a fight erupted among America’s Catholics regarding an Easter painting: “Mama” by icon painter Kelly Latimore. It depicts the lamentation of Christ. Mary is holding the dead body of Jesus and caressing his face. So far, so traditional. But in Latimore’s painting, Mary is Black and her son resembles George Floyd, who was murdered by a policeman.
The icon was on display at the Mary, Mirror of Justice chapel of Catholic University in Washington. Shortly before Thanksgiving, it was stolen. The culprit is likely among those who had been drumming up resistance against the icon for weeks.
The non-Catholic Heritage Foundation, known to propagate Trumpism, quoted a student on its blog who criticized the icon as a symptom of the secularization of the church. Patrick Reilly, president of the conservative Cardinal Newman Society, lamented that the picture “reduced Christ to a controversial and troubled figure” that might cast doubt on Christ’s perfection and divinity.
It’s hardly disputed that Jesus was a controversial figure during his lifetime. And in Isaiah 53:3, according to Christian interpretation, it says about him: “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.” Perfect? Not in the sense of a beauty model or a top performer.
When the church applies this message to the present day, God isn’t born in a palace but in a stable and is executed as a disturber of peace. It’s hardly secularization: On the contrary, it’s a criticism of a secular world worshiping wealth, beauty, performance and success.
Jesus the Jew Disappears
However, conservative critics don’t see what should actually be brought up with the painter and his supporters: The Black Jesus depiction lets Jesus the Jew disappear. If one wants to know what his mother looked like, a visit to a contemporary Syrian refugee shelter would be in order.
The Semitic Jesus was such a thorn in the side of the Nazi-friendly German Christians that they assigned Mary an Aryan lover — a Roman legionnaire. In an illustrated Anglican Bible from 1959, Jesus is blond and blue-eyed, an idealized Englishman. And now he is Black. That’s better, but not good.
Jesus is a historical figure. He was born in Bethlehem, city of the Jewish King David. The occupying Roman forces crucified him as the King of the Jews. According to Paul in Galatians 4, he remained subject to Mosaic law. Depicting him as African American reduces the crucified to an abstract symbol of human suffering.
Christianity’s separation from its Jewish context has helped propel anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism. Even though this isn’t the motivation of Latimore and his supporters in the church, Jesus the Jew is inconvenient for a lot of African Americans, as well. And that is precisely why he must not be depicted as a Black Christ.