On Sunday morning, I heard part of a TV debate about whether or not the Church of England is institutionally racist. In response to this question, it was pointed out that the vast majority of images of Jesus in churches show him as white and that perhaps this wasn’t helpful in encouraging black people to become involved or take up leadership positions.
This set me thinking. If you are black and have been the victim of a racist attack, what does the image of a white Jesus say to you? What kind of person would you assume him to be?
If you then take that white Jesus and nail him to a cross, what then?
In Philippians 2: 6-8, the point is made that Jesus,
“being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death –
even death on a cross!”
So is there a sense in which the image of a crucified Jesus is actually more powerful for his being white, male and able-bodied? If a man of power has been reduced, voluntarily, to this state, what does it tell us about him? And if we see the crucified one as having little power to start with, is the impact of the image diminished?
It’s an interesting question. The first exhibited depiction of a female Christ was Edwina Sandys’s Christa. Naturally, it caused a huge uproar, many in the church seeing it as blasphemous. However, laying aside Jesus’s actual gender for a moment, what if, as a woman, I am to see my sin nailed to that cross? What if I am to look for the resurrection that lies beyond my suffering? What if I am to see myself as reflecting the image of God? In those situations, perhaps pondering a female image of Christ might be helpful? She is, after all, human. And surely that’s what matters at the end of the day; not that Jesus was male or female or black or white, but that he was “made in human likeness”?
Like I said, it’s an interesting question. Muslims believe that God is too ‘other’ and perfect for any image to truly represent him and hence that none should be made. A similar idea is present in Jewish understanding. So, if Christians believe that Christ is “in very nature God”, perhaps there is an argument for not having any images of Christ at all? At least we can’t get it wrong then!
On the other hand, part of the challenge of art is its ability to shock us out of our complacency; to make us think about things differently. Here is another image of Christ that has caused some ripples in the past year or so. Interestingly, neither his colour nor his gender are immediately obvious. However, he has certainly made people think. And perhaps that’s sometimes what we need, whether we are part of the church or not? Certainly, the images of Christ that have spoken to me most profoundly have been the ones that have challenged my preconceived notions.