Christianity is not the white man’s religion. A tradition of Christian faith and practice emerged from the underside of America, from enslaved Africans in the antebellum South. There were no steeples, stoles, or stained glass. This tradition had no such luxuries. The Christianity of enslaved Africans was not a religion of privilege and position. It was a religion of freedom and revolution. Deep in the wilderness of the plantation slavocracy, enslaved Africans would escape to practice a communal spirituality that challenged them to love their bodies and their heritage, and to refuse any conditions that said otherwise. Welcome to the hush harbors, the invisible gathering places where enslaved Africans met to praise the God of the oppressed, pay attention to one another’s needs, and plot the abolition of slaveholding Christianity and the plantation economy. Hush harbors are a place to turn to refashion for our times a Christian community shaped by risky love.
The Terror of the Plantation Economy
The environment of chattel slavery was no walk in the park. Cultural artifacts like the film Birth of a Nation depict Africans as happy with being slaves. Such propaganda numbed and concealed what really took place in the plantation economy. Africans in America were legally and politically considered not fully human. They had no rights that white people were expected to respect and uphold. Any deference given to Black people was out of respect for them as the property of a white master. Black people were legally denied access to the kinds of privileges that uplifted and bettered white people, like government programs, economic self-determination, and voting. Without the honor of human dignity and any rights to ensure their well-being, as property of the plantation economy, enslaved Africans were treated for how they could meet white pleasures. Rape, forced “breeding,” mutilation through beatings, and lynching were only some of the violent bodily tactics white people used to punish and control enslaved Africans. Even the mundane parts of enslaved Africans’ lives were not respected. Enslaved Africans were forbidden to gather or assemble together except under the supervision of white folks. They had curfews to prevent their escape at night. Their leisure was policed to control as much of their time for work on the plantation and to ensure the leisure of the white master and his family. Even the term plantation does not do justice to the racialized economic exploitation Black people faced. Author Nikole Hannah-Jones in her book 1619 calls these Southern sites of oppression “labor camps.” The terror of the plantation economy was a totalizing vision. Every part of the lives of enslaved Africans was expected to be under the gaze of white supremacist, patriarchal capitalism.
Theology and Worship on the Plantation
What enables a race of people to exploit the labor of another race? To see them as their property? To colonize the land of Natives and the consciousness of Africans? What must a people believe about themselves to enact terror on another people and on the planet? “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything … , with reverence for the Lord” (Col. 3:22). These words summarize the theology of slaveholding Christianity. And from these few words emerged an entire culture and history of violent desecration of land and peoples. Enslaved Africans had regular opportunities to worship on the plantation in racially integrated churches led by white folks. These integrated plantation churches operated by a separate and unequal rule: Black people and white people sat in the same sanctuaries, but everything else about the worship experience was separated by race, from using different restrooms to separate seating, prayer and Communion rituals, and burial grounds and baptismal waters. Enslaved Africans could also attend segregated gatherings led by Black preachers under the supervision of a white minister and white religious customs. Worship in both of these plantation churches accommodated the terror of the plantation economy and slaveholding Christianity.
The theology of the plantation said that God works through white men to bring the world into order and submission. Most white plantation owners used Christianity, especially the words of Paul, to make Africans docile and numb to their plight, to believe it was God’s will for them to be slaves. Other white plantation owners forbade the enslaved to be taught Christianity because they were worried biblical themes would incite revolution. How can Christianity hold within it these two contradictory possibilities? Race was the theological myth used by wealthy, white, male plantation owners to uphold the chattel slavery economy with a whitewashed, domesticated, heretical Christianity. Only a small percentage of wealthy, white, male plantation owners were actually at the top of the caste. When the owner was not around to be in charge of the plantation economy, wealthy white women were in control. When the owner’s wife was not there, either a poor white man or woman or an enslaved Black man was in charge. Black women and children were always at the bottom. All Black lives were disposable. Race is a powerful myth because the racial caste system has never been consistent. Myths are only as true as people give credence to them and as they function to maintain the status quo. From the beginning of the chattel experiment, poor and working-class white people have shared more in common with Black and Native people than with the white elite. The power of the slavocracy system was that it operated at the intersection of white supremacy, white patriarchy, racialized capitalism, and the theological heresy of slaveholding Christianity.
Hush Harbors and the Plantation
Even if only temporarily, enslaved Africans escaped the plantation economy and slaveholding Christianity by organizing hush harbors. Drawing especially from documented slave narratives, hush harbors have been a treasure trove of study for religion scholars and theologians. The literature on hush harbors has centered two rich debates. First, there is the debate of erasure versus retention of African cultures or Africanisms. Much of the early literature about the period of slavery in the US claimed that the psychic and bodily trauma of the Middle Passage — of Africans being violently forced from their homelands in Africa by European settler-terrorists on ships under the most inhumane of conditions — stripped the first generation of enslaved Africans of much if not all of their memories of their African cultures and customs. Certainly, this cultural knowledge was not passed down to successive generations, the argument went. This psychological and cultural violence was strategic in making African peoples more susceptible to being chattel for white plantation owners. Other scholars contended that hush harbors provided evidence to oppose the erasure thesis. Hush harbors depicted a rich continuity of Africanisms — music, language, religion, stories, and more — that enslaved Africans disguised for their own safety when under white surveillance. Because of the need to disguise Africanisms, the unaware observer could not readily see how enslaved Africans did in fact retain a variety of African customs and practices.
The second debate is over the nature of the Christianity that enslaved Africans practiced. Did enslaved Africans practice the Christianity of the slaveholder, which accommodated their own oppression? Christianity was an empire religion that accommodated the status quo. For enslaved Africans, to accept Christianity was to accept their plight on earth as they awaited their true freedom in the afterlife. Again, by peering into hush harbors, this thesis has been contested. Through the testimonies of enslaved Africans themselves, scholars discovered that Africans in the Americas not only practiced an otherworldly Christian religion that accommodated their oppression; hush harbors that enslaved Africans organized were sites of protest against the dominant Christianity of the slaveholder. In hush harbors, enslaved Africans made plans for permanent escape to the northern parts of the US. Additionally, enslaved Africans carried a hush harbor mindset of freedom with them onto the plantation to both cope with daily terror and plot for abolition without being caught by white plantation owners. This mystical hush harbor was as much a site of interior protest as the material hush harbor was a site of physical protest. These protest actions and mindsets were rooted in particular Christian beliefs that enslaved Africans initially discovered from slaveholding Christianity and then reinterpreted toward revolutionary ends.
These debates have unearthed a rich legacy of the genius of enslaved Africans’ beliefs and practices. In recent times, however, Black prophetic leaders have grappled with the importance of hush harbors not only for their historical relevance but also as a site of contemporary reflection on a more radical model of church and activism.
From “Buried Seeds,” by Alexia Salvatierra and Brandon Wrencher, ©2022. Used by permission of Baker Academic.
The 12th-century philosopher Moses Maimonides writes in his “Mishneh Torah” that the work of restorative justice begins with the public confession of harm. The challenge of naming and owning harm is one that pastors regularly face when repairing relationships within their congregations.
But the stakes of such mediation are much higher when harm is embedded in the church itself. How do pastors and lay leaders navigate the work of repair when the history of their own church is implicated?
We’re a pastor (Lauren) and a sociologist (Gerardo) who, respectively, have participated in and witnessed this difficult journey of reparation at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Gerardo watched this process unfold over the past year while on sabbatical, and Lauren has been involved with the process as an associate pastor at Highland.
In 2018, Highland was faced with a shocking discovery. In front of a citywide crowd at a racial justice gathering, a recently retired pastor reflected on the stained-glass windows of his former parish. He marveled that the windows showcased two enslavers, James Boyce and Richard Furman, and one radical segregationist, E.Y. Mullins. Even more, the church’s painted fellowship hall windows portrayed an additional enslaver, Basil Manly Jr.
Congregants in the room that day perked up at the mention of their church, only to realize that their former pastor had just publicly said something they had not known. They learned that their beautiful windows commemorated leaders committed to racist ideals.
Not only was the news startling — a true revelation to the current congregants and pastors — but it also conflicted with the church’s understanding of itself and its ongoing anti-racism efforts.
News of the windows and the enshrined enslavers spread quickly. Members asked questions, wanting to find out specifically which people in which windows owned slaves and when the windows were installed.
They found that the stained-glass windows in the sanctuary were installed in the early 1970s, and the fellowship hall windows were painted even more recently, in the mid-1990s — not at all in the distant past. How could this be? As the buzz about the windows gained momentum, the church’s anti-racism team, which had formed in 2017, petitioned the lay leadership body to appoint a task force to officially study the windows.
Before the windows task force first convened, it became apparent that Highland’s work on the windows needed a broader scope. Around the country, unarmed Black people were being killed while jogging in a white neighborhood, sleeping in their own apartments or selling knockoff cigarettes.
Further, a national debate was stirring around the removal of Confederate monuments. Highland members wondered about their own windows and how the church benefited from white supremacy more generally. Thus, the ministry council created a reparations task force, in which the windows were one focus of four.
Starting in 2020, dedicated lay leaders, with support from me (Lauren) and my ministerial colleagues, considered alternatives for addressing the enslavers in the windows, the call to a congregational confession and repentance, the obligation to offer financial repair from the congregation’s budget, and strategies for ongoing advocacy at both a local and a national level for the study and gifting of reparations.
The task force wrestled together about the best path forward. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic continued, the group persisted on Zoom. First, we revisited our own history. In doing so, our objective was to consider how the church has benefited from racist systems, past and present, and to recommend a path of response.
Together, we produced a report, titled “Grant Us Wisdom, Grant Us Courage: A Historical Summary of Highland Baptist Church; Louisville, Kentucky; and Race, 1893-2021,” which tells Highland’s narrative through a lens focused on racial inequities.
Second, the task force wrote a report detailing all of the subjects depicted in the windows, especially noting the troubling figures involved in slavery. Considerations in addition to racism arose, and figures were examined in terms of antisemitism, homophobia and other forms of colonization.
We took care that our research was honest, without judgment. It was hard to acknowledge so much pain peppered throughout the windows’ design.
With new revelations over the months of research and writing, polarizing viewpoints were expressed privately among members of the church, and the murmuring complicated the work of the task force and concerned the ministers.
Anxiety threatened relationships in the congregation, raising the potential for real division. Some folks unknowingly sought to maintain the status quo. “Touching those windows would be an affront to the art and artist who created them,” they argued.
“They tell our story, even the parts of the story we do not like — do not mess with them,” others said.
Others focused on the money that would be spent if the windows were amended or contextualized. “Money spent on [changing] the windows would be better spent in the Black community,” some argued.
“Dismantle and destroy the enslavers immediately,” those distressed by the windows insisted.
Ultimately, the enslavers in the windows put our church at risk of losing members, as some indicated they would leave the church. “I cannot worship in a sanctuary that venerates people who owned other people,” they said.
Further, we hired consultants, leaders in Louisville’s Black community, for their feedback; naturally, their opinions differed as widely as those of the congregation. However, they unanimously agreed that the white Jesus figure in the revelation window needed to be darkened.
As the palpable discomfort among church members grew, our lead pastor, the Rev. Mary Alice Birdwhistell, and I (Lauren) preached on the controversy, but our messages did not readily alleviate tensions. For example, I preached two sermons in the summer of 2021 that spoke to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and David McAtee.
In one sermon, I invited people to turn and look up at the figures who watched over the sanctuary. In so doing, I emphasized that the task force would and must continue discussing the windows, specifically the ones depicting Boyce, Furman and Mullins.
Though the sermon was an attempt to assure folks that the church would work together as a community to consider options, the effect was further division and angst. Contradictory pressures on the reparations task force emerged, with urging by different congregants to hurry up and to slow down, to stop and to keep moving. Even members of the task force were not in agreement. Zoom meetings were occasionally emotional and intense.
At this point, Mary Alice and I (Lauren) committed to communicating explicitly and frequently that the church would work through these issues together: by listening to one another, studying reparations in community and (in the words of the church hymn) being “brave of foot” in the race set before us.
In affirming the call to accomplish this work together, we began sharing with the church the benediction we co-wrote to conclude each task force meeting:
MAB: Friends, may God bless us with restless discomfort
in the work of reparations.
LJM: May God bless us with holy anger at the injustices around us, and even within us.
MAB: And may God bless us with grief to honor all that has been lost along the way.
LJM: Until we meet again, may God continue guiding us toward liberation.
MAB: May Christ continue showing us the way of love.
LJM: And may the Spirit continue provoking us in this hard and holy work.
MAB: For even as this work challenges us, know that we are equipped and suited precisely for it.
LJM: Go in peace. Amen.
Highland’s leaders took collective responsibility for the church’s association with white supremacy, so we patiently urged a corporate response from the congregation.
In their book “Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair,” Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson write, “Some may insist that individuals and discrete institutions alone are responsible for the aforementioned failures, but this line of reasoning simply will not do. These sins are our sins.”
Calling out, initiating dialogue, responding to new knowledge — these are the practical steps we sought to enact ecclesially. As Kwon and Thompson state, “The church, after all, is one body, and its members are irrevocably bound to one another in Christ by covenant.”
Conversations continue with pastoral and lay leaders dedicated to accomplishing the work in community. The task force hosted three congregational listening and processing conversations. The first, in 2021 via Zoom, oriented around reading and discussing the history report. The second, in late 2021, also via Zoom, conveyed the four-prong approach adopted by the task force and solicited general thoughts on reparations. In 2022, a third conversation offered the opportunity to attend in person.
With repeated reassurances from many directions that the task force is not a decision-making body, members were able to participate in a hybrid meeting with earnestness, even amid uneasiness.
The task force presented its findings, and congregants asked meaningful and thoughtful questions. Members expressed their viewpoints with grace, and most importantly, all those present deeply listened to one another. The tenor of the meeting built up the confidence of the task force for its next steps.
Highland’s process to date reveals how the work of restorative justice is challenging for congregations dedicated to working in unison.
Our pastoral team and lay leaders are moving through the process of repair in a manner that includes all stakeholders without jeopardizing anti-racist values. At this point, the church has established a designated fund to receive donations specifically for reparations, and the church will commit 1% of its budget to the fund annually.
Further, the anti-racism team is researching the options of installing plaques that explain the church’s lament over the figures and why they are darkening the skin tones of the biblical figures, including the Christ figure.
Although no final decisions about the windows have been made, the reparations work continues taking shape on the racial justice journey. As a consequence, the leaders of Highland have achieved greater confidence in the capacity of our congregation to address controversy directly and to confront injustices in the world without compromise.
In 2021, Darnella Frazier received a special citation from the Pulitzer Prize Board for her actions on a Minneapolis sidewalk the year before. Frazier, then 17, literally refused to look away from George Floyd’s murder and made sure the rest of us could not look away either. On May 25, we mourn the second anniversary since Floyd was killed by police officer Derek Chauvin; the video Frazier captured of that crime helped spark a summer of uprisings.
The Pulitzer citation recognized her courage in recording “a video that spurred protests against police brutality around the world, highlighting the crucial role of citizens in journalists’ quest for truth and justice.”
What do we make of a teenager who bore witness to an act that traumatizes her to this day but that she realized she had a responsibility to document? How can we balance that against a societal tendency to avoid what we don’t want to see and to prevaricate and dissemble about the unavoidable truth before us?
Most of us prefer to avoid difficult situations. It’s why we may not make eye contact when a conversation turns unpleasant. It’s why we may delay a doctor’s visit when we fear the diagnosis.
Even when we know we need to engage more deeply or speak up, we sometimes choose to avert our gaze or divert the discussion rather than deal with what is urgently before us. We claim absolution through avoidance.
Late last year, the Episcopal Church and the market research firm Ipsos conducted a wide-ranging survey on religious beliefs among more than 3,000 Americans. Questions ranged from sussing out levels of involvement in a faith community to gauging how people of faith perceive themselves and are perceived by others:
“How involved are you in a religious community/church/mosque/synagogue/temple?”
“In your opinion, how well do Christians you know represent the values and teachings of Jesus?”
“What characteristics do you associate with Christians in general?”
Let’s call what shows up in the last two a “goodness gap.” Christians tend to see themselves as exemplars of Jesus’ words and example; others do not.
The national study, titled Jesus in America, also showed that while there was agreement on the importance of Jesus as a spiritual figure and the desire for all to be treated equally, there were some crucial disconnects on the church and race, from the racial climate within the church to what helps bring people together.
Specifically, while 61% of mainline Protestants and 53% of evangelicals agreed that people of color in the U.S. are affected by racism, they were less likely to see racism in the church, with only 43% and 39%, respectively, agreeing that it exists there.
Meanwhile, 83% of mainline Protestants and 80% of evangelicals said that understanding history helps us “do better in the present.” But at the same time, 41% and 45%, respectively, said that “talking about racism pushes people apart instead of bringing them together.”
To be clear, this indicates that within those two groups, a significant number believe that racism is an issue that melts away at the threshold of the narthex and that knowing history is helpful as long as we don’t talk about it. We perceive the problem at a distance but not up close. We understand its underpinnings but don’t want to discuss them.
That’s to our profound loss. Consider the words of curator and writer Cole Arthur Riley: “When memory endures no scrutiny or curiosity or challenge from the exterior, it can lead to a profound loneliness at best; at worst, individual or collective delusion.”
Significant percentages of both groups said they do not believe that churches discuss racism and slavery to make white people feel bad about themselves — 45% of mainline Protestants and 46% of evangelicals — yet that aligns closely with the number who said that discussion leads to division.
Christopher Moessner, Ipsos senior vice president for public affairs, wrote in an email to Faith & Leadership, “When I read this data it tells me that we are struggling as Americans to understand our past and how it relates to our future. Everyone wants equality for their children moving forward, but not everyone is comfortable talking about the elephant in the room: RACISM in all forms and places. We may have a shared history, but we do not have a shared experience.”
If we don’t perceive racism as near us, we may assume it isn’t our problem. If we don’t ever talk about it, we may assume we don’t have to think about it too deeply. If we don’t ever learn the diagnosis, we may assume the disease cannot be consuming us from the inside.
One of Jesus’ practices that those around him — followers and foes — found most disconcerting was the way he saw people and situations that polite society generally ignored, and then he got up close with them. He touched and was touched by; he dined with and blessed.
His actions underscored the shortcomings of refusing to engage.
We continually confront efforts to shore up the flagging self-esteem of those who whitewash history and pad the present with bans and barriers intended to cushion their discomfort. But if churches and faith leaders are to be repairers of the breach and doers of the word, they cannot let people of faith look away.
To be clear, this indicates that within those two groups, a significant number believe that racism is an issue that melts away at the threshold of the narthex and that knowing history is helpful as long as we don’t talk about it.
When I was young, Jesus greeted me every day at my grandmother’s house.
A framed print of Warner E. Sallman’s “Head of Christ” graced the wall adjacent to her front door. Jesus looked like an elegant surfer dude to me — tanned, with honey-streaked brown hair and blue eyes that gazed benevolently to the heavens.
The Almighty didn’t look anything like me, but so what? It certainly didn’t make me question my faith or my self-worth, because my religious experience was steeped in the tradition of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
From the all-Black choir that sang the songs of Zion to the Black mothers of the church who prayed over me to the Black pastor who preached that, yes, Jesus loved my little chocolate self, my Blackness was continually validated. At my grandmother’s, I was more concerned about her yelling at me for slamming the screen door than I was about the white Jesus hanging next to it.
But once I became aware of the world and my place in it, I realized that imagery was a powerful tool through which white supremacy operated. Whiteness has always been the default for defining everything America deems worthy: standards of beauty, true patriotism, innovators and intellectuals and stewards of power. Even our most sacrosanct attribute — spirituality — demands that we pray to a God presented as white.
That’s why “DeColonizing Christ,” a visual arts exhibit that runs through Dec. 19 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is so fascinating. It dares to imagine Jesus Christ as what he was, a person of color. It dares to debunk everything we’ve been programmed to believe about Christ’s appearance while interpreting a historical fact.
As the exhibit draws to a close well into the season of Advent, it has offered opportunities for those who have never deeply questioned their vision of Christ to reconsider the frame through which they have been looking.
What images of Jesus did you grow up with, and how do they align with your vision of Christ now?
Some of the exhibit’s artists took license to envision Christ as a woman, a Latino child, or a brother on the street sporting a halo-shaped afro and smoking a blunt. Each of the 40 pieces invites the viewer to imagine Christ as more provocative and edgy than the sanitized version we’re used to seeing.
“There are some people that will deny [that Christ was not white],” said Matt Parsley, of Harrisburg. “But I consider it to be a fact.”
On a recent Sunday, Parsley, who is white, viewed the exhibit with friends Helena Felix and Tracy Cisney. “In the long term, this exhibit could have an impact,” he said. “That’s the whole point of art, is to challenge your way of thinking.”
For the Very Rev. Dr. Amy D. Welin, the dean of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Cathedral, where the exhibit is displayed, it’s not a stretch to think of Christ as someone other than white and ethereal.
“Christ was edgy, and he hung around with edgy people,” Welin said. “We’ve so emasculated Christ that he’s like our pet gerbil. He’s not threatening — he’s nice. He’s the Good Shepherd. But we also see in the Bible that he’s kicking ass in the temple; he’s turning over tables. So he was good, but he wasn’t nice.”
We are in St. Stephen’s, strolling through the sanctuary, an immaculately reverent space that welcomed an average of 150 congregants every Sunday before COVID-19 hit. The images of “DeColonizing Christ” are juxtaposed with the stained-glass images of Bible characters, all depicted as white, that line either side of the cathedral. Taken together, the disparate images create an interesting theological debate.
“We all enculturate Jesus. Every tribe. We all paint him as one of us, which is fine, because we want to be close to God, and that’s what people do,” Welin said.
If any of these images challenges you, why do you think that is?
“But then we learn that the images of Jesus were used to silence and oppress people in Latin America and Indigenous people and the enslaved in the United States. So there’s this fine line that says we want Christ to be one of us … but we don’t want him to be one of you.”
The narrative of Jesus being “one of us” was normalized through commercialization of Sallman’s “Head of Christ” painting, the one that hung in my grandmother’s house. It has been described as the “best-known American artwork of the 20th century.”
Sallman, a religious painter and illustrator from Chicago, styled the painting to appeal to 1940s American Protestant audiences, and it was soon printed on prayer cards and circulated by all denominations, regardless of race. The image, which has been reprinted more than 1 billion times, defined the nation’s religious culture, creating another white default that most Christians took for granted.
“I always thought Christ looked like one of my people,” said Welin, a self-described pale-skinned Irish American. “I went to a Catholic high school, and the images we had in textbooks and religious art were of a Jesus who was definitely European.”
It wasn’t until she was well into her 30s that the revelation hit her: according to the Bible, Christ was a Palestinian Jew. Even as a medieval history major, Welin was never taught that. Years later, after Trayvon Martin was murdered, she started to consider how white supremacy manifests itself in ways big and small. It wasn’t lost on her that public outcry had forced the removal of certain public monuments and other symbols of the nation’s racist past. Meanwhile, every Sunday, the stained-glass images in her own church stared at her almost mockingly.
“It became really clear that the image of Christ had been commercialized and promulgated,” Welin said.
How could your congregation explore the enculturated history of Christianity as part of formation and worship?
Last year, a parishioner told Welin that if she really was serious about doing the work of diversity and inclusion, she need look no further than her own sanctuary. “Because all of the iconography in the cathedral says this is a white space,” he told her.
“And I was like, ‘Wow, we need to broaden our palette. This is an opportunity,’” the priest said.
Welin met with staffers at the Art Association of Harrisburg to brainstorm about the concept. One of them pointed out that it seemed the theme of the exhibition should be decolonizing the image of Christ.
“And that’s how we got our title,” Welin said.
She enlisted the Rev. Mack Granderson, the pastor of Crossroads Christian Ministries Church, also in Harrisburg, to chair the selection committee. A music major from Philadelphia who for years owned a jazz club in Harrisburg before going into ministry, Granderson was well-qualified to lead the project. In the ’80s, he served for seven years under then-Gov. Richard Thornburgh on the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.
The committee reached out to artists, universities and arts organizations in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Washington, D.C. They secured a grant from the Arts for All partnership, a collaboration between the Cultural Enrichment Fund and the Greater Harrisburg Foundation.
In all, the show features 28 original artworks, plus a dozen on loan from private collections. Although the images are unquestionably thought-provoking and confront racism in diverse interpretations, there is a troubling omission. All but seven of the 17 participating artists are white, and two out of three cash prizes awarded in the juried exhibition went to white artists. Michael Reyes, a Franciscan friar and trained artist from the Philippines, won the People’s Choice award for his work “Christ the Dreamer.”
If some of the most-praised works in an exhibit that seeks to challenge white supremacy are created by white artists, and if lived experience is the biggest informer of personal expression, what does that mean for the exhibit?
It’s a question that gets to the heart of the complicated nature of racism, intended or not. The novelist Toni Morrison once noted that she worked hard to write without the intrusive “white gaze,” the idea that Black writers must explain cultural references to white readers, must hand-hold and make them feel comfortable.
How does the art in your church reflect your congregation’s beliefs?
Lori Sweet, of Harrisburg, award winner of the Bishops’ Prize for her work “The Healer,” admitted that she hesitated to enter a piece in the show because her previous religious works focused more on the feminine and nature. Portraying Christ as a person of color didn’t fall into her wheelhouse, in part because she is white.
“I did feel like, ‘Who am I to represent this, because this isn’t my experience,’” said Sweet, who has a background in social work. “But it’s been part of my life’s work to stand up and be present for people who are oppressed and suffering and bear witness to that. So I feel honored and grateful that I can stand in solidarity with others on this issue — and it’s continuing to inform me.”
“The Healer” features an olive-skinned, hooded-robed Jesus. He has a direct gaze and full lips, holding a lamb that represents “not a sacrifice but the true and authentic part of who we are, the delicate and vulnerable part,” Sweet said.
“I think when people look at each other, they’re seeing the outward appearance,” she said. “And I guess I see Christ as being able to look beyond the surface and being able to see the sacred in each of us, and that is healing.”
In your church’s context, what gaze is missing? How might it be valuable to include that perspective? How might you invite it in an authentic and respectful way?
Best in show went to “Pantocrator in Black and Brown” by Brian Behm of North Carolina.
For Granderson, who is Black, the lack of participants of color was disappointing, though understandable. His years serving on the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts taught him that recognition for artists of color, getting their works displayed in galleries and museums, has been an ongoing struggle.
“But then something came to mind,” Granderson said. “I was very excited for white artists, because they would have to go through something internally to create an image of Christ from Palestine. There will also be a reckoning that must take place with the person who is seeing the exhibit. I would hope that kind of conversation, even if it’s an internal conversation, must take place.”
Not surprisingly, countercultural images similar to those in the exhibit have drawn controversy. St. Louis artist Kelly Latimore’s “Mama,” depicting a Black Virgin Mary cradling Jesus’ body after his crucifixion — with Jesus portrayed as George Floyd — was recently discovered to be missing from a public exhibition of Catholic University of America’s Columbus Law School. Officials at the school replaced it with a smaller version.
Latimore, meanwhile, has faced death threats.
“I think, unfortunately, racism is part of a lot of it, especially death threats [that include] derogatory remarks about George Floyd specifically,” Latimore told Religion News Service, adding that some of the threats took issue with any depiction of Jesus as Black.
“Really white supremacist, racist stuff — which, theologically, is what racism is: a complete denial of the incarnation of Christ,” he said.
It may be that breaking down the barriers of systemic racism starts incrementally, with art exhibits like these. “DeColonizing Christ” not only dares to see Jesus differently but does so with none of the mean-spirited bickering that sullies our public discourse today. In their introspection, exhibitgoers may see themselves differently, too.
With that in mind, Welin is giving serious consideration to hosting rotating exhibits that feature different points of view at her church. “I really like the idea of using our cathedral as an art gallery, because then we could expand our spiritual life,” she said.
Harrisburg’s diversity — Pennsylvania’s capital city is 51% Black — demands that inclusivity be addressed. How to build community within the walls of the church is something Welin is still thinking about.
“This has been a local event,” she said. “It is wonderful that this has generated conversation in other churches about the use of art to illuminate matters of social justice. So perhaps the generative outcome is an opportunity to inspire other communities of faith to consider what they can do locally to address issues of justice. Because just like politics, justice is usually a local thing.”
As I sat in the sanctuary talking to Welin, it occurred to me that the exhibit was doing exactly what it was designed for — encouraging conversations that allow for expanding our worldview.
The God I know would be pleased.
“We can’t make up for 1,000 years of oppression,” Welin said, “but we can start to do things differently. And this is a start.”
How might different visions of Jesus broaden conversation in your church and community?
Questions to consider
- What images of Jesus did you grow up with, and how do they align with your vision of Christ now?
- If any of these images challenges you, why do you think that is?
- How could your congregation explore the enculturated history of Christianity as part of formation and worship?
- How does the art in your church reflect your congregation’s beliefs?
- In your church’s context, what gaze is missing? How might it be valuable to include that perspective? How might you invite it in an authentic and respectful way?
- How might different visions of Jesus broaden conversation in your church and community?