(De)Facing Jesus: Reconstructing Religion (and God) in the Battle for Social Change

From 2003-2004, a little-known dramatic comedy from creator Brian Fuller aired on Showtime. Called Dead Like Me, the show followed a small group of grim reapers as they struggled with everyday life, like finding and keeping jobs, relationships, etc.; it also showed how they struggled to help reaped souls cross over. While mostly flippant and fanciful, the show also dealt with deeper subjects of loss, grief, and sometimes, prejudice. One episode in particular called “The Shallow End” dealt with a would-be transsexual named Stan, who was killed in the waiting room for his sex-change consultation. In a particularly powerful clip, Stan posthumously confronts his grief not with how he was died, but how he was forced to live, and takes it out on Jesus.

At first glance it may seem as though the clip has little to do with what I have dubbed the “Defacing” and “Reconstructing” of the image of God and religion in society. That is, until around the 1:28 mark. At that point, Stan says that he wants to forgive God for having made him live life as a man instead of a woman, but that God must “tell [Stan] he’s sorry first,” and suddenly the stain-glass Jesus above him shatters because of children throwing rocks outside.

Image

Look familiar? It should.

     

Above is perhaps one of the most striking images of September 15, 1963, the day four little African American girls were killed in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. The world never forgot the events of that day, and the image itself lived on in popular imagination, even opening Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey’s acclaimed book, The Color of Christ. While I do not mean to suggest that kids throwing rocks in a TV show and white Christian men actually bombing a church and killing children in real life are similar, the image of the shattered icon clearly still holds meaning today as a symbol of social tension, minority oppression, and (hopefully) change.

First, the image evokes social tension if for nothing else than the sheer violence of the acts. The face of Jesus was defaced because of a bomb in ’63 afterall, and though the image from Dead Like Me is only marginally violent, the violence faced for LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender/Transsexual) individuals is indeed great today. Huffington Post’s executive religion editor Paul Brandeis Raushenbusch points out worldwide violence and discrimination, as well as the church’s role in the violence  in a recent article. In Nigeria, for example, homosexual unions are now considered crimes, and a group of men were beaten by a mob there this past weekend. In Kansas, a law has been proposed to make workplace discrimination based on sexual preference legal.

Secondly, as Blum and Harvey suggest, many in 1963 found the battered image emblematic of Christ (and Christianity)’s powerlessness or worse, the church’s oppression. When it comes to social injustice, both images come from places of pain and recall the effects of minority violence. The idea that a black church should be shepherded by a white Jesus in the first place seems a bit ludicrous and oppressive to many like Anne Moore after the bombing. If Jesus was white like the bombers and oppressors, if he did nothing to stop it, then how could African Americans feel wholly or comfortable in their church again anyway? Similarly, Raushenbusch suggests that Christians are partly to blame for worldwide LGBT oppression if for nothing else than the church’s own “complicity.” He goes on to cite many discriminatory and church-sanctioned laws around the world and within the USA.  Ignatius Kaigama, an Archbishop, agrees with the laws in Nigeria for example, and the laws of Kansas are being pushed for “under the banner of ‘religious freedom.'”

That said, however, Blum and Harvey also cite how, in the wake of the bombing, the ever-eloquent James Baldwin saw the shattered Christ as an opportunity as Baldwin states:

“The absence of the face is something of an achievement [and…] If Christ has no face, then perhaps it is time that we … give him a new face.”

In the same vein, despite the violence and hatred that inspired his article, Raushenbush clearly still believes there is hope, pointing out that others like Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, have taken this opportunity to reconfigure who Christ is and those things for which he stands today with quotes like, “‘anybody who doesn’t show love towards gay and lesbian people…are not just homophobic…they are Godophobic.’” Still others like Archbishop Desmond Tutu say that, “I would not worship a God who is homophobic.” Heck, Raushenbush himself is an ordained minister and outspoken voice for equal rights. In other words, these men — like Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. before them — are changing their views of God and humanity coming out of the violence that happening around the world today.

To end, I would like to end with an image which Blum and Harvey describe in Color’s prologue, but never actually show, that of the 16th Street Baptist Church’s reconstructed Jesus.

It may seem silly to think of now, but the shattered Jesus was indeed reconstructed in such a way that would have made Baldwin proud. Firstly, his air seems at once stronger, and secondly – being on a cross – more engaged with the suffering of his congregation, more relatable. The image also gives a certain hope for how perceptions of Jesus and Christianity can change and adapt today. While these reconfigured images are incomplete and may not seem like much, they are. While these problems may seem far from over or insurmountable, they are not.

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5 thoughts on “(De)Facing Jesus: Reconstructing Religion (and God) in the Battle for Social Change

  1. I’ve watched a bunch of Dead Like Me and I can’t believe I missed this episode. Wow, wow, wow. Neat find and terrific analysis. Things will perhaps get wild once again in Jesus-ville USA with the release of Son of God. Anyone planning on seeing it?

  2. uccshistory says:

    TOTALLY enjoying following this class blog — thanks to Prof. Altman and excellent responses here from students. Look forward to reading more! Paul Harvey

  3. I was chatting with my spouse about this post (mostly because we couldn’t believe we missed this Dead Like Me episode, which, by the way, someone recommended that show to us AFTER our first son died … people say the weirdest things sometimes … but heck, good show) and Jen (spouse) commented, “how and why does it matter who removes the Jesus image?” Kids throwing rocks; white supremacist dynamite; an African American drifter being beaten (Hughes); Jesus himself (Sinclair); photoshop? Anyway, I thought her question/point was another wrinkle.

    • arsmith6 says:

      Actually, Jen makes a good point. In retrospect, I definitely wish that I had spent more time on the ideas of the image itself, but word counts and time crunches, being what they are, please allow me to respond here. I think it does matter what or who removes the image, but not nearly as much as who does the rebuilding. For example, the white supremacists, as much as we want to think otherwise, were Christians in their own right, and certain Christian groups and voices are still responsible for the problems faced by minority groups today (metaphorically breaking down the image). In the same vein, then, Christians and people in general need to see what part of the defacing is theirs.
      More importantly though,and I can only imagine this is what Jen had in mind, when the damage is done, the right people need to be the ones rebuilding the image, and hopefully make it stronger than it was before (i.e., the Baptist Church window). Of course, that adds its own questions of who decides who the “right people” and the “right image” is, but such debates have to happen somewhere/time anyway, right?

  4. jerodast says:

    Thank you for this post! I have loved this Dead Like Me episode since the first time I saw it, and was always blown away by the symbolism and the emotion of that church scene. Now you’ve shown me it has even deeper levels! Much appreciated.

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