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.
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.