In Davidson, North Carolina, a homeless man has stirred up more of a commotion than a typical bum. Resolute and unmoving, the figure lays, almost entirely obscured by a blanket, on a 7-foot park bench just outside St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. One resident driving by the man has called the police after seeing him- afraid for the safety of the neighborhood. But he does not answer questions or demands. He does not move to show his face. And he certainly doesn’t do anything about the gaping crucifixion wounds on his feet.
Already rejected by two well-established Catholic cathedrals in Toronto and New York, Timothy Schmalz’ “Jesus the Homeless” statue has recently found a permanent home in the fairly wealthy North Carolina neighborhood. Residents and church patrons have had mixed reactions to the installation of the artwork, viewing the statue as either inspirational or inappropriate. Rev. David E. Buck, rector at St. Alban’s, speaks strongly in favor of the statue, saying, “We’re reminded of what our ultimate calling is as Christians, as people of faith, to do what we can individually and systematically to eliminate homelessness.” Other residents have commented that the affluence of the surrounding neighborhood has blinded residents to the problem of homelessness. The statue has been blessed by an enthusiastic Pope Francis.
Cindy Castano Swannack, the woman who recently reported the statue to the police, is not so enthusiastic. Swannack asserts that the message of the sculpture is inappropriate, arguing that Jesus should be standing over a homeless man as a protector- not a vagrant. “Jesus is not a vagrant, Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help,” she said, “We need someone who is capable of meeting our needs, not someone who is also needy.” The statue has also been described as creepy, ugly, and uncomfortably similar to the Grim Reaper. Unfortunately for Swannack, Biblically-described Jesus described himself (at least rhetorically) as homeless. Whether or not Jesus was literally homeless is less certain, but Jesus is described as a servant, personified in the downtrodden, and ultimately executed as a criminal. It is certain that Jesus’ role is more complex than that of a protector- he repeatedly describes himself as one of the lowly and destitute.
Could it be that dissenters are uncomfortable with an actual visual of these beliefs? Is it easier to accept pictures of an appealing #hotjesus rather than an inconvenient homeless Jesus? It’s unlikely that Swannack has similar disagreements with the Bible verses that describe Jesus as a needy outsider. “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” An actualizing aspect of images of Jesus is either far less pronounced or absent in written descriptions or discussions about the Christ. To create an image that explicitly shows a representation of Christ as one of of the downtrodden makes the underlying social issues too real and difficult to abstract.
A resistance towards physical depictions of an oppressed Messiah is nothing new. Blum and Harvey, in The Color of Christ, describe the religious arguments between pro-abolition and pro-slavery advocates. They argue that while the pro-slavery side won the battle of the Bible, the pro-abolition side won the “joust for Jesus.” It was easy to prove that Christ was an opponent of slavery. It was also easy to align Jesus with slaves themselves. Slaves became Christ-like figures, most famously in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While the similarities between Christ and African slaves shown in literature were not seen as appropriate and fitting to abolitionists, visual depictions of a black slave Christ are notably absent from the historical narrative. Even illustrations in Uncle Tom’s Cabin show a distinctly pale white Jesus disapproving of slave beatings. Jesus could be a slave symbolically, he could be described as colored, but even in reference to slavery he was always visually depicted as a physically removed white man.
Time and cultural shifts have made Christians more open to a visually colored Christ. But it still seems that words are more acceptable than images. Words can be (mis)interpreted. Words are seen as less absolute, more theoretical and symbolic. It is harder to misinterpret or ignore the implications of a direct portrait of Christ. Even widespread iconoclastic Protestantism gave way to the raw, captivating power behind an image of Christ that simply isn’t present in a lengthy theologically-dense sermon. It is true that words can be a more precise tool for describing complex ideas- but Christian resistance to difficult images of Christ prove the undeniable superiority of a picture to make uncomfortable comparisons real and relevant.