In my house is a painting of one artist’s depiction of Jesus, which I bought years ago on the South Side. I give it extra attention during Holy Week and the celebration of Easter, a special day that is on a different date each year and is commercially symbolized by a giant rabbit carrying a basket of brightly colored hard-boiled eggs it hides from children.
It’s a beautiful painting that’s sparked conversations and comments from people who’ve seen it because the Jesus in the painting is black. He looks like the late, great singer-songwriter Nickolas Ashford.
I’m not especially concerned about what Jesus looked like. His teachings are transcendent and the ideal of how we should live and treat each other. There’s a reason Muslims view him as a prophet and why Thomas Jefferson created his own Bible consisting solely of comments attributed to Jesus.
But the prevailing image of Jesus I grew up with in school and church was of one who looked like Kris Kristofferson. I love Kris Kristofferson and have a cloth calendar that has on it a depiction of Kris — I mean Jesus — but that shouldn’t be taken as the standard. That is, unless someone produces a photo of Christ stamped 30 B.C. on the back. I’d like to have a collection of images of Jesus representing all the world’s cultures.
Once, someone seeing my painting, asked, “Who’s that?”
“Jesus,” I answered.
“But that’s not what he looked like,” said the guest.
“What did he look like?” I asked.
“Well … you know,” said the guest.
“I do,” I said. “And it doesn’t matter what Jesus looked like. It’s about his teachings and what his life and death mean to us.”
“That’s right,” my guest said. “It doesn’t matter what color he was. It’s about what he taught us. And it doesn’t matter that he could have been black. But he wasn’t!”
I speak with some authority on the multicultural image of Jesus because I played him in a fifth-grade Easter play at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. A substitute teacher named Mrs. Baldwin arranged the play. I started with a small role — Simon of Cyrene, the man forced to help Jesus carry the cross to Golgotha. I would later learn that my role was historically accurate since Simon was of African descent. (But, of course, all of us are of African descent.)
The boy originally cast as Jesus couldn’t remember his one line: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” Mrs. Baldwin, either seeing a star quality in the way I bore my cross or feeling guilty for confiscating my Roger Staubach autograph, elevated me to the role of Jesus.
As someone who has portrayed the Son of God, I cannot lie. I cannot put a bushel over the bright light of my performance. I was great. After I slowly and wearily recited my one line, dropped my chin to my chest and died, there was stunned silence in the room before my classmates erupted in applause. For several days, I was treated like the star that my one performance had made me. Even Mrs. Baldwin was nicer than usual, although she never returned my Staubach autograph.
My performance was so powerful and talked about that all these years later, people still identify me with that role.
I can’t tell you how often people around me say things like, “Jesus, what do you want now?” and “Christ, can’t you do anything right?” I’ve noticed that when I call women they are aware of that performance because I get a lot of, “Jesus! Not you again!”
I love my Black Jesus painting, and it doesn’t matter whether Jesus looked like Nick Ashford, Kris Kristofferson or anyone else. Not knowing what he looked like, maybe this time we’ll refrain from crucifying him and doing harm to others.