It is a tradition in Black culture to use humor to highlight issues and view situations from different perspectives. Richard Pryor is legendary for this, and comedians such as Paul Mooney and Chris Rock still do it today. While often crass and jarring, the jokes often expose the realities of life for what they are, and offer new ways of embracing timeless truths.
The show Black Jesus follows in the comedic footsteps on this tradition. Created by Boondocks originator Aaron McGruder, the show debuted on Cartoon Network this past Thursday. The show revolves around Jesus and his adventures with the people in his urban community. The version of Jesus, however, is not the stately one that is seen in popular representations. He also is not white. This version of the man from Nazareth is drinking 40s, smoking with his friends, and delivering words of wisdom mixed with flagrant profanity. Some love him; others don’t know what to make of him. Others think he’s a bit annoying and heavy handed with his preaching.
Many people don’t simply find Black Jesus annoying, but downright blasphemous. Many in the Black Church community expressed anger at this portrayal of Jesus, to the point of pushing for a boycott of the show before it aired. This isn’t surprising. Christianity in general, and Black Christian tradition in particular, is known to hold very conservative views. However, it is puzzling, as well as jarring, that Black Christians are protesting one of the few representations of Jesus with a darker hue.
Anthony Pollard, moderator of the Boycott Black Jesus Facebook page, addresses the race issue. He writes that the boycott attempt, “has nothing to do with color or ethnicity, the historical Jesus was a Hebrew. This TV show is an insult to the beliefs, traditions, values, and most dearly held truths of the Christian faith. It paints a totally unbiblical, unrealistic caricature of Jesus of Nazareth.” If one conducts a Twitter of Facebook search of the hashtag #blackjesus, you’ll see Pollard’s sentiments are shared by many. The outcry will do very little to halt the show. In fact, the negative buzz probably contributed to the show dominating the rating for in its 11pm timeslot.
It is historical fact that Jesus was not an African American man roaming the streets of California. Black Jesus is intended to be a comedy with a side of public commentary. The usage of history poses a problem, however, for those who want claim a sanitized, whitewashed (literally and figuratively) Jesus. History also reveals that Jesus, the real Jesus of the Bible, more closely resembled a homeboy on the corner in Compton than a Victorian model of morality and speaker of perfect British English.
Black Jesus gives the viewer a gritty savior that fails the tests of respectability and class. Truth is, the actual Jesus of Nazareth would have failed these tests as well. While scholars today still argue about the debatable aspects of his life and teaching, one aspect is almost unanimously agreed upon: Jesus was a poor, marginalized Jew under the shadow of an oppressive Roman occupation. This reality would’ve dictated many of the aspects of Jesus’ life growing up. Poverty tends of have these deterministic effects on those suffering under it. Figuring out ways to survive on paltry means and navigating odd jobs around the neighborhood to make ends meet would’ve been his norm. Seeing strange characters doing unsavory activities, as well as living with people crushed by the vicious systems around him would be commonplace. There’s a good chance that Jesus did some of those same things.
Still, reality is hard for people to swallow, given that most Christians view Jesus as a spiritual, all encompassing being instead of a blue-collar worker. That it is so difficult to embrace this truth about Jesus, especially amongst churches that hold Bible study in such high regard, demonstrates the vast disconnect. This controversy won’t push more people away from Church; it reveals how much the Church is already removed from society in terms of influence. Those who are up in arms over this presentation of Jesus need to ask themselves why seeing a normal, human, poor, scruffy, foul-mouthed, and yes, Black Jesus is so jarring to their senses. If that question is answered, they’ll have a clue as to why people don’t hold Church in high regard any longer.
Love it or hate it, the response concerning Black Jesus shows is that people are still excited to talk about the man from Galilee. Even if this version of Jesus has a bit of a potty mouth.