Shaun King, civil rights activist and founder of Real Justice PAC, stirred up controversy this past week by tweeting that images of “white Jesus” should be torn down and trashed. “They are a form of white supremacy,” he opined. “Always have been. In the Bible, when the family of Jesus wanted to hide, and blend in, guess where they went? [sic] EGYPT! Not Denmark. Tear them down.” He followed this, er, trenchant observation with a follow-up tweet: “All murals and stained glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends should also come down. They are a gross form white supremacy. [sic] Created as tools of oppression. White propaganda. They should all come down.”
Needless to say, there was backlash and King’s call to iconoclasm won relatively little support. Later still, King claimed that within the first twelve hours after his tweets, he received 20 death threats in reaction, proving (as he said) “his point.”
Now, before I go on, it’s important that I tell you that, politically speaking, King and I aren’t that far apart. I support Black Lives Matter; have been appalled and outraged by police brutality especially as it impacts people of color; back the protests that were kicked off by the cold-blooded murder by cops of George Floyd; and have deep-felt sympathies with those whose anger at centuries of injustice have moved them to pull down the graven images of Confederate generals, bloody conquistadors, colonialists, imperialists, and lionized racists. I’m on the same page with all that. A lot of people are. Perhaps we are witnessing a turning point in our collective national psyche. The perennial American mythology of a lily-white Anglo-Saxon civilization heroically taming or exterminating red savages in the Wild West, keeping at bay the brown races of Latin America, controlling the hordes of immigrating “lesser white breeds,” and policing the black multitudes in eastern cities and the South, all of whom would threaten America’s “greatness”—that mythology and all its related monuments need to be seen for what they are (mendacity and propaganda) and replaced with a purified vision of a multiracial society of equals. If we are living through a much-needed societal reevaluation and transformation, one that looks beyond Trumpianity to what good things might follow its ouster, then we can expect both optimism and upheaval, struggle and hope. And, in the midst of this, the Christian presence needs to be vital, at the center of action, and embodying the dynamic love of Jesus.
Now, how could that reasonable hope be effectively undermined? Well, no doubt, there is any number of ways it could be undone and its defenders demoralized. One obvious way has been exemplified for us this past week by Shaun King and those like him—extremists who have lost sight of the real vision and threaten to sidetrack their own movement through their pet gripes. For King, evidently, “white Jesus and his European mother and white friends” constitute a pet gripe. But when one reaches the level of “wokeness” that calls for destroying other people’s sacred art, one has simply lost credibility. This is the point where a cause goes from looking like something one in principle can back to looking goofy or, worse, threatening. And the claim that “European” art with “European” figures in it—which in a good many instances was brought to American shores and American churches by the descendants of long-suffering immigrants—was created as “white propaganda” and “tools of oppression” is nonsense. It’s a crying shame that King got death threats afterwards, as he alleged. But it doesn’t prove “his point,” even if he really did get those threats. It proves only that too many people are unhinged. It says nothing about either the “truth” of his assertions regarding the sacred art he misinterprets as “racist” or that his demands to destroy such imagery should be taken any more seriously than trolling. He needs to get a grip and understand that his pet peeve isn’t everybody’s.
In fact, all he succeeded in doing was to give the other side—the side that doesn’t understand why graven images of Confederates and conquistadors need to go—plenty of ammo to take potshots at BLM and other anti-racist efforts. Again, if you want to undermine your own movement and make your efforts look both imbecilic and dangerous, then threaten what others value as good and harmless. Very few hear him actually attacking “white” Jesus. What they hear is that he wants their churches to be broken into and gutted Cromwell-style. And are they wrong to fear this sort of vandalism? No, not really. What Shaun forgets is that people are people everywhere, and they don’t take it kindly when what they cherish is wrongly insulted and threatened. And King did both. The imagery he despises has nothing to do with white supremacism and never did. That’s his own peculiar misconception.
So, here’s what I would say to Shaun King and others who would undermine the real transformation that needs to take place because they don’t know when to keep their personal gripes under wraps: Take a deep breath. Settle down. Keep your eyes on the prize. And where sacred art is concerned, do two things. First, negatively speaking, don’t threaten anybody’s pictures or statues of Jesus and Mary and his friends. Keep your thoughts to yourself and, maybe, bone up on what you clearly don’t know very much about. Second, positively speaking, create more inclusive sacred art and iconography for the future, if you’re a churchgoer, or at the very least encourage others to do so. And, if you’re not a churchgoer, remember that you aren’t and that these works of art don’t concern you and never did.
Addison Hodges Hart is an Anglican, a retired priest and university chaplain, and the author of eight books on theological topics, biblical exegesis, and spirituality. His most recent book is a novel: Confessions of the Antichrist (Angelico Press, 2020).
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.