As I sit holding and examining the print of the famous painting “The Last Meeting of Lee & Jackson” by E.B.D. Julio, I reflect on my own racism and prejudices that I grew up with as a Southerner. I feel as Wendell Berry wrote about, The Hidden Wound, inside me and the South, the hidden wound of racism. In this piece I would like to make my confession of how being raised in the South influenced me and other Southerners.
Being raised in the South, I became entrenched in the racist heritage of the South and beholden to the religion of the Lost Cause. I did not know or think of myself as a racist, for I had African American friends and colleagues. But deep inside me was the hidden wound that goes unnoticed by many Americans.
It is encouraging to see young scholars and emerging Greek Orthodox leaders entering the conversation about anti-racism. In a posting in this forum, Nikolaos Piperis and Stavros Piperis, scholars at the Creighton University School of Law and Youth Directors at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church in Omaha, Nebraska, contribute to the discussion from asociopsychological perspective:theysingle out fear as a key variable explaining the Southern Greek-American reticence to openly side with the Civil Rights movement en masse.
Their position connects social psychology, immigrant material realities, and the violence of white supremacy. The immigrants’ public support of the Southern anti-racist movement, they point out, would have meant risking one’s business and endangering one’s personal and family life. “These Greeks feared their businesses would be blacklisted, their windows shattered by bricks or their loved ones killed,” they write. The authors designate the inhumane cruelty of Southern segregationism as terrorism, asking that our critique acknowledges the Greek-American predicament under Jim Crow terror. Were we in their position, would we have risked the destruction of our hard-acquired possessions? This angle of seeing the issue makes those who did defy Southern racism but also racial injustices elsewhere all the more laudable.
Amid a nationwide BLM movement calling for the removal of statues and monuments that enshrine, even glorify, the genocidal, colonizing, enslaving, and imperialistic past of the United States, well-known BLM activist Shaun King tweeted that “The statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down” and in his next tweet adds: “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 of white supremacy. Created as tools of oppression. Racist propaganda. They should all come down.” Predictably, a swirl of some positive and extremely negative responses, including death threats, ensued.
What has struck me as I follow the fallout of King’s response is the opinion shared by some, perhaps by many, that simply put, King is wrong. That he is equivocating when he conflates Sunday’s liturgical art with social realities outside the ecclesial walls. That we can, and in fact should, draw a clear line between the sacred art of “white Jesus” and the atrocities committed on this continent (and others) by whites against native and African folk (in the name of “white Jesus”). In brief, that there is no complicity between the representational modalities of sacred art and genocide, slavery, cultural supremacy, and systemic racism. This perspective is historically and theologically untenable.
I know and am friends with Addison Hodges Hart, author of “‘White Jesus’ and Shaun King,” published at Public Orthodoxy on June 26, 2020. And I should also note that I am in full agreement with Fr. Hart’s main thesis there: Notwithstanding the fact that the historical Yeshua of Nazareth, as a first century, Palestinian Jew—and therefore, of Semitic, Afro-Asiatic stock—was, in all likelihood, a deeply tanned or brown-skinned man (with facial features, hair texture, and bodily proportions probably as depicted on the Shroud of Turin), artistic images of a “white Jesus” are “good and harmless”—certainly as originally intended by their Western European (and European American immigrant) creators. Moreover, attacking them as necessarily racist undermines the Black Lives Matter movement, giving an excuse to those who want to label BLM and its efforts to secure racial justice and human rights for African Americans (and, by extension, for all), as “imbecilic and dangerous.” After all, Christianity has always been an iconophilic (“image-friendly”) religion. That is, even as Christianity proclaims the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus from its beginnings 2,000 years ago, it has always favored spiritual and aesthetic expressions that awaken the “active imagination” (to use a term dear to Carl Jung) through vocal and instrumental music; architecture; and visual, textile, and performing arts.