One must ask then, should sacred art be sacred? Protected from the accidents of history? Or all art? And who decides what is sacred? Or for that matter, what is art?
As we watched the Taliban destroy the Bamyan Buddhas of Afghanistan, and blow up the ancient African City of Palmyra, and as we now continue to watch zealots destroy the mosques and ancient tombs of Saints that are sacred to all the Abrahamic religions, who can say with certainty what qualifies as sacred or civilization’s patrimony beyond religious relevance? Violence against ideas has expressed itself through the physical destruction of objects of sacred traditions for thousands of years. Professor Erin L. Thompson observed in a June 24th article in the New York Times that we tend to destroy rather than protect cultural objects during times of transition. In fact destruction is the norm historically. Bronze statues were ripped from pedestals, melted down, recast to look like the winners and returned to the same pedestals. If there was neither time nor money at the end of a war, the victor’s head would be recast and attached to the losers body.
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.
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.”