“What Is It with That Guy?”: “Black Jesus” and Power of God-talk at the Gate

black-jesus-airs-on-the-adult-swim-network-on-aug-7-2014I became slightly twitter-famous in the past 24-hours. Not “Kim Kardashian” Twitter-famous with her 22.6 million followers (I have yet to break 1,000). Mine was slightly a whole lot less than that. It all stemmed from a Facebook post from the Union of Black Episcopalians that came across my newsfeed late last night. The post from the UBE issued a “Call to Action” to cancel the upcoming premier of “Black Jesus” on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming. The UBE stated that the show was “offensive and racially denigrating” to “Christians and Americans of African descent” and that the show lacked “ANY redeeming or affirming qualities.” The UBE Facebook post further stated that the show “denigrates Jesus…”

Before continuing, I realize that I have made several assumptions. First, I have assumed that you, the reader, know who the Union of Black Episcopalians are and second, I assumed that you know what this show called “Black Jesus” is. Before I continue, please allow me to clarify.

Assumption 1 – The Union of Black Episcopalians, per their website (www.ube.org) is “dedicated to the ministry of Blacks in the Episcopal Church.” It should be added, that the Union of Black Episcopalians was founded during that awkward transitional period between the Civil Rights Movement and the onset of the Black Power Movements in the United States. The UBE was founded to continue the work of previous groups to support Black vocations, organize and amplify the voice of Black members in the Episcopal Church, and work towards the eradication of racism and prejudice within Church structures. In my opinion, the UBE has struggled in recent years to define their mission and purpose in what is widely assumed (but not in reality) to be “Post Racial” America.

Assumption 2 – “Black Jesus” is the latest artistic brainchild of satirist, Aaron McGruder, the writer and cartoonist who brought us “Boondocks.” The show centers around an African American man, living in Compton, California posing as, or may actually be, Jesus Christ. In typical McGruder fashion, the humor is sharp and the depictions are extreme, but… well… I’ll let you watch the promo and you can decide for yourself (there is some language).

Now that I’ve cleared up those two assumptions, let’s return to our regularly scheduled programming.

The UBE posted a petition sponsored by a group called the “Christian Network.” The petition to “cancel this blasphemous show” was it’s only petition and to-date (August 7, 2014) has over 8,400 signatures. I googled “Christian Network” and couldn’t find an actual group by this name, but what I did find was that similar petitions and protests have been levied by conservative religious groups like the American Family Association, or AFA which purports to be “one of the largest and most effective pro-family organizations in the country.” Among the causes behind which the AFA throws it’s support (per it’s official blog “The Stand” – http://www.afa.net/the-stand/) would be saving America from the “oblivion” of Homosexuality, “promoting Christian values, and exposing attacks on the American family” and also making spurious connections between the spread of the Ebola virus, terrorism, and the border crisis involving the thousands of children seeking refuge from violence and poverty in Central America by journeying to the United States. Kevin McCullough, host of “AFA Today” suggests that “Deadly diseases there is no cure for, and lots of terrorism, welcome at the gateway to the future – President Obama’s southern border.” One look at the American Family Association’s website will show clearly that their values of Biblical literalism, conservative theology, and hyper-patriotism do not match well with the overall inclusive stance of the Episcopal Church. But fear makes for strange bedfellows.

So when I came across the post from the Union of Black Episcopalians “Call to Action” and began to dig a little deeper, I was astounded to see that this connection. To be clear, Aaron McGruder is a satirist with a very sharp (some would say “inappropriate”) sense of humor. He capitalizes on images and stereotypes that would be familiar to his target audience and uses them to make a deeper point. While reflecting on his departure from “The Boondocks,” McGruder states in his own words that

It was important to offend, but equally important to offend for the right reasons. For three seasons I personally navigated this show through the minefields of controversy. It was not perfect. And it definitely was not quick. But it was always done with a keen sense of duty, history, culture, and love. Anything less would have been simply unacceptable.

Contrary to what many protesters and dissenters might suggest, McGruder is deeply invested in the well-being of the Black community and concerned about its well being. His art form, satire, is meant to “offend, but… for the right reasons.” As a result of this show, Jesus is being talked about and engaged by many who would never step foot in a church. Yet, as a result of fear, the Union of Black Episcopalians has suggested censorship where they should be capitalizing on this opportunity to engage in Christological dialogue for a new generation.

To be clear, the Black Church overall, of which the Union of Black Episcopalians represents a small group, needs to seriously engage toxic Christologies that more often than not support slavocracy and the disempowerment of Black people. Rather than articulating the liberative and salvific Gospel powerfully preached by our prognosticatory predecessors like Absalom Jones, Alexander Crummell, Jarena Lee, James Cone, Martin Luther King Jr., Jacqueline Grant, and many others, the Black Church has too often chosen to serve Mammon, the God of Wealth, than the God who created the universe. We see this in the hundreds of mega churches throughout this country which are packed with African American parishioners who are coerced into surrendering their financial resources to pastors who preach anemic, feel-good, cheap-grace, cliched, “sound bite” theology that has almost no impact on the Monday through Saturday existence of their members or their wider community. We see this in the makeup of the leadership of many Black churches who, although made up mostly of women, are primarily male-centered. The Black Church needs to think seriously and critically about it’s Christology, it’s understanding of Jesus and the “Christ Event,” and how that intersects not only with the lived experience of it’s members, but of it’s inheritance as the children of Slave Religion which subversively affirmed the worth and personhood of a people dehumanized by a false Christian perspective and an impotent, silent Church.

Satire may not by the tool the Church wants or is comfortable with, but it is the tool being presented to the Black Church at this time. “Black Jesus” is not a problem to be stopped, but an opportunity and a conversation to be entered into and an experience to be formed within. As a result of this TV show, more people will talk about Jesus, religion, spirituality, and faith than will typically walk into a Black Church on a given Sunday morning. Why not see this as an opportunity engage in a conversation that is already going on outside of our Church walls? Why not, instead endeavoring to end the conversation, use the conversation as a tool of evangelism and Christian formation for those currently within the Church and those seeking a spiritual home?

What is interesting to note is that neither the UBE nor conservative groups like the AFA chose to boycott or call for the censoring of “Noah,” the recent Hollywood adaptation of the Genesis Flood narrative starring Russell Crowe, even though the movie ostensibly paints a picture as if Black people were not even a part of the Biblical story. Moreover, neither groups levied a similar complaint against the writers of “Exodus: God’s of Egypt,” an upcoming Hollywood adaptation of the Exodus narrative, where all the high-ranking character such as the Pharaoh (Rhamses) or Moses are portrayed by White actors while the “lower-class,” evil, and subservient characters are played by Black/African actors. Both movies (and many more movies and television shows that could be named) are examples of Hollywood’s continued pathology of rewriting Biblical history to exclude the color inherent to the very geography where the books of the Bible was written, yet neither group saw this egregious act of White supremacy as “blasphemous” or “offensive.”

It is clear to me that the Church, represented by the UBE and conservative religious groups like the AFA, is threatened by this type ofsilver or gold unrestricted, unsanitized God-talk at the Gate. What do I mean? In Acts 3 we are told the story of two disciples, Peter and John, who were going to the Temple to pray when thy encountered a man outside the “Beautiful Gate” who was begging alms. Rather than follow the rest of the religious crowd and bypass this man, Peter and John engaged in God-talk at the gate that resulted in a radical transformation for this man who was once held captive to his lame condition. One thing that we can glean from this story is that while some people look for God-talk to exist only in the temple, within parameters of normativity, institution, and tradition, the presence and power of God is also moving and evident at the Gate. I see “Black Jesus” as an opportunity to engage in this “God-talk at the Gate,” a public religious discourse not beholden to the strictures of orthodoxy that can help shape and reshape, not only my own Christology, but the broader religious/spiritual ethos of the Black community and beyond. A “Jesus” who dons an ethnicity disenfranchised from political and social power; who walks the streets of the ghetto; associates with winos, gangsters, potheads, and a variety of a other n’ere-do-wells; recruits a bunch of foul-mouthed, shifty characters to be his disciples; is suspected of being “crazy;” and offends the religious establishment sounds EXACTLY like the Jesus I read about in scripture.

Is “Black Jesus” for everyone? No. Cartoon Network is airing the show at 11:00pm on a Thursday night in the middle of its Adult Swim programming. This is clearly aimed an a “adult,” mature audience. Is Aaron McGruder attempting to make some grandiose theological claim or bring about a neo-Great Awakening revival? While I don’t know McGruder’s religious affiliation personally and can only assume based upon his past work, probably not. He is an artist conveying a message. As with all forms of art, the message reaches some and misses most.

Satire is subversive. So are parables. Instead of shutting our eyes and ears, what would happen if we did as Jesus commands us “Whoever has ears to listen should pay attention.” (Mark 4:9, CEB) As Sister Mary Clarence told her class of burgeoning, young musicians in “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit,” “if you wanna be somebody, if you wanna go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention.”

Keep the faith, and make it COLORFUL,
Marcus+

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