I was surprised to find that even before the airing of the premier of Aaron McGruder’s new show Black Jesus on Adult Swim that some of my fellow black clergy members took to their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts to urge their followers to boycott the show. The more they called for boycotts, the more I became intrigued with the show’s trailer.
I am fascinated by the study of rhetoric, i.e., the ways in which signs and symbols shape human thought and behavior. And entertainment is highly influential in reflecting and shaping how society thinks and behaves. As a Christian minister and black man, I equally interested in viewing McGruder’s artistic iteration of a black Jesus. As a professor and scholar who studies at the intersection of rhetoric, religion and popular culture, I was eager to identify the underlying messages that McGruder would attempt to communicate to his audience. Hence, questions filled my mind as to what specific moral direction McGruder would attempt to steer his audience toward. Likewise, what ideologies and values would he present to viewers as being desirable or undesirable, good or bad, or to be embraced or not.
Notions of race were present in Jesus’ day but were not used as inherent markers of inferiority or superiority.
Having watched several episodes of his other show, the Boondocks, I was not shocked by McGruder’s presentation of a black Jesus who smokes weed, drinks alcohol, uses profanity and lives in Compton. In fact, I was fascinated by it. McGruder’s black Jesus did not participate in acts of gentrification or further ghettoization of this community, rather he embodied a form on incarnational theology. He literally made his home in a black marginalized space. Even more, he socializes with felons, drug dealers, and the homeless.
Rhetorically rendering Jesus as black is not new. Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, Marcus Garvey, James Cone, and others have long seized and situated the ontological identity of Jesus as that of being black. While it is a foregone conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth was not of European descent with blond hair and blue eyes, it is equally true that the blackness of which Turner, and the like, ascribes to Jesus was not mere commentary about his skin color. Assigning this ontological blackness of being to Jesus allowed oppressed groups to counter prevailing and oppressive ideas of blackness as a sign of biological and intellectual inferiority. In this sense, blackness used as a religious symbol to convey meaning is powerful.
Race as a social construct functioned differently in the ancient world and in 1st century Palestine than it does today in the U.S. Notions of race were present in Jesus’ day but were not used as inherent markers of inferiority or superiority. Nonetheless, the fact that the historical Jesus was a person of color is not without significance for McGruder, me or for millions of people of color like me around the world who daily deal with various form of racism. As my mentor would say, if the historical Jesus had been living in the U.S. during the 1950s, he would have had to ride on the back of the bus.
Rather than simply dismissing the show as being blasphemous, maybe we should continue to watch with an awareness of contemporary issues and a strong sense of irony. To do so, would ask us to consider what then does it mean to have a black Jesus living and moving in impoverished black spaces?
When done well, satire can be socially productive. When not done so well, it runs the risk of reinforcing the very thing it seeks to satirize.
Perhaps this show offers us a corrective mirror by which we can begin to offer a (re)articulation of Jesus with who even the gangsta can identify with. In her 2012 book Rap and the Gangsta’ God, Ebony Utley, Ph.D. argues that by all scriptural accounts “Jesus was gangsta.” In fact, it is this, single-mother having, socializing with sinners, working on the Sabbath day, lover of God more than government, victim of state sponsored surveillance and violence, Jesus of Nazareth who gangstas respect “because they see parallels between his life and theirs” (49). It was this Jesus who Kanye West spoke of in 2004 when he said “Jesus Walks.” Identification precedes personal, spiritual and social salvation. Jesus become like us, all of us, in order to redeem us.
When done well, satire can be socially productive. When not done so well, it runs the risk of reinforcing the very thing it seeks to satirize. I, nonetheless, remain open to the possibility that perhaps McGruder’s satirical show carries with it the potential to function much like a parable. For those among the faithful who have a critical eye to see and a critical ear to hear it, on some level this show just might provoke us into (re)presenting to those living in oppressed spaces a Jesus who knows all about our struggles. This is our job!