How Many Faces Does Jesus Have?
Eurocentric depictions of Jesus dominate in our schools and churches. FR BRUCE BOTHA SJ argues that alternative images of Christ can be used to build a more inclusive Church and society.
God may see Christ in us, but we human beings have a much harder time seeing Christ in ourselves or in one another.
That is true even on a superficial level. Due to cultural conditioning, when we think of Christ, more often than not we conjure in our imaginations a picture of a Nordic chocolate box Jesus, because that was the Jesus we encountered in our children’s Bible, Stations of the Cross and the picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus which was on the wall in most Catholic homes.
For the longest time I thought that Jesus had the most beautiful piercing blue eyes in the world, with a creamy white skin, due to Franco Zeffirelli’s movie Jesus of Nazareth.
This should bother us. Not only because it is ahistorical, but because so often the representation of Christ is used to “other” certain groups in the Church, to exclude those who do not fit the dominant cultural iconography of Christ.
Put more positively, a more inclusive iconography can contribute to our schools becoming more open, accepting and inclusive places. It can help the members of our school communities learn that being different is not being less.
The chocolate box Jesus is thankfully but one strand in our Christian iconography, though it has been the most pervasive.
Dating back to the earliest days of the Church, artists have tried to capture their image of Christ in the telling of his story. In the Roman catacombs we see pictures of a heavily bearded Jesus with dark facial hair. There are also early wooden carvings that show Jesus as beardless. Russian and Greek icons depict Jesus as a brown-haired man, more European than Semitic in appearance.
The African Christ
The Christian Church in Africa is one of the world’s oldest, and some outstanding icons dating back to the 6th century show Jesus as a dark-haired, dark-eyed man, much as the North African Christians would have been.
Christianity arrived in Ethiopia very early on in the history of the Church. In the Acts of the Apostles (8:26 -40) we hear of St Phillip’s encounter with the servant of the Queen of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Church is separated from the main body of the Church primarily because it was never part of the Roman Empire.
It was only in the 16th century that the Roman Catholic Church attempted to make contact with the lost Ethiopian Church. St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, sent missionaries to Ethiopia in an attempt to reunite this Church with the Church of Rome. Note in the icon the distinctly Ethiopian features of Jesus, with his almond shaped eyes and Afro style hair.
Today there are many images of Christ which show him as a strong, proud, loving black African man, for example the Rasta Jesus by the artist Brie Francois depicted on the right.
When white students can see Christ as black, the likelihood of our schools producing racists is reduced.
And when our black students can see Christ as one of them—not wearing the face of privilege—then Christ is someone they can imagine emulating.
Christ at the Margins
Our Catholic schools are often simply microcosms of the communities in which they are situated. We try our best to enlarge the hearts and open the minds of our learners, but it can be challenging to overcome the racism, xenophobia, elitism and homophobia that they imbibe in families and communities.
Unless we are able to imagine the other as Christ, it becomes all too easy to demean and treat with disrespect those who are different from what we consider to be “normal”.
When we see icons of Christ as feminine, life becomes just that little bit easier for youths struggling with questions of identity and orientation. It takes away the implicit permission that bullies have relied on to persecute those who come across as different, and it gives those who are different permission to be themselves, without fear.
Carlo Rosa painted Jesus blessing the children, probably in 1625 or thereabouts. This painting of a Jesus who is masculine, but with a hint of breasts, challenges our assumptions about gender, gender identity and masculinity.
Likewise, an image of a hyper-masculine Christ wrapped in the rainbow flag challenges our assumptions about sexual orientation and gender identity.
Throughout history the Christian community has “owned” Christ through portraying him visually as one of them.
We see examples of Christ with breasts, feeding the people; we see him as feminised; we see him as gay or ruggedly heterosexual; we see him as Arabic or African or Asian; and we even see him as the Nordic chocolate box Jesus.
Through the dominant religious iconography of our schools and churches we create a visual narrative that either lends itself to inclusion or exclusion.
Learners benefit by being exposed to a whole range of images of Christ, by seeing Christ as one of them, but also as not. This can contribute to a much better Catholic ethos in our schools, by making them places where all our learners are not only welcomed but also feel welcomed. It makes our ethos better by depriving bigots of any religious justification for bullying or “othering” those who do not quite fit the local dominant narrative of what is normal or good.
In his poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame”, the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins observed: “For Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his, to the Father through the features of men’s faces.”