Questions about race
There has been some discussion recently about how Christ should be portrayed in our homes and churches; is it acceptable to continue to portray Christ as white, when we all know the historical Jesus was a Middle Eastern Jewish man? Should we be more representational, and restrict our depictions to our modern concepts of reality in relation to first century Judea? How accurate are those concepts? Is at least some of our existing art racist, as some have claimed? If it is, what does that mean?
Does every representation have to connect with the historical Jesus, or is there another layer; the Christ; the transformed and resurrected reality, who was unrecognisable to the disciples at first? What does it mean to depict Christ as black, as Japanese, as Chinese or Inuit? Are these different from depictions as white? If so, why? To what extent do the predominantly white depictions cause us to assume that Christ is white? More importantly, do these depictions create a barrier for BAME people?
What does my painting Christ as a white man actually say? Does it speak differently to people of other races?
As an artist painting predominantly in the style of iconography these are difficult questions, and it is important for me not to rush to assume I have the answers. I haven’t. All I really have is a lot of paintings, and a lot of questions to consider. But this is a time for stopping to take stock of what each of us does, in relation to other races, other people. Are we part of the move towards equality and justice, or are we rather too fond of the status quo to think of change as anything but an affront? How much work are we prepared to do to root out the prejudice in our own hearts; some of it barely hidden, much of it hidden very deep within? Are we willing to challenge casual racism when we encounter it, or do we keep quiet?
I have painted many pictures of Christ, many of them distinctly white, some less so. Very few have been from my own imagination. I use all sorts of sources for my work, from the Roman Catacomb paintings to Byzantine mosaics, sculptures in museums and cathedrals, wall paintings and mediaeval manuscripts; whatever I can find that interests or intrigues. The majority of these have been painted by people living in Europe who have painted what they know, and in turn I paint from their work. Most of these are white, or a very pink version of white. Moving forward I think this is less likely to be the case; I will probably use the same kinds of sources but I will think carefully before reaching for the pink paint.
I have also painted more Middle Eastern looking figures, but I have not reproduced any African or Chinese work. I admire such representations greatly, but I don’t think it is for me to co-opt such work for myself. 14th century French manuscript? Certainly. 21st Century Korean, Ethiopian or Australian aboriginal icon? Not really; I would consider them as too far outside my own circle of understanding. I can paint Korean, Japanese or Indian people, but in my own way.
The Mouse Elephant
What’s grey and has a trunk? A mouse going on holiday.
What’s brown and has a trunk? A mouse coming back from holiday.
This image illustrates one of my favourite Bible stories, that of Eleazar and the Elephant, from 1 Macabees. (If you can’t find this story in your Bible you have the condensed version; see below for link.)
To anyone who has actually seen an elephant this image is rather lacking, but to those who have not seen an elephant it says something about what an elephant might be like. The original artist clearly knew something, but he didn’t know everything.
I think this is a useful way to approach what we ‘know’ about our faith, about Scripture and even about God, and in turn how artists might approach painting Biblical scenes. Clearly we know something but we don’t know everything. What we think we know for certain is likely to be something of a mouse-elephant but until we know for sure we won’t know which bits are accurate and which bits are not. People describing elephants clearly got as far as the great size and the trunk, but didn’t notice the four knees. What is it that we are not noticing?
The same is true of understanding other races and in particular getting to grips with the very real evil of racism. However much we might think we understand or can imagine what it is like to be part of a minority race in our own country, we can’t really know from the outside. What we try to construct from our own frame of reference will inevitably fall short. It is our responsibility to try to find out what it is that we do not know; where the gaps in our understanding are, and to educate ourselves. The information is all there; it is up to us to read it, and to learn from it.
In the meanwhile, we can try to be good friends to those who don’t have the choice – the privilege – of choosing whether to learn or not. What does our friendship mean to them? What do they need from us? What do they think when they see a white Jesus?
First Century Judea
When we consider New Testament times we might think of men striding through a rocky landscape; all long beards, flowing robes and sandals, the women coyly wrapped in many layers, if they appear at all; the occasional woman of ill-repute identifiable at a glance by wearing far too much eye make-up and jewellery. But what if this is our own version of the mouse-elephant? What if we are imagining a world conjured up by Hollywood and reinforced by a thousand Biblical epics ever since; a pastoral scene of Jewish people quietly going about their lives in a very Jewish world, with the occasional Roman soldiers passing through and slaughtering random innocent people along the way?
What if our image needs to be closer to modern times, and reflect the realities, and indeed the horrors, of colonialism; the stratified hierarchies of language, clothing and behaviour; the need for even the poorest people to know something of the colonial language in order to trade and survive? What if we think of the Raj, the Congo or South Africa and the immense imbalances of power sustained there, where the language of government was the language of another people, another land, and where mixed race children appeared, and struggled to know who they were and where they belonged; a place where ‘native’ life was cheap and expendable?
What if we consider the beliefs and prejudices of the Romans in Judea filtering through the whole society, influencing every aspect of life for even the poorest people; where people who wanted to ‘get on’ would wear Greco-Roman style clothing, learn Latin, give their children Greek names and look down on all those beards and flowing robes; where Roman soldiers would meet local women and have children, and as ever, where Jewish people would struggle to maintain their own identity, their own culture; to survive under oppressive taxation and religious constraint. A place where rebellion was met with brute force and inhumanity.
What if it is all far messier, more complicated and much, much nastier than we ever imagined?
Is this what we read, when we read of the trial of Christ, and the power play between Herod Antipas and Pilate? Can we understand the very real fear the Jewish leaders had that the Romans might stop being quite so tolerant, and destroy everything; that Jewish life, Jewish identity was on a knife edge and couldn’t cope with anyone deciding to proclaim a kingdom, even if not of this world? Can we begin to realise just how dangerous Jesus really was; every bit as dangerous as Steve Biko or Martin Luther King Jnr?
We are so used to thinking that Jesus was innocent and didn’t deserve to die. That is not how it looked to the Sanhedrin, and they were right to be afraid; the Romans did destroy everything just a few years later. We would do well to look at the history of Judea under the Romans, and at their brutality, and then recognise that we are not the disciples, hiding from the soldiers. We may well be the Romans; the ones with the power. We may be forcing others to live on a knife edge. The British Empire might still look cosy from England; it wasn’t quite so cosy for those who were on the other side.
There is a lot we don’t know and more that we haven’t wanted to know. When we think we do know for certain, because we saw it in a film, or because we memorised the verses, the chances are we are mistaken. It is time to think again. Those of us with privilege and power can’t see it because we are not the targets; that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. We need to look for it in our own lives, and we need to look for it in Scripture; it hasn’t changed.
What if this particular time for Jesus to be born, this particular place, wasn’t chosen because of the Pax Romana, but because of the British Empire? What then? Can we read the Gospels again and think again about what is said between the lines? Where do we find ourselves when reading about tax collectors and sinners, the prodigal son and the good Samaritan?
We can never know what the actual first century world really looked like, or what it was really like to live there, but perhaps we can find out what India under the Raj was like for ordinary people, what happened to working people in the Congo, what happened to the native American and Canadian people and the Australian aboriginal people. And in finding out, perhaps we can lose some of our unspoken but very real assumptions of superiority over other races.
Brute strength of arms is not superiority; it is simply bullying and thuggery. And it is nothing to be proud of.
Icons of Christ the mouse-elephant
Following are a few depictions of Christ in my work. In only one of these have I deliberately changed the colour of the person depicted; in the image of Christ calming the storm I changed the dark skinned wind demon into a paler skinned wind demon. Otherwise I tend to follow what is already there and recreate it. I particularly like anachronistic images; those which are definitely not set in first century Judea. I like amusing pictures and I like interesting hats.
To me these images are a reminder that whatever we think we ‘know’ about the events in Scripture, our imaginings are always going to fall short of the reality. We may think that by following the ‘plain word of Scripture’ we get a pretty good idea of what was going on, but when those same ‘plain words’ are converted into images we can see something of the distortion that happens.
We bring our own landscape to the text, just as the byzantine, catacomb and mediaeval french artists did.
I was going to end there, but perhaps there is something else to say. Because Christ is the Icon of the Living God, and all Christians are icons of Christ all of my other icons are also images of Christ; all nationalities, all colours, all people. He is there in each one of them; each one of us. You just have to look.
This, too, is Christ. He may be white; he may be black, he may be any other colour, any nationality, even any religion. He may be a woman or a child. He is in every town and on every street.
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Matthew 25:40