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Imaging the divine has a controversial history

Imaging the divine has a controversial history

The Middle East is not the only place where the collision of media and religion can result in violence. Americans have their own history of conflict, often violent, over depictions of God, Christ and the saints in art and film.

Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey writes in the New York Times:

Americans have had their own history of conflict, some of it deadly, over displays of the sacred. The path toward civil debate over such representation is neither short nor easy.

The United States was settled, in part, by radical Protestant iconoclasts from Britain who considered the creation and use of sacred imagery to be a violation of the Second Commandment against graven images. The anti-Catholic colonists at Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay refused to put images of Jesus in their churches and meetinghouses. They scratched out crosses in books. In the early 1740s, English officials even marched on an Indian community in western Connecticut, where they cross-examined Moravian missionaries who reportedly had a book with “the picture of our Saviour in it.”

The colonists feared Catholic infiltration from British-controlled Canada. Shortly after the Boston Tea Party, a Connecticut pastor warned that if the British succeeded, the colonists would have their Bibles taken from them and be compelled to “pray to the Virgin Mary, worship images, believe the doctrine of Purgatory, and the Pope’s infallibility.”

It was not only Protestants who opposed sacred imagery. In the Southwest, Pueblo Indians who waged war against Spanish colonizers not only burned and dismembered some crucifixes, but even defecated on them.

Even when artists began depicting Christ or the saints, it was a tough road.

When Hollywood first started portraying Jesus in films, one fundamentalist Christian fumed, “The picturing of the life and sufferings of our Savior by these institutions falls nothing short of blasphemy.” Vernon E. Jordan Jr., an African-American who was later president of the National Urban League and an adviser to President Bill Clinton, recalled that white audience members gasped when he played Jesus as an undergraduate at DePauw University in Indiana in the 1950s.

In fact, race has been a constant source of conflict over American depictions of Jesus. In Philadelphia in the 1930s, the black street preacher F. S. Cherry stormed into African-American churches and pointed at paintings or prints of white Christs, shouting, as one observer recounted, “Who in the hell is this? Nobody knows! They say it is Jesus. That’s a damned lie!”

During the civil rights era, black-power advocates and liberation theologians excoriated white images of the sacred. A 1967 “Declaration of Black Churchmen” demanded “the removal of all images which suggest that God is white.” As racial violence enveloped Detroit that year, African-American residents painted the white faces of Catholic icons black.


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Rod Gillis

Re Clint, “Until that future dawns when the tide begins to turn against the killers and the killing (Christian hope, anyone?), the best we can do is just try to stay out of the way and perhaps discourage our own bigots to stop the provocations as useless, life-claiming exercises in ignorance.”

Thanks Clint. Alleluia.

Weiwen Ng

Imagery of Jesus is one of my big things. In historical terms, it’s hard for me to imagine people of European descent having been settled in Palestine around 0 BC. Jesus the actual man most likely was not White.

On the other hand, Jesus Christ, Son of God, represents all people. In that sense, He is White – but it is grievously wrong for the Church to only depict Him as White. It is just as correct to say that He was Black, Asian, Hispanic, Indigenous.* As long as you say He was all of those things.

* In some sense, it is especially correct to describe Jesus as Indigenous. He was obviously not from the Americas. But His people did have a distinct culture and set of religious practices tied to their land, and they did suffer under imperial occupation.

Clint Davis

Really, we’ve already fought these battles, from the Iconoclasm movement to the Reformation and beyond, and yes, many of these battles were just as steeped in politics as the current street fights in the Muslim world. We have to give this the room it needs to fight out and blow out, and we need to stay out because it really isn’t any of our business. The voices of reason didn’t work for us for hundreds of years and Hillary Clinton can’t stop the killing now either, as essential as her excellent speech is to those who eventually WILL look for a way to stop the killing in the future. Until that future dawns when the tide begins to turn against the killers and the killing (Christian hope, anyone?), the best we can do is just try to stay out of the way and perhaps discourage our own bigots to stop the provocations as useless, life-claiming exercises in ignorance.

Rod Gillis

The controversy over depictions of the prophet in Islam, is not about depicting the divine, but rather about depicting the very human prophet Muhammad.

It is very difficult for those of us who are inheritors of either the Westminster or American Constitutional provisions, with the emphasis on freedom of expression, to bridge the gap with the cultural values of in the East on this issue.

Notwithstanding, it is important not to be naive about this controversy. The violent demonstrations by young men in the middle east and elsewhere must be understood within the context of national politics in those locations. The demonstrations are part of the effort of Islamist political parties to flex their muscle and keep western values at bay, making sure the so called “Arab spring” heralded in the West does not become too western or too western democratic.

Clint Davis

You are so right, Bill. I’ve always believed churchmanship is an attitude, not a dress code. Now, if your churchmanship demands a more elaborate dress code, then go ahead and layer that silk, but there’s nothing more disconcerting than a decked-out priest who, when you call him “Father”, he says, “Just call me Bob.” Well, I would just call you Bob if you weren’t so caped and draped, but now I probably won’t even call you, since now you’ve made me feel like you’re just playing church. There seems to be a lot of “playing church” in the Episcopal Church these days (guess there always has been), and it is disappointing at times and downright discouraging at other times.

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