Deifying Bodies of Color

by Luis Josué Salés | Ελληνικά

Ethiopian icon of Mary and Jesus

Amid a nationwide BLM movement calling for the removal of statues and monuments that enshrine, even glorify, the genocidal, colonizing, enslaving, and imperialistic past of the United States, well-known BLM activist Shaun King tweeted that “The statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down” and in his next tweet adds: “All murals and stained glass windows of white Jesus, and his European mother, and their white friends should also come down. They are a gross form of white supremacy. Created as tools of oppression. Racist propaganda. They should all come down.” Predictably, a swirl of some positive and extremely negative responses, including death threats, ensued.

What has struck me as I follow the fallout of King’s response is the opinion shared by some, perhaps by many, that simply put, King is wrong. That he is equivocating when he conflates Sunday’s liturgical art with social realities outside the ecclesial walls. That we can, and in fact should, draw a clear line between the sacred art of “white Jesus” and the atrocities committed on this continent (and others) by whites against native and African folk (in the name of “white Jesus”). In brief, that there is no complicity between the representational modalities of sacred art and genocide, slavery, cultural supremacy, and systemic racism. This perspective is historically and theologically untenable.

While I may (very grudgingly) concede that the implicit colorism of late antique and medieval western sacred art may not have (primarily) functioned as what King rightly calls “a form of white supremacy,” a “tool of oppression,” and “racist propaganda,” it is nevertheless absurd to extend that exemption beyond the fifteenth century. I already find this upper limit overly generous given medieval western Christians’ colonizing encounters with Africans and the peoples of the east Mediterranean (primarily Arabs and Romans) from the eleventh century onward. Moreover, the discursive strategies of otherizing and racial purity discourse that had been deployed during the “Re”conquista and Crusades (e.g., Alfonso X’s Las siete partidas, Robert de Clari’s Conquest of Constantinople, the Chronicle of the Morea) became one of many tools in the European arsenal of colonization, genocide (biological, cultural, and spiritual), and enslavement of POC in subsequent centuries and their echoes can be readily detected in documents such as Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España. Indeed, the European genocide, enslavement, and colonization of America, Africa, and Asia would be unthinkable without the discursive, military, religious, and enslavement technologies that Europeans developed and fine-tuned during the “Re”conquista and Crusades.

Thus, “sacred” art was of unique propagandistic import for the western European enterprise of subjugating and spiritually dominating colonized peoples as it became the primary vehicle for the mass diffusion of their ideas among those whose literacy they had obliterated. And the optics of those ideas were very white. Among the Mexica, the powerful Coatlicue lost her vibrant earthly colors and became the garishly pale Virgen de Guadalupe. The orisha Yemoja of the Yoruba was Europeanized as she was sequestered westward, where in many churches to this day, even among a vast number of parishioners of color, she remains the whitewashed Nuestra Señora de Regla. Conversely, Iberian “missionaries” to the Habesha during negus Susenyos’ rule (1606–1632) had tangible difficulty processing the (black) Jesus of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo iconography, but were fortunately expelled from the Abyssinian highlands when native resistance galvanized around the indomitable partnered nuns Walatta Petros and Eheta Kristos. In brief, by the nineteenth century, peoples from Dutch-occupied Tanah Air Kita to US-occupied Mni Sota and Guapiabit were systematically coerced into worshiping a white man as God. Doubtless, the effect was unvaryingly similar: the sacralization of white supremacy through a representational coidentity of divinity and whiteness. Therefore, it is not only disingenuous to pretend that casting God as a white man for POC in asymmetrical power relations has no social, psychological, and religious ramifications, but it also fails to acknowledge the theologically dangerous link between racial supremacy and idolatry. When the iconography of the divine becomes racially self-referential to promote and preserve earthly power instead of deferring the noetic gaze beyond its ontological insufficiencies, the sanctity of that art becomes coextensive with its political motivations, past and present, and jeopardizes its potency for divine (un)signification.

While I understand the concern that some may have about King’s call for action in sacred spaces, the profound irony here is that the apocalyptic scenario they might imagine of trashed churches with divine images taken out of their places, shattered, insulted, and crushed on the floor has in fact already happened. Those sacred images were and are the bodies of color, images of the divine, that have been displaced and abused by white supremacists who erected their own image and likeness in their sacred places; it is up to them to determine for themselves whether an uncoupling of those images from their historical colonial referents is at all possible. I sincerely doubt any such separation of symbolic power can be achieved in a generation or even in our lifetimes.

Conversely, as early as the ninth century, Christians could be found across an immense swath of land from central China to Ireland and from Sudan to the Russian steppes. Their iconography of both local saints and major shared figures is a testament to the sustained Christian tradition of venerating people (of color) who were not “judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Accordingly, what is achievable among people of the Christian faith in this generation and in our lifetimes is the reinvigoration of the historical witness to the deification of bodies of color inside the iconographic plane and to extend that religious conviction beyond the liturgical space to affirm that bodies of color matter because they too are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4).

Luis Josué Salés is Assistant Professor and Chair of Religious Studies at Scripps College.