In an episode of the 1970s sitcom Good Times—about a black family living in a Chicago housing project—an argument arises over a portrait of Jesus Christ. When it replaces another painting of Jesus hanging on the wall, Florida (Esther Rolle), the family matriarch, objects to the swap. The problem: while the original painting depicts Jesus as a white man with blond hair and blue eyes, this new Jesus is black. It also doesn’t help that he’s modeled on the neighborhood drunk. Yet when the family experiences a sudden streak of good luck, all eyes are on the “new” Savior in the house. Could the presence of a black Jesus make a positive impact on the lives of black people?
The Adult Swim series Black Jesus attempts to answer that question. From writer-cartoonist Aaron McGruder, creator of the animated series The Boondocks, Black Jesus approaches its subject with a similar irreverence and uniquely black point of view. The title character (Gerald “Slink” Johnson) dons the familiar attire—sandals, flowing robes, long hair, and a headband made to resemble a crown of thorns—but he’s portrayed by a black actor and now resides in Compton, Calif., a working-class, predominantly black and Latino city south of Los Angeles. Aside from his outfit and his 6’7” stature, this Jesus blends in with the rest of the community. He clowns around, cusses, smokes weed, and enjoys the occasional cognac. Still, his mission is clear: he’s here to spread the message of God.
What’s key about this characterization is that it’s more than a comedic, “urban” version of Christ. In the world of the show, Black Jesus is the Jesus—bad words, blunts, and all. While this may seem blasphemous at first, the show, in its own way, prompts us to fully embody the Word of God, to lead a life that more closely resembles the teachings of Jesus Christ.
In its recently concluded third season, the series continued to follow the (mis)adventures of Black Jesus as he engages with his community. He consorts with a rotating crew of underachievers, drug dealers, convicts, hustlers, and the homeless. As one doubter states, “You’re supposed to be Jesus, and you hang out with lowlifes like this.” To which Black Jesus responds, high-fiving his “lowlife” homey (Corey Holcomb), “Exactly!”
The result is a cast of characters who, though dialed up for laughs, represent real people in real communities, people who are often overlooked and undervalued by society at large. Like the biblical Christ, who cures lepers, paralytics, and the possessed, Black Jesus heals the afflicted in his community. He resurrects victims of drive-by shootings, endows a local drunk with eternal sobriety, and feeds the neighborhood with homegrown produce that gets the locals high “on God’s love and grace.” Also like the biblical Christ, Black Jesus’ actions testify to the truth and the power of God (or, as he calls God, “Pops”).
Could the presence of a black Jesus make a positive impact on the lives of black people?
Despite his profuse love and permanent smile, Black Jesus has his share of detractors, who seek to “expose” him as a fraud. He clashes with his landlord, Vic (Charlie Murphy), an avid churchgoer who sees Black Jesus as nothing but a con man; a judge (Barry Shabaka Henley) who orders Black Jesus to perform a miracle to prove he’s the son of God; and a Vatican representative (Roger Guenveur Smith) who seriously doubts that Jesus would return as “a black man in an American ghetto.” When Black Jesus volunteers to coach a youth football team, an opposing coach declares outright that “the real Jesus” is white—“maybe slightly sun-kissed in the summer, but not a shade darker!” The joke, of course, is that Black Jesus subverts cultural expectations (in particular, the Western ideal) of who Jesus Christ was and who he could be. Our response to that joke has profound implications for how we interpret Christ’s message and represent him on Earth.
In his book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, Bible scholar Marcus J. Blorg places Jesus’ work within the context of the ancient religious world in which he lived. Blorg points out that this society functioned under a “purity system” that drew “sharp social boundaries between pure and impure, righteous and sinner … rich and poor.” He goes on to say that “the message and activity of Jesus” promotes “a community shaped not by the ethos and politics of purity, but by the ethos and politics of compassion.” So when Jesus heals the sick on the Sabbath, breaks bread with tax collectors, and converses with social outcasts—all to the chagrin of dogmatic religious authorities—these actions represent more than sympathy imparted on the supposedly impure. They are acts of compassion, recognizing that everyone is deserving of God’s grace, regardless of the cultural distinctions that dictate social division. And so the concept of a contemporary black Jesus—one who’s based in the inner city, one who relates to the people who live in that community—affirms that, despite a history of social barriers and disparate economic conditions, God is ultimately looking out for black people, too.
Despite its focus on the black community, the show is universal. When Black Jesus is hit with yet another incredulous response to his race, he graciously explains away the confusion: “Some churches altered my image to better connect with my message. But how silly is that, ’cause like, I’m everybody’s brother, you feel me?” Indeed, throughout the series, he attracts followers from all racial and economic backgrounds, saints and sinners alike—including many of his aforementioned critics. (Following the death of cast member Charlie Murphy, the character of Vic was written out, and said to be “up with the angels” because “he had love for Pops.”) To this extent, Jesus’ race is inconsequential.
In that episode of Good Times, Florida eventually credits the new portrait of Jesus for “the first time that this family [has] sat together for more than five seconds discussing the Lord.” As Black Jesus demonstrates, varied artistic depictions of Christ—black, white, or otherwise—help communicate the gospel to wider audiences. To believe in Jesus’ message for humanity is to believe in the inherent humanity of all. In the words of Black Jesus, Pops’ love is everlasting, “no matter how [messed] up, how trifling, how ratchet you may be.”