Bigotry and Blasphemy

Bigotry and Blasphemy

(Mama, displayed with permission of the artist Kelly Latimore)

Growing up in an Irish Catholic family in the pre-Vatican II 1950’s and early 1960’s in Philadelphia, on an almost daily basis at home and in school I saw images of Christ, the Blessed Mother and the Holy Family that looked like this:

The images were certainly pleasant, highly romanticized — and very white, a fact we took for granted.  We grew up believing that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were white!  Why not?  That was our iconography and no one was about to tell us otherwise.  And the good by-product of those depictions was that we could, perhaps, see ourselves in these blessed figures, or at least feel some level of recognition, kinship and desire to be like them, or at least to please them on our better days.

We didn’t think about all the kids who couldn’t see themselves in those venerable pale figures — such children were few and far between in our experience, anyway.  I seem to recall maybe one Black child in my entire Catholic parish grade school experience, and maybe one Black classmate in high school.  In the same way, our school experiences largely did not include students of Latino, Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern, Native American and other races and ethnicities.

Fast forward 50 years, and I would have thought that the education of Catholic students had advanced far beyond that isolated Euro-centric cocoon of mid-20th-century Catholic parishes and schools.  We know that today, and to their credit, great Catholic K-12 parochial schools in many cities have majorities of Black and Hispanic students.  But many other Catholic schools and private Catholic schools are not so diverse.

A recent controversy at The Catholic University of America suggests that, in some parts of American Catholicism at least, it’s still the 1960’s when it comes to White Jesus.

The controversy began innocently enough, with earnest good intentions at the end of Black History Month in 2021.  The CUA Law School chose to display Kelly Latimore’s icon “Mama” (see image at the top of this blog, and now on display at Trinity) and a March 3, 2021 description of the dedication ceremony on the CUA Law website sounds very sincere, with the law dean reading a Maya Angelou poem and another dean reading Langston Hughes.

The image remained in place for months without any incident, but in November, a conservative news outlet The Daily Signal (owned by the very conservative Heritage Foundation) wrote a disparaging story about the icon.  The author of the article, a CUA alumna, quoted an anonymous student who called the icon “blasphemous” because the Black man depicted resembled George Floyd, the Black man murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis in May 2020.  The article claimed that displaying the icon was a “symptom of the liberalization and secularization of our campus.”  The article also chose to mock the university’s report on race and racism on campus, once again favorably quoting a student who attacked the whole idea of working for equity, as well as complaining about CUA Campus Ministry’s alignment with social justice, Black Lives Matter, and LGBTQ rights.

The article prompted a petition demanding that the icon be removed.  Someone — at this point, we still don’t know who — took that petition to heart and stole the icon.   A police investigation is ongoing.

Catholic University President John Garvey quickly issued a statement decrying the theft, saying that, “The image represents to our community a good-faith attempt to include religious imagery on campus that reflects the universality of the Catholic Church.”  But a second copy of the icon, hung to replace the first, was also stolen.  The right-wing drumbeat continued to insist that the male figure in the icon was blasphemous because it resembled George Floyd.  After the second theft, President Garvey issued another statement that acknowledged the criticism of the icon, but called for the university community to continue dialogue about “the role art plays in our faith and culture.”

The issues raised by the thefts and criticisms of the “Mama” icon at Catholic University challenge all of us who are educators striving to help students bring the witness of faith to contemporary life.  We can admire the vigor with which the students at Catholic University defend their idea of their faith while, at the same time, wondering how such well-educated Catholics can be so wrong in their understanding of the religious, moral, social and cultural issues inherent in a thoughtful interpretation of Latimore’s icon.  The defense of the faith cannot be premised on ignorance, bigotry, or repression of ideas we don’t like.

Sure, everyone is welcome to their own interpretation of a work of art — the fact that some students found Latimore’s art offensive is their right; I disagree with their interpretation, but they have every right to express dissent.  But to go from saying, “I don’t like that picture,” to condemning it as immoral, to labeling the icon “blasphemous,” and then to destroying the artwork through theft — such extreme responses and actions go from legitimate differences of opinion to inexcusable hostility to the image of a dying Black man.  What is truly blasphemous in this episode is not Latimore’s icon but the bigotry and sheer racism of those who destroyed its display.

Some of the critics said the icon was “confusing.” Saying that Catholic college students are “confused” by the painting is just ridiculous — these are university students, not children in grade school, and university students should have the intellectual capacity to engage in interpretation of the signs and symbols of artwork without wanting to destroy or repress the image.  One critic, in an argument rife with arrogant sophistry, claimed that, “This painting dangerously confuses students about Christ’s divinity and perfection, reducing Jesus to a controversial and troubled public figure,” omitting the fact that Jesus Christ, himself, was such a “controversial and troubled public figure” that he was crucified between two thieves.  And, in the absence of original photographs or images from AD 33, exactly how does any artist portray Christ’s “divinity and perfection” on canvas?  Would that be White Jesus?  Every image of Christ ever made was conceptualized by the artist’s own imagination and limited means of expressing that imagination with paint or marble or wood or glass or other tangible media.  Every image of Christ ever made depicts a human being whose face is not the actual face of Jesus, but an artist’s interpretation.

We read in John’s Gospel:

“and the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us”

Our faith teaches us that Jesus Christ was fully human.  This was not some magic trick.  The idea of the humanity as well as the divinity of Christ is a central mystery of our faith.  To deny his humanity betrays our faith.  The crucifixion is the ultimate evidence of Christ’s humanity.  The image of a mother grieving over the lifeless body of her son — the Pieta — is the most profound expression of humanity possible.  The Resurrection is the true evidence of Christ’s “divinity and perfection,” his triumph over the suffering and death of the cross; but Latimore’s icon, like Michaelangelo’s Pieta, is about the humanity inherent in a mother grieving her son’s cruel death.  The critics of “Mama” are the ones who are truly confused.

Our faith leaders remind us constantly that we must see the face of Jesus in others, that the suffering of so many in this world is his suffering, too.  We are called to solidarity with the poor and oppressed and marginalized of this earth because, in them, we find the mystery that is the central life of our faith. This is the essential teaching about the dignity and worth of all human life, the foundational tenet of social justice.

The critics call the image “blasphemous.”  What is blasphemous is a bigotry that looks at an image of a suffering Black man and, far from seeing the face of Christ, sees an object of derision, sees a cause for hatred and denunciation, uses the image as a platform for repression and denial of the truth of Christ’s presence in every human being.  The criticisms of “Mama” express a level of contempt for the image that is rife with racism; the destruction of the icon in the name of some distorted view of religious belief is hideously ignorant, a betrayal of the real teachings of our faith on the dignity and worth of every human life.

In the aftermath of the theft of the icon, a resolution of the Catholic University Student Government Association asked the university to find “other forms of art that represent diversity and bring forth representation of the African American community in a nonpolitical and uncontroversial way.”  That is simply impossible.  Any artwork that truthfully represents the African American community in America will necessarily be political and controversial and we cannot shy away from that truth.  We cannot escape the image of the pain and suffering of George Floyd as he lay dying under the policeman’s knee.  We cannot shroud the images of Michael Brown with his life draining away on a street in Ferguson because our eyes might be too delicate for that hideous view.  We must not look away from the images of bodies hanging from trees in the old south, the whip-scarred backs of slaves, the tormented body of Emmet Till in his casket, the great John Lewis crouching under a policeman’s nightstick on the march across the Pettus bridge.  The homicidal toll of racism in the United States is relentless; let’s not kid ourselves that we can look the other way and find peace or safety in ignorance.  In the words of Pope Paul VI, if we want peace, we must work for justice.

Catholic higher education can and should be a force for racial justice in our nation, but we cannot possibly fulfill that responsibility if we fail to confront the racism and intolerance that infects our own campuses as well as the larger Church.  We should use the occasion of Black History Month not for superficial displays of comity but for serious examination of the climate for racial justice on our campuses and the actions we must take to address racial hatred both internally and in the larger community.

The Archdiocese of Washington has announced an anti-racism initiative entitled, most appropriately, “Made in God’s Image.”  The website includes many resources for prayer, dialogue and action on racism.  Cardinal Wilton Gregory has spoken forcefully on the issue of racism and the Catholic Church in numerous forums, including most recently at Yale University.  The American Catholic bishops have also issued numerous statements on what they call America’s “Original Sin” of racism, including the 2018 statement “Open Wide Our Hearts” in which they wrote:

“Racism occurs because a person ignores the fundamental truth that, because all humans
share a common origin, they are all brothers and sisters, all equally made in the image of God.
When this truth is ignored, the consequence is prejudice and fear of the other, and—all too
often—hatred. Cain forgets this truth in his hatred of his brother. Recall the words in the First
Letter of John: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer
has eternal life remaining in him” (1 Jn 3:15). Racism shares in the same evil that moved Cain to
kill his brother. It arises from suppressing the truth that his brother Abel was also created in the
image of God, a human equal to himself. Every racist act—every such comment, every joke,
every disparaging look as a reaction to the color of skin, ethnicity, or place of origin—is a failure
to acknowledge another person as a brother or sister, created in the image of God. In these and in
many other such acts, the sin of racism persists in our lives, in our country, and in our world.”

I invite members of the Trinity campus community to offer your comments and interpretations of the “Mama” icon — use the comment link below or send me an email at  “Mama” is on display in the Well of Main Hall at Trinity along with another beautiful Latimore icon “La Sagrada Familia” depicted below.

You might also want to hear Kelly Latimore discuss his icons and the CUA controversy on the Gloria Purvis podcast, Why an icon depicting Jesus as a Black man was stolen from a Catholic university.”

For additional background on the broader issues in this discussion:

University of South Carolina: The Long History of How Jesus Came to Resemble a White European

Washington Post:  How Jesus Became So White

NPR Interview with Edward Blum, Author of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America

We will also have a dialogue about these issues during one of our next “Campus Conversations.”

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