Fat Jesus: Beginning the Dialogue by Looking at the Black Jesus
James Cone, who I’ve mentioned before (and will likely be mentioning again) talks about the black Jesus. At first, the concept of a black Jesus might seem like a really radical idea to white people. But I think we can make sense of it if we take a deep breath, open up our mind, and consider two important factors.
1. If you happen to be part of a Christian faith community where there are artistic impressions of Jesus, think for a moment about what they look like. Do they look anything like this?
Dude is seriously white. Dude is blonde-haired, blue-eyed white.
And yet, the historical Jesus was NOT white. The historical Jesus, according to the BBC, very likely looked something like this:
Doing a quick Google image search for Jesus turns up page after page of almost exclusively racially white Jesuses (Jesi?). Which means that we white folk like to imagine Jesus looking like us. And we do so, without apology and almost without exception. So creating depictions of Jesus looking like us, despite historical accuracy, is not something white people are ourselves innocent of. Why shouldn’t black folks get to do the same?
And yet this isn’t even the crux of Cone’s argument. Here we come to the second, more salient, point:
2. Cone affirms Jesus was most certainly not black (as certainly as he was not white). But in some sense, Jesus is ontologically black. “Ontological” is one of those two-dollar seminary words that is difficult to avoid, because there really isn’t a better word to express what it means. Basically it means; “the very core of our being or essence.” In James Cone’s words, here’s what it means to him to have Jesus be ontologically black:
… like Scripture, the black experience is a source of the Truth but not the Truth itself. Jesus Christ is the Truth and thus stands in judgment over all statements about truth. But having said that, we must immediately balance it with another statement, without which the first statement falsifies what it intends to affirm. We must state the other side of the paradox emphatically: There is no truth in Jesus Christ independent of the oppressed of the land—their history and culture. And in America, the oppressed are the people of color—black, yellow, red, and brown. Indeed it can be said that to know Jesus is to know him as revealed in the struggle of the oppressed for freedom. Their struggle is Jesus’ struggle, and he is thus revealed in the particularity of their cultural history—their hopes and dreams of freedom.
So is that making more sense? The Truth revealed in Jesus—the Good News, the gospel—is dependent on the stories of the oppressed in order to be fully revealed. Now, I take issue with Cone’s assessment that “the oppressed” in America are simply the people of color. The people of color are, of course, oppressed, but so are many other groups, in a variety of different ways. Women, fat folks, people with disabilities, the poor, LBGTIQ minorities, and many others experience oppression within American society. In this way, Jesus is not only ontologically black but also ontologically a woman, ontologically fat, ontologically transgendered, ontologically gay, ontologically poor, ontologically disabled. To some extent, he actually was historically some of these things (poor, for example, and perhaps disabled or gay—we aren’t told). But the specific oppressions and privileges that the historical Jesus actually experienced doesn’t box in how the Truth of Jesus is expressed in ontological terms.
Right now I have several thoughts running through my head about what it might mean to talk about an ontologically Fat Jesus. I am also playing around with the differences between Fat Jesus and Fat Christ. I’m planning to return to this discussion, probably many times, so for now I will leave it at this and welcome any insight, questions, or clarifications you may have!