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August 23, 2009 / Katie

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!


Leave a Comment
  1. Kay / Aug 23 2009 8:11 pm

    This post is so beautiful it actually made me tear up. He really is all of those things with us.

  2. DivaJean / Aug 24 2009 6:06 am

    I once went to a LGBT Lutheran retreat where the main focus was what each of us envisioned Jesus to “look like”- it was amazing how each of our psyches came into play. We each had to bring a picture of what we felt most comfortable envisioning Jesus as- I picked a picture of Jesus and children. My partner picked this picture of Jesus laughing that my pastor also likes a lot.

    It was a very eye opening experience. I can well imagine how middle America, with its rabid fear of Middle Easterners and those with darker skin, would do seeing the image the BBC generated.

  3. Brady / Aug 24 2009 10:06 am

    I think that most of America does not recognize what a Middle Eastern person looks like. I have Middle Eastern heritage. It is possible to be blond, fair, blue-eyed and middle-eastern. Possible, and rare. It is also possible to have much more common features: darker skin, brown eyes and kinky hair.

    I think it makes quite a lot of sense to accept differing artistic representations of Jesus, according to the ontological truth felt by the artist. I love it when communities can express different interpretations of the same truth.

  4. fierceandsassy / Aug 27 2009 5:09 pm

    “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. ”

    well said, my friend. very well said.

    also, the jesus in the first picture is not only white, he’s european. you can tell by the nose. peoples in warmer climates had wider noses to help cool off the air as it entered the body [but don’t quote me on that, esp because the wider noses would have come first and i can’t remember why they would have gotten narrower]. compare barack obama’s nose, for example, with martin luther king jr’s.

    as for further reflection, i’d like to recommend a book called God’s Beauty Parlor. we read it in my homosexuality and hermeneutics class and it comes to mind because the author points out that most images of christ, especially on the cross, tend to show an emaciated waif looking person–but if jesus was as a carpenter, he would have been rather buff.

    last thing [for this comment, anyway], when i think of a fat biblical character, i think of herod–the one who was alive when jesus was being crucified. it’s probably b/c of jc super star; i have this image of swaths of red cloth and lots of excess everywhere. i think if you were going to argue for a picture–a visual image–of a fat jesus, i think you’d have to wrestle with the assumption that poor people don’t get fat b/c they can’t afford to live in that kind of excess. or that jesus wouldn’t have been fat b/c he walked everywhere.

    ok, that’s a long enough comment…

  5. Lynn / Oct 21 2011 5:15 am

    I will be excited to hear your thoughts on an ontologically fat Jesus. I do want to thank you for posting this. Although I found it on accident, I was trying to explain to a friend of mine what Cone means by ontological blackness. Your thoughts helped me explain better. Thanks.

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