I’m neither an artist nor an historian, but I’ve been fascinated with the way Jesus has been portrayed by artists throughout history. Over the next few posts I’m planning to take a very selective look at how we have pictured Jesus at different eras and in different cultures. You can read the earlier posts here and here and here.
In 1999, the Church Advertising Network (CAN), comprising a variety of English denominations, launched their Easter campaign featuring a poster of Jesus looking like the Argentinian Marxist rebel, Che Guevara. Set against a communist red background, the slogan read, “Meek. Mild. As If. Discover the real Jesus. Church. April 4.”
It was designed to get Brits to go to Easter services, but instead it set off a little media storm. Some howled that it was blasphemous to compare Jesus with the man who helped Fidel Castro establish the Cuban communist state in 1959. One Tory MP described the poster as sacrilegious, saying, “It is grossly sacrilegious to liken Jesus to Che Guevara or anybody else.”
But Rev Tom Ambrose from CAN defended the campaign by saying, “We want people to realize that Jesus is not a meek, mild wimp in a white nightie, but a real, passionate and caring person. Jesus was a revolutionary figure and more revolutionary than anyone in the 20th century.”
Since 1999, we’ve had a whole cohort of young, angry Reformed preachers in the style of Mark Driscoll, telling us about muscular, cage-fighting, cigar-chomping Jesus, so maybe the CAN poster isn’t as offensive today as it was back then. But it still begs the question, why don’t we see more pictures of revolutionary Jesus?
It turns out they are around, just not in European cathedrals or art galleries. The most revolutionary images of Jesus are found in non-Western contexts where artists help others imagine Jesus on the side of the oppressed, fighting for justice. Take this picture, for example. It is titled Angry Christ, and was painted by Filipino artist, Lino Pontebon:
Pontebon has said he was depicting the moment when Jesus overturns the traders’ tables in the Jerusalem Temple (Mt 21:12-13; Mk 11:15-18). He wanted to create a counterpoint to all the meek and mild paintings of Christ so readily found throughout history. As in many other countries, the poor of the Philippines are vulnerable to exploitation either of their land, or through trafficking into domestic service or the sex trade. It sometimes takes a non-Western perspective to be reminded that the rich and powerful will be judged for our treatment of the poor.
Take another look at Pontebon’s painting and try to imagine Jesus pointing that finger at you.
Another example is this icon called Christ of Maryknoll (2002), painted by American Franciscan monk, Br Robert Lentz, which depicts Jesus as a Mexican revolutionary.
This painting includes a lot of standard religious imagery (the Christogram, the halo, the nail marks), all of which indicate the figure is Jesus. But Jesus is incarcerated behind barbed wire, which makes him appear like a prisoner of war, standing with all those who have been jailed for their work among the poor, the broken, the oppressed.
The idea of Jesus as a prisoner brings to mind his words about visiting “the least of these” in Matthew 25 (“I was in prison and you came to visit me”) But the two images above of Jesus as Che and as a Mexican rebel say more than that he is concerned for those in prison. They suggest he is a revolutionary. So, was he?
Bryan Smith writes, “Revolutions bring change to systems, situations, and relationships. Power, upheaval, and instability are the motivating forces found within revolutions. Can we say Christ was a revolutionary? Yes, but not in the typical fashion of revolutionaries. He didn’t come wielding a sword or using power. His is a revolution of transformation in which he includes us. We are part of the revolution.”
Jesus was a revolutionary insofar as he (and his followers) give voice to the marginalized. By advocating for those in sexual or industrial slavery, for the homeless, and refugees, Jesus’ disciples are demanding a change to the existing system. Indeed, Christians have long thought that it is not enough to merely attend to the needs of those suffering within an unjust system; we believe we need to change a system to make it fairer and more just. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”
But how far should Christians go in this revolutionary activity? Should we take up arms against an unjust dictatorship, for example? This image from Cuba is called Guerrilla Jesus (1969) by Alfredo Rostgaard:
Rostgaard was a Cuban graphic designer and artist who regularly mixed satire, humor and politics in his designs. I can’t be sure, but I wonder whether this picture of Jesus as a gun-wielding rebel is intended as more provocative than earnest. I am certainly provoked by it. The thought of Jesus, who spoke so consistently about peacemaking and non-violence, carrying (let alone firing) a gun makes my skin crawl.
Less satirical and far more concerning was another gun-wielding image of Jesus from a barrio in Venezuela. La Piedrita (the little stone) is a militant Marxist collective that recently gained notoriety after several children from the barrio posed with (allegedly plastic) M-16 rifles in front of a neighborhood mural depicting Jesus and the Virgin Mary carrying guns:
The sign reads La Piedrita “We will overcome,” although I think they mean it a bit differently to the old Pete Seeger song.
My cringe response to Jesus carrying a gun clearly isn’t shared by all. Some years ago, the Internet dished up this gem — Jesus as an open carry Marlboro man:
I suspect this too is a satirical image, but it does interest me that some North Americans, who aren’t the least bit concerned about Jesus carrying a gun, would be quite distressed by the thought of Jesus as a gun-carrying South American Marxist. A friend of mine recently quipped, “People are fine with Jesus carrying a gun to look after himself, but horrified that he would carry a gun to look after the poor.” That point may be moot, but if you can see Jesus taking up arms to fight the Russians in Ukraine or ISIS in Iraq why couldn’t you see him fighting a Cuban dictator?
As I mentioned earlier, I can’t see him taking up arms against anyone, left or right. I agree with Brian Zahnd when he says, “The revolution of Christ is the radical alternative to the unimaginative politicism of the religious Right and Left. Jesus is not apolitical. Far from it. Jesus is intensely political! But Jesus has his own politics — and they cannot be made to serve the interests of some other political agenda. As Eugene Peterson says, ‘The gospel of Jesus Christ is more political than anyone imagines, but in a way that no one guesses’.”
I love Shane Claiborne’s project of taking donated firearms, dismantling them, and repurposing them as gardening tools.
And before you quote Luke 22:36 to me (“If you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one”), I don’t think that one solitary verse is an endorsement of armed struggle at all. You have to balance it against the hundreds of verses in which Jesus teaches about peacemaking, loving enemies, and turning cheeks. There’s simply nowhere in the Gospels where we see Jesus fomenting any sort of armed uprising. And if Luke 22 is the one place where we do, he was pretty bad at planning an insurrection. I mean, two swords against a whole Roman garrison?
When the disciples tell him they have two swords and he replies, “That’s enough!” (Lk 22:38), he’s clearly not saying, “Oh yeah, two will be enough.” He’s saying, “Enough of that kind of talk!” And if you have any doubt about that, later in the story when Peter uses one of those two swords to attack the party arresting Jesus, he snaps, “Put your sword back in its place. For all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Mt 26:52).
So, no, I don’t think Jesus was a Galilean Che Guevara. But I do suspect he was more like Paolo Pier Pasolini’s Jesus in his 1964 film, Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (“The Gospel According to Matthew”):
As Jesus, Pasolini cast a 19-year-old Spanish student named Enrique Irazoqui because he thought he looked like an average man of the times. He instructed Irazoqui to play Jesus as an outsider, understated but fiery and stoic. This wasn’t the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus of most Bible films. Jesus is nearly always shrouded by a dark robe and hood. He whispers furtively when teaching his disciples, looking left and right as if on the lookout for spies or enemies. In some scenes he is marching around the Holy Land, shouting his words of wisdom over his shoulder to his followers. The impression is one of urgency and movement.
Even though the script was taken directly from Matthew’s Gospel (hence the title), Jesus is presented with obvious Marxist (or at least insurrectionist) overtones. He is an outcast savior serving the oppressed proletariat. This is especially evident when he cleanses the temple in Jerusalem.
Finally, I should leave you with this beautiful picture of Jesus. It is by German printmaker, Otto Pankok and is titled Christ Breaks the Rifle (1950):
Pankok was a well-established artist when Hitler came to power in 1933, but he was thereafter declared a “degenerate artist” because his central theme was the suffering of the oppressed. His pictures were seized from museums and art shops and he became destitute, barely surviving the war. By the 1950s, however, he was a professor at the Dusseldorf Academy of Fine Arts, where he created the woodcut, Christ Breaks the Rifle, which was later used by the German Christian peace movement in 1989.
You can read Part V Does It Matter What Color Jesus Is? here.
To read a free chapter of my latest book, ReJesus: Remaking the Church in Our Founder’s Image, visit http://rejesusbook.com/