Black Jesus and the Importance of Optics

 
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“Guys, I’m sorry, but can we get a black Jesus?”

I was apologizing because it was hours before our first youth outreach event of the week at a local church, and I had just seen the dress rehearsal of a skit depicting the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our team members, who had worked tirelessly for weeks writing and practicing, had done a fabulous job. They had also cast a young white man for the lead role.

I was apologizing because I felt terrible that we had to make such a momentous change so last minute, but it was necessary. You see, our event was taking place in Cap-Haitien, Haiti.

The Haitian population is 95% black ("The World Factbook: HAITI", 2017). Our team happened to be mostly white, and this particular trip had a religious component. Team members had volunteered their personal time to develop their respective roles in this skit, and this talented man was the one who volunteered to play the role of Jesus.

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In a world where the standard model of international aid remains paternalistic (Moyo & Ferguson, 2010), and technology has facilitated the dissemination of information, optics are increasingly relevant to the messaging of organizations seeking to have a positive impact.

How many of us consider how the work we do “looks”? Can we anticipate every message that will be conveyed through the images we present? Is it worth it to try to find out?

Earlier this year Pepsi released and then pulled an advertisement portraying a moment when a white female surrounded by partying protesters handed a white male police officer a token of friendship. It was a baffling failure to consider the effect this illustration might have on an American psyche grappling with the current dynamics between race, policing, and protesting. “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” the company said in a statement. “Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize.” (“Pepsi Statement Re: Pepsi Moments Content”, 2017) Their message was bigger than drinking Pepsi—but a problem with representing “unity, peace, and understanding” this way was that everyone generally accepts those things exist between white females and white police. That wasn’t a global message worth sending because that was already a global understanding.

In our case, we were trying to project the global message of the Gospel, a bigger message than us being in town for the week to host activities for local children. As there is nothing wrong with white people playing Jesus in a skit, there is nothing wrong with white people sharing a Pepsi. But a black Jesus matters in a black context. What we made a conscious decision to do was avoid presenting the image of a “white savior” to the next generation of Haitians because we knew about the history and the legacy of such figures in their country (Katz, 2013). We were conscious of every possible impression because the possible consequences mattered to us.

The ideas we care about are powerfully expressed in the words and likeness that human beings give them. We will always present people who embody our ideas in ways that belie our true convictions, whatever they are.

To their credit, everyone on that mission team rose to the challenge of an eleventh hour re-casting of Jesus as a black man with an impressive level of humility and grace. It is my hope that not only will P4H as an organization continue to learn how to be mindful of ways to lift up the people we partner with, but the individuals who participate in our trips will go home and do the same in their communities.

References:

Katz, J. M. (2013). The big truck that went by: how the world came to save Haiti and left behind a
disaster. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Moyo, D., & Ferguson, N. (2010). Dead aid: why aid is not working and how there ia a better way for Africa. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre.

Pepsi. (2017, April 5). Pepsi Statement Re: Pepsi Moments Content [Press release]. Retrieved May 8, 2017, from http://www.pepsico.com/live/pressrelease/pepsi-statement-re--pepsi-moments-content04052017.

The World Factbook: HAITI. (2017, January 12). Retrieved May 08, 2017, from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ha.html.

 
Victoria Shelly, M.A.