A Symbol of Race or Faith?

By Sidney Hearn

In recent years, artists have searched for a new and more modern way to depict the image of Jesus Christ. One platform, the National Catholic Reporter, challenged artists with the question, “What would Jesus Christ look like in the year 2000” (“Jesus 2000”)? Above the altar of St. Stephen the Martyr Catholic Church in Birmingham, there once hung a crucifix that in its unique way answered this question. Known as the “Christ of the Nations” crucifix, it portrayed Jesus as a man of multiple races. Though this image was taken down after several years, it served for a time to remind worshipers not only of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, as a typical crucifix does, but also that when God became human he united himself to all races, not just one. This crucifix challenged social and religious normalcy and brought to light an idea of what a new image of Jesus might look like.

Background of St. Stephen’s and Christ of the Nations

St. Stephen the Martyr Catholic Church began on the Southside of Birmingham as a campus ministry in the 1980s. The University of Alabama at Birmingham was rapidly expanding. this created the perfect environment for St. Stephen to begin its ministry. St. Stephen’s officially opened in 1991. In its early years, the church employed various temporary installations of liturgical art. It was not until 1998 that the Christ of the Nations [Figure 1] was hung directly above the altar. A priest in Missiouri, Father David J. Dohogne, explains that “when you walk through the doors of the church, the crucifix is one of the first things to grab your attention: the open arms of our Savior gladly welcomes and receives us into his presence” (Dohogne). The Christ of the Nations fulfilled this purpose by standing out as the main centerpiece at St. Stephen, drawing all eyes to its unique features.

The crucifix itself was a two-dimensional object with four distinct sides. On this cross, the body of Christ is folded forward and the cross itself folded backward. Above the crucifix was a light shown down, cast the shadow of a diagonal cross on the square altar below. The arms of Jesus were open wide, both welcoming the congregation in and representing the redemption available to all who believe. Many of the features of this crucifix are highlighted by David Bains in his article “A Multi-Racial Jesus in Birmingham, Alabama.” These include that the emptiness of the cross itself symbolized resurrection. The most notable and arguably most surprising aspect of this art piece is that each of the four parts of the body of Christ displayed Christ as a different race. It was this feature, along with the unique structure of the crucifix, that made it so unusual and distinctive. As Bains puts it, “It certainly did not meet any strict definition of what a crucifix at an altar should be” (Bains). The racial diversity of the image of Jesus is uncommon, which is one possible reason for its removal from the church.

The Significance of the Catholic Crucifix

Aside from the racial aspect of this art piece, the crucifix fulfilled its purpose as a symbol of the Catholic faith and Christ’s sacrifice. The crucifix has been a known symbol for Catholic Christianity for centuries. One writer explains, “the crucifix is a reminder of the trials and tribulations that human beings face and the hope that comes from the redemption offered through Christ’s death on the cross to those who believe” (“History of Crosses”). Unlike other denominations that used the empty cross as a symbol of faith, Catholics typically used the crucifix which has Jesus’ body hanging on the cross for they believe “a simple cross does not have the same visual or spiritual impact” (Dohogne). The crucifix highlights the suffering that Christ had to endure before grace and salvation could be extended to all. The Christ of the Nations at St. Stephen’s functioned like any typical crucifix in reminding the congregation of the sacrifice of Christ and the resurrection and hope that followed. Yet, on some of the sides of the cross Jesus did not appear to be crucified. This was not traditional and may have been one of the reasons the Christ of the Nations was removed.

Analyzing the Race Aspect of Christ of the Nations

Though Christ of the Nations fulfills the typical purpose for a crucifix, it also brings to light another disputed topic, race. The most obvious feature of the cross was the different races of Jesus. The typical version of Christ that is in America seen is a white man, so creating a Jesus of a different race begs several questions: Is it okay for Jesus to be portrayed as a race other than white? Why is this take on the visual of Jesus not seen more often? Have Christians been improperly trained to see Christ as a white?

Since the most commonly seen images of Christ portray him as a white man, many people are uncomfortable with the idea of Jesus as any other race and are committed to understanding Jesus as a white Savior. Christians easily become “disciples of a white Jesus” without taking notice (Cleveland). Christena Cleveland, an associate professor at Duke University Divinity Schoop, points out that “while the Lord transcends skin color and racial divisions, white Jesus has real consequences.” She argues, “not only is white Jesus inaccurate, he also can inhibit our ability to honor the image of God in people who are not white” (Cleveland). Christians have become so accustomed to the image of a white Jesus any “claim that Jesus was black and his killers were white was, to them, downright bizarre” (Blum and Harvey, 235). The Christ of the Nations is an uncommon artwork, that encourages inclusivity and racial diversity in religion.

Similar Art Pieces

Other images of a non-white Jesus have have received national attention. In St. Cecelia Church in Detroit, the apse was painted by Devon Cunningham to portray Jesus as a black man [Figure 2]. Cunningham’s work was featured on the cover of Ebony Magazine in 1969 (“Detroit Church”). Similarly, in 1999, artist Janet McKenzie created the popular image “Jesus of the People” [Figure 3]. This image portrays Jesus in peasant’s clothing, with dark skin and thick lips. On his face is a look of “sadness but with confidence” (“Jesus of the People”). McKenzie created this image with the hope that it would “remind that we are all created in God’s likeness” (“Jesus of the People”). A third instance in which a black Jesus is portrayed is the “Sacred Heart of Jesus” statue in Detroit [Figure 4]. The statue was originally white, but in 1967 it was painted black by a protester. Officials at the seminary where the statue is displayed decided that it would remain painted as a black man, sparking many responses, both positive and negative. As one man put it, “This is what Jesus would want us to see is the beauty of each person and the beauty of each ethnicity and race” (Terry). Each of these art pieces, including Christ of the Nations, show recognition and appreciation for the beauty of different cultures in religion.

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Figure 2: The painting of a black Jesus (1968) by Devon Cunningham in St. Cecelia Church in Detroit. The image portrays Jesus as a black man. Photo: The Detroit Church Blog.

Figure 3: Jesus of the People (1999) by Janet Mckenzie. This painting pictures a black Jesus in peasants clothing with a solemn look on his face.
Figure 4: The Black Jesus Statue (1967) at Sacred HeartMajor Seminary in Detroit. This piece is a statue of that has been painted black. Photo: David Garulnick/ The Detroit News.

Importance and Impact

As Paul Harvey and Edward Blum wrote, “the color of Christ is inescapable” (249). It is an issue that has frequently come up and will continue to be debated. The Christ of the Nations crucifix is a beautiful portrayal of race mixed with religion and is particularly unique to the typical Catholic styled crucifix. St. Stephen the Martyr Church, although it no longer has this crucifix on display, provided a piece of art that provokes minds, encourages growth in opinions, and incites debate. The piece served as a centerpiece at St. Stephen’s and as a reminder of Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice on the cross. Christ of the Nations was a powerful and thought provoking image. As Bains put it, “This was always a powerful reminder that Christ’s identity transcends the physical features of the body of Jesus of Nazareth.” Although the Christ of the Nations is no longer on display at St. Stephen’s, it remains a memorable symbol of the grace and human likeness of Christ.

Editor’s note: We have have learned from Fr. Justin Ward that the artwork was moved to Birmingham’s Holy Family Christo Rey High School. Nov. 21, 2020.

Christ of the Nations
Medium: Wood
Artist: Unknown
Created and Installed: 1998
Location: Above the altar at St. Stephen the Martyr Catholic Church, 1515 12th Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35205

Sources for Further Information

Bains, David R. “A Multi-Racial Jesus in Birmingham, Alabama.” Chasing Churches, 10 Sept. 2020, chasingchurches.com/2020/04/10/a-multi-ethnic-jesus/. Accessed 14 Sep. 2020.

Blum, Edward J., and Paul Harvey. The Color of Christ The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Cleveland, Christena. “Why Jesus’ Skin Color Matters.” ChristianityToday.com, Christianity Today, 18 Mar. 2016, www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/april/why-jesus-skin-color-matters.html.

Detroitchurchblog. “St. Cecilia Church (St. Charles Lwanga Parish).” Detroit Church Blog, 18 Sept. 2014, http://detroitchurchblog.blogspot.com/2014/09/st-cecilia-church-st-charles-lwanga.html.

Dohogne, David J. “Why Catholics Have Crucifix Rather than Cross.” The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, 30 Aug. 2013, http://dioscg.org/why-catholics-have-crucifix-rather-than-cross/.

“Jesus of the People.” Janet McKenzie, www.janetmckenzie.com/joppage1.html. Accessed 14 Sep. 2020.

“Jesus 2000.” National Catholic Reporter, www.ncronline.org/jesus-2000.

Strategic Advantage, Inc. (My EZ Store). “Resources ” Our Holy Land Gift Guide .” The History of Crosses and Crucifixes, 2006, www.holylandtreasuresonline.com/Store/Content/ResourceArticle/-3/1/21.html. Accessed 14 Sep. 2020.

Terry, Nicquel. Black Jesus Statue One of Most Iconic ’67 Landmarks. 22 July 2017, www.detroitnews.com/story/news/religion/2017/07/21/black-jesus-statue-landmark/103908276/. Accessed 14 Sep. 2020.

Published November 18, 2020, updated November 20, 2020.

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