On Black Jesus:

Adult Swim’s Reimagining of the Messiah

I wasn’t surprised to see that late night programmer Adult Swim was going to put on a show called Black Jesus. I’ve been watching the network since my early teens (now about 10 years), recalling the days when it was the primary vehicle for Japanimation and cult-hit re-runs like Brendon Small’s semi-autobiographical Home Movies. Today Adult Swim is the anarchist asylum of edgy television, inspired by the crass, no holds barred Comedy Central hit South Park and MTV’s Wonder Showzen. With blaxploitation on the rise again with Black Dynamite and the throwback homages sprinkled through the run of The Boondocks, I didn’t think Black Jesus was treading new ground.

Of course it is the subject of instant controversy.

While owning most of The Boondocks and catching the occasional re-run on Adult Swim, I can say that I have not yet seen the pilot of Black Jesus. (Yeah, I’m one of those people.) After seeing most of McGruder’s work, including what I imagined to be proto-narratives in A Huey Freeman Christmas (S1E7), his aim is benign at best, despite his historically incendiary public correspondence. The extended trailer was quite amusing, which is about as much as I can glean without the glamourous access to cable television. Who is that tall, dark, and handsome Jesus? Why are his homies strapped for a gang war? How will Jesus be received in the hood? All, and more, I pondered. Was I surprised? Me, an orthodox-reformed-protestant? Not really. This is all old hat for McGruder, but it comes at an interesting time in history and the questions it evokes are as provocative as they are fascinating.

The receptions from most of the mainstream outlets, some of which are even arriving from heavy hitters like TIME and The New York Times, were generally receptive. But their immediate appeal is the account of defamation on behalf of the “Christian” community that is calling for a boycott and immediate ban of the show. Certainly there’s no news like bad news, but it’s a shame that my fellow brethren are so blind. Only some months ago I was subjected to the asinine debacle that demanded resolution on whether Jesus was white or not. It saddened me, as I watched the pundits huff and puff in generalities and clichés, with little biblical history under their belts aside from their tone deaf Sunday school propaganda. Apparently none of them had been to Palestine, where the majority of the people are very un-Italian. Nevertheless, the debate continues in McGruder’s Black Jesus, showing the man with a mission, in Compton.

BBC depicts Jesus's approximate appearance using remains of Jewish men from the 1st century in Son of God, a three episode 2001 documentary on the historical Jesus.

The setting of Black Jesus is remarkably astute, despite it being likely tongue in cheek. First Century Palestine wasn’t a rosy place by any means. Sectarian conflict ravaged the lands. Puppet regimes were enthralled in regal dick measuring contests, besting each other with their range of public works and projects. Amidst the highly complex geo-political climate, the Jews fomented with rage at every turn, watching their pagan lords desecrate their holy places, and became a highly sectarian society as a result.  The Zealots, a radical separatist party bent on overthrowing Rome, were contemporary terrorists. The Essenes DGAF-ed like no other, living in ascetic communes on the fringe. Lastly, the infamous party of the Pharisees lived among the ruins of their great Jewish empire, living lives of holiness within the confines of their four walled brick homes as best as they could. Sounds fairly metropolitan, doesn’t it?

Setting Black Jesus in Compton is, as I aforementioned, astute. Putting Jesus, a homeless Jew, into a fringe society where oppression and gangland warfare is prominent, and class oppression salient, is a good move on McGruder. Making his disciples a ragtag collection of riff-raff and gangsters isn’t too far from the reality, given that Matthew was a tax collector (Roman extortion agent) and Simon was a Zealot (radical Jewish terrorist/freedom fighter). Some, though, are leery about Jesus being crude and profane, as depicted in Black Jesus. Though Jesus’s depictions in the synoptic gospels, or his reputation in extra-biblical documents point to a muted personality, his proponents were rather unfriendly to his affiliations. What we know is that Jesus was popular with “sinners,” fringe members of society, and that his first miracle was turning water into wine at a weeklong marriage celebration. James Poniewozik’s review of the pilot elaborates:  “The show puts the Son of God in modern-day Compton, where he curses, hangs out with drug dealers, changes bottled water into cognac, and smokes blunts.”

Black Jesus and his contemporary disciples.

What’s offensive, it seems, is that modern day Christians (myself included) are always talking about loving our neighbors and being culturally relevant for the post-modern age. Books and films and magazines are cranked out of the “Americanity” machine but are so blinded to any form of introspection that we can’t imagine Jesus being McGruder’s foul mouthed Christ, despite the fact that Paul himself used profanity to describe good works done in the effort of impressing God. Philippians 3:8 mentions “rubbish” in the English Standard Version, which in koine Greek is translated from skubala.” Colloquially, this word translates to “shit” in the pejorative sense of modern English. Of course, I can’t infer that since Paul could get bleeped on prime time that Jesus said similar things. As an author, however, I can say that language is all about clarity and intentions. Jesus, a sinless man—as said in Christian tradition—could likely interact with the profane without sinning as he condescended to those he ministered to. It stands that, if Jesus was perfect in all things, then it follows that he was a perfect communicator, capable of speaking cultural language to anyone he came across. Were Jesus living in Compton in the 21st century, I wouldn’t be surprised if he used the N-word or profanity to speak into the lives of those that needed him most.

I will reiterate that I am not one to condone superfluous displays of creativity. Being crass for the sake of crass is hardly artistic. Being poignant, boldly so, is another matter entirely. After capturing a re-run of Black Jesus, further insight will be possible. Until then I am curious to see what will come of his show, and if McGruder will take the next step and depict Jesus in his iconic moments such as the Passion or his assorted healing miracles.

Messiah Power

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Stuart Warren is the former managing editor and webmaster for Sequart Organization. Stuart earned a BA in English with an emphasis in Early Modern Studies at University of California Santa Barbara. An avid reader and historian, Stuart researches Nordic mythology and paganism and is self-taught in the Norwegian language (Bokmål). He is a novelist and comic book writer. Spirit of Orn, his breakout Science Fantasy epic is now available for purchase via Amazon Kindle and iBooks.

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