I had the opportunity to meet Christopher McCulloch (AKA Jackson Publick) and Doc Hammer this year at the San Diego Comic Con. (It was a random affair, the sidewalk meeting of a minor hero/celebrity that we’ve all experienced at least once or twice.) I savored the experience, as Julian and Desmond can attest, and took the opportunity to ask the duo a few questions, largely dwelling on how impressed I was at The Venture Bros.’ slow, yet appropriate evolution. Concerning the earlier seasons, I expressed my reluctance with the show departing from the ongoing Hanna-Barbara lampoon shtick. I really enjoyed that era, and still do. There is a magical quality to a fresh script that is still fresh even after the 30th viewing. Still, their reply reinforced my respect for the two even more. Doc told me that you can only do the Scooby Doo/Johnny Quest gags for 2-3 seasons before it gets old. And I agreed with him, even if my naïve idealism wasn’t prepared to accept the answer. So when I saw last night’s episode of Black Jesus I was reminded of the conversation, and began critically assessing where Aaron McGruder’s brilliant deconstruction of the Historical Jesus could lead, if it would go on or just whiter away.
“The Shit Heist,” is more or less what the title implies. In lieu of being extorted by two “Vatos,” Black Jesus and his disciples must now find a way to cultivate their garden without thier venture capital. They need manure, and then steal it in a botched heist that leaves a myriad of footprints leading right back to Black Jesus and his followers. The B plot involving a gluttonous home invasion perpetrated by Lloyd the neighborhood booze hound helps resolve the tension of the episode, but leaves the show without the momentum of the previous one. The gospel of Mark, however, is known for its momentum, using the word “immediately” to characterize the imperative upon which the Historical Jesus was operating. (Being also the shortest of all the synoptic gospels, Mark can be read in under and hour due to its breakneck pace.) In light of this, Black Jesus comes off as lackadaisical in episode three. Despite the odd pacing and moral ambiguity that Black Jesus becomes involved with, the episode is not without the tender moments that remind the viewer that McGruder’s agenda is to offer his reconceptualization of Jesus in the modern era, reaching out to a poor, maligned suburb of Compton.
Whereas the previous episode contained within the script some obvious analogues to parables and events within the life of the Historical Jesus, “The Shit Hiest” is bereft of the former’s clarity. Still, Jason (played by Antwon Tanner) likely intends to reflect a reimagining of the story of the Rich Young Man (Matthew 19:16-22). Here, Matthew describes a particularly sad encounter in which a promising individual comes to seek Jesus only to be propositioned a bargain that he cannot accept:
16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness,19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (English Standard Version)
The parable has Jesus confronted by a man wanting to engage in Jesus’s populist revolution, whose faithfulness to the Law of the Hebrews is staunch and, at least outwardly, in good community standing. Jesus’s probing however reveals that the man’s fidelity to the law is superficial, if not “paint-by-the-numbers.” What is implied in the pericope is that the man’s true love is not YHWH, but affluence, material possessions, comfortable living, or possibly social standing (in this case with the Sadducees, Hellenistic Jews who had integrated Roman society as politicians and the social elite). So Jesus poses to the man to sell his possessions as a test of faith, to which the man goes away in shame because he was very wealthy. It’s problematic to read this passage as a prescriptive command that one must live an aesthetic lifestyle in order to follow Jesus. Rather, in this particular instance Jesus proves to the Rich Young Man, and all those gathered around him, that the Young Man’s true love is not to YHWH at all, but to the transient wealth he owns. The Rich Young Ruler fails this test of faith.
Wealth and material possessions, therefore, is the most discernable hindrance to developing true community in Compton.
“Who has the most stuff?” The answer to this probe occupies our contemporary culture’s focus, but especially those cultures of the lower classes. My sophomore AP US History teacher, an embittered, salty Vietnam veteran with a short temper and love of 60s era rock and roll, once told a story concerning his grandfather. A poor immigrant arriving on Ellis Island at the turn of the century, Grandpa Walsh didn’t trust banking institutions, which symbolized the social hierarchy that oppressed him. So, like any God fearing Irish Catholic, he hid his life savings, anything he earned, under his mattress. (This was handy when the stock markets crashed causing mass panic and bank failure all over the country.) Furthermore, he invested in gold, externalizing his wealth in jewelry and material accoutrements that could neither perish nor depreciate in value. Rather, they would emphasize his affluence. Jason, one of Black Jesus’s followers, places value on his retro Air Jordan reissue shoes that his girlfriend gave him, which symbolize status and standing in the community. Likewise, the pharisaic landlord Vic, who suspects Fish of stealing the package containing his new pair of fancy loafers, employs a homeless man (Lloyd) to sneak into Fish’s apartment to find the shoes. In response to this culture, Black Jesus benignly, and graciously, combats the mindset that dominates Compton.
In each instance, Black Jesus denounces the sins of his brothers as vanity, an attitude which is intrinsically inward focused. Of all the miracles he performs in the episode, both Vic and Jason’s requests to secure the safety of their possessions are denied. But he cares for Lloyd, who debauches himself upon the lavish foodstuffs in Fish’s fridge (hotdogs, store-bought potato salad, and cheap beer). Black Jesus tenderly covers Lloyd’s nakedness in a warm blanket and sets him down outside on a bench within the center quad of the apartment complex. In the morning, Black Jesus conjures a coconut water beverage for Lloyd to also help him get over his hangover as well. Where Jason laments the loss of his shoes (which are destroyed by following Black Jesus) and Fish laments his desecrated apartment, Black Jesus emphasizes the importance of the community focus that he is cultivating. In a world of poor, destitute citizens, marginalized by discrimination and classism, Black Jesus desires to establish a communal atmosphere of brother/sisterhood in one of the poorest cities in the United States. In order to accomplish this, it is necessary to relinquish the superficial ties to wealth and opulence that enslaves and corrupts those close to him.
The dubious and suspect quality of the episode, depicting a Jesus that commits grand larceny and manipulates reality to achieve the end of his mission is not as troubling of a prospect as it could be. Jesus broke many ceremonial extra-canonical laws during his earthly ministry, and decried the social and religious hierarchy for making them in the first place (Mark 7:1-13). He saw them as laws which compounded the effects of institutionalized poverty, which destabilized the Jewish community and advanced their slow progression towards full assimilation into the Greek-Hellenistic Empire. Black Jesus confronts the same sectarian impulses and divisions caused by wealth within his own group of disciples and the community at large. How his group garden will bring Compton will determine McGruder’s own sentiments with the power of the Historical Jesus narrative.
Overall, the episode, is weaker than the previous two, but the power lies in the subtle commentary that belies the series as a whole. It proves the Aaron McGruder is not only the “Angriest Black Man in America,” but possibly one of the most well-read and influential one at that among contemporary culture.