Why we need to replace white Jesus
Views 73 | Time to read: 4 minutes | Uploaded: 3 - 27 - 2019 | By: Will Walker
In a recent New York Times opinion article, columnist David Brooks declared himself a “slow convert” to the side of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who in 2014 argued that reparations to black Americans for the towering damages of slavery and racism would be “a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal” and “the full acceptance of [America’s] collective biography and its consequences.”
Coates’ signature argument connects the material to the spiritual; a monetary transaction is not as trivial as we might at first think—in the case of reparations, it could help to save the soul of a nation tortured by centuries of injustice.
The argument for reparations on a national scale can serve as a metaphor for Westmont’s current debate surrounding an image of a White Jesus. Several students have called the window to our attention, first, as a damaging image in itself, and second, as a symbol of broader institutional marginalization suffered by people of color at our predominantly White college. As Coates and Brooks agree, a material object like money can carry a spiritual message. The same is true of a material object like a window.
Westmont must make a gesture to respect the voices of those who hurt under an image of Jesus. When we say we don’t know what Jesus looked like, but then depict Jesus as only European, we imply that Whiteness is the default, the most important, the best, the supreme. For this reason, it hurts people of color, for they are told they are less important. But it also hurts White people. A degradation of character occurs in White people like myself when we are constantly told that we are the most important kind of human. We receive this message every day; walking into a church and finding ourselves surrounded exclusively by images of White people is just one example of it.
But if we choose to solve this material problem instead of ignoring it, we’ll have an opportunity to accomplish a spiritual end as well. Adding art to peripheral locations surrounding a central White Jesus will not do this. If Westmont wishes to enact the radical love embodied in the New Testament, it will replace White Jesus with a creative and inclusive piece of art which better represents our community, both in terms of its values and its actual demographics.
But we must dismiss some smoke and mirrors before we can take action. Some in our community object that removing the window will violate Nancy Voskuyl’s memory, but I believe her memory will be secured all the more powerfully in an image which encourages the flourishing of Westmont students, White and of color -- something the current image does not accomplish. Others say that renovating the window, one piece of the chapel, will somehow desecrate the memorial chapel, but nobody raised these objections when we removed the pews from inside the chapel and replaced them with the folding chairs we use today. Finally, some say the demand that the window be removed is rooted in the need of critics of the window to be coddled, but I respond that our community will only cease to be coddled when we no longer need to be reassured at every turn that White is normal.
The window cannot be replaced in just any fashion. More specifically, replacing the window, if it is to accomplish a healing purpose in our community, must not be done in silence, a begrudging capitulation. This will encourage resentment and division. Instead, the removal of the window must be accompanied by a public statement outlining the college’s reasons for doing so. This effort must be made in transparency, in the hopes that this material action can constitute a moment of institutional acknowledgement of the challenges that people of color face in our community.
If our administration chooses to replace the window in the chapel with a creative and inclusive piece of art and takes a public stand outlining its reasons for doing so, it will be capitalizing on an opportunity to accomplish on our communal scale something allegorical to what Coates and Brooks have called for on a national scale. To adapt the words of Brooks, this material action, “a concrete gesture of respect,” would accomplish a spiritual purpose by “making possible the beginning of a new chapter in our common life.”