Mary wore three links of chain
Every link was freedom’s name.
—“Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep”
Jon McNaughton made a splash recently with a painting of Barack Obama trampling the Constitution, standing defiantly as presidents of the past plead with him. Typically, I find this kind of political discourse distasteful and misguided, but I quickly move on. This time, I dug further.
I have no interest in detailing all the objections I have to McNaughton’s interpretation of U.S. history and the public place of religion in society—not to mention his interpretation of theology. McNaughton himself offers abundant explanation for the symbolism, going so far as to include the specific Supreme Court decisions he views as anti-biblical (reaching back even to Marbury v. Madison in 1803). That he believes that God divinely inspired the Constitution certainly deserves notice, but that is not a unique view among certain Christian circles.
Primarily, I am incensed that Jesus—born a dark-skinned, Palestinian—is depicted as of European descent. Many cultures have portrayed the resurrected Christ in terms of their own ethnic identity. It is a longstanding artistic tradition. Taken together, this plurality can—and often has—represented a God who is the creator and redeemer of all peoples. That said, the tradition has frequently been abused, especially in the United States.
We need only look back to our own Constitution (article 1, section 2), in which Native Americans were excluded entirely and “all other persons”—in other words, enslaved Africans—were counted as three-fifths of a person. If God did indeed inspire the Constitution as McNaughton believes, the Jesus of history would have been included among the African slaves rather than the white freemen. Indeed, the ethnic Arab Jesus would have been identified with the sexual, irrational, and uncivilized Other in contrast to the white, virtuous, and civilized male of the Founding Fathers.
Even more, in a nation as ethnically diverse as the United States, McNaughton paints a field of white men and women with only a handful of black faces spread throughout. A single black man occupies a space that can be considered prominent. By portraying only African Americans and Euro-Americans, McNaughton reinforces the white-black binary that has consistently lumped the Chinese, Arabs, the Irish (yes—even the red-faced Irish), Latinos, and Native Americans into the category of blackness. The implication is clear: only those who look like McNaughton’s Jesus are central to the national identity.
To be fair, McNaughton addresses the question of race in his blog. He publishes a question posed by an African American admirer—“But as an African American…where do we really stand in this country?” McNaughton responds:
I suppose I looked at the painting to some extent with color blindness. I never meant to make a statement that African Americans are less important. In the Constitution it says that all men are created equal. …Under the Constitution we are now all equal. I believe that as an “AMERICAN”, you can stand for God, you can stand for truth, you can stand for equal rights, and you can stand for liberty. And in the sight of God we are all equal.
Nevermind that it is the Declaration of Independence that declares all men equal (or that the document was penned by a white slaveowner). It is the particular notion of color blindness that keeps the scales on McNaughton’s eyes. Artistic intention aside, the painting speaks for itself. By reimagining Jesus after his own likeness, he has lost perspective and privileged the white male gaze.
In the sight of McNaughton’s God all Americans are equal, provided they are washed white as snow.