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Jesus of the Oppressed

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Leonard Cohen’s great lyric, “and I’d die for the truth / in my secret life”, gives this essay legs and makes it walk in the secret life amongst the believers, where knowledge of the good word is still proclaimed. The song does not speak of truth, capital ‘T’, the almighty scientific truth and its cold calculation. Nor does it speak of a means-end truth, as the processed and rationalized life or the dirty logic of capitalism. Those are not truths, and definitely not truths worth dying for. Instead, it speaks to the little truths, ideas like justice, liberty and equality; ideas that only bloom from a synthesis of earth and humanity, from romantic revolutionary love.

And that last line perfectly encapsulates an overarching theme of the show “Black Jesus”, created by Aaron McGruder and Mike Clattenburg. What other way to describe Black Jesus? He is a prophetic character who works with a community to build a garden to grow tomatoes filled with the love of God. Also, they get people high. Let me repeat that line, “works with a community to build a garden to grow tomatoes filled with the love of God that get people high.” If a smile did not cross your face, you may be a nihilist. Get that checked out with your nearest existential philosopher or schizoanalyst.

And so, Jesus (played by Slink Johnson) brings to life the Gospels with a community garden in Compton. He repeats often the message of Luke 1:37, “For with God nothing shall be impossible,” to bring hope. Hope, because it is based on blind trust, faith. Not faith in the sense of an authoritarian God who cares about your sex life and burns witches. Nor one that we are forced to believe or risk eternal damnation. Instead, faith in that if we trust in each other and work together, we can accomplish great things and build the kingdom of God.

Once more, are these not the teachings of Luke? Luke 17:20-21 states, “And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation / Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” Within you! Leo Tolstoy took this as reason enough to advocate Christian Anarchism.

Being that this kingdom is within us is most likely why Jesus advocates free will throughout the show. Do not give the blessed tomatoes to the uninitiated, as Ms. Tudi (played by Angela E. Gibbs) does to Vic (played by Charlie Murphy) in order to trick him into leaving the garden well alone. By attempting to remove free will the incident leads to the exact opposite in a negative, detrimental reaction. This is because it lacks self-determination, and is inorganic to the situation being a wholly coercive act. In Ms. Tudi’s defense, Vic did organize a picket and label Jesus a cult leader and his garden a front for sinister ends.

Even accounting for such actions, people must be given the ability to decide what to do, what is good or bad and what to believe. They cannot be coerced into it. Otherwise we are left only with Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, the most awful robber of free will ever to amble down a street filled with disdain for humanity. This also forces us to deal with what Max Horkheimer called objective reason, which really meant the existential ethical and moral questions. It is to grapple with Curtis Mayfield’s line, “We can deal with rockets and dreams, but reality what does it mean”. Yes, what does it mean to build the kingdom of God within us, if that kingdom were to be an ethical or moral end?

And this is the reality we are left with, when Jesus is able to walk among us, as the ideal becomes material, as it becomes our existential responsibility. Jesus’s kingdom will have no end it is pronounced in Luke, the kingdom pronounced to be within us. For as Javier Sicilia writes so beautifully in his poem “Lucas 1, 30-33”, “[the gods and angels] went away from Earth and left us with a fine and delicate pearl / free at last / owners of our senses and the fall / beyond our history’s way / closer to the sense of it all / inside, very inside, in the deepest part / there where the ministry was made flesh and lives with us.”

This is Black Jesus, the embodiment of the ideal becoming material. He is a Jesus who goes among the people to be with them, not to be righteously above them. He is a Jesus of the oppressed, showing love even to those who do him wrong, such as the homeless man, Lloyd (played by John Witherspoon). C. P. Ortero denotes this type of proselytizing correctly as prophetic, in the tradition followed by Cornel West, Noam Chomsky and Enrique Dussel, a tradition of liberating the oppressed, the Other, the folks from the funk at the bottom.

Thus, Black Jesus complicates the American symbolic order of what Jesus does or represents. Black Jesus is a populist Jesus, a Jesus who knows not the sin of the “prosperity gospel” or the inquisition-like hate of authoritarian Christianity and its zealous, genocidal end time mission. Black Jesus is a Jesus who lifts up, builds, finds potential and makes material the revolutionary love for humanity.

Or maybe these are only the mad ramblings of a heretical atheist. But watch it, because as Leonard Cohen sings, “the dealer wants you thinking / that it’s either black or white / thank God it’s not that simple / in my secret life”. Yes, in my secret life I can imagine a Jesus of the masses; a Jesus George Carlin proclaimed would make sure you had good food and a roof over your head, a Jesus who cared about the people. Black Jesus has arrived!

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Andrew Smolski is a writer and sociologist.

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