At the beginning of the 2020 Advent term, newly appointed Dean of the School of Theology James F. Turrell sent an important announcement to all faculty, staff, and students: “For the past 20 years, the Chapel of the Apostles (COTA) has displayed a crucifix with the body of Christ as a white, European man. As a result of a community meeting on Aug. 3, the faculty recommended unanimously to take down the crucifix and convene a committee consisting of an alum, two students, and five faculty members to discern the crucifix that the community needs and to bring a suggested course of action to the dean and faculty by the end of the academic term.”
This move, though it may come as a shock to some, is part of the larger picture of racial reconciliation at the University of the South. Officially begun in 2017 by the formation of the Roberson Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation, the university has started the long but necessary process of recognizing its role in the history of racial oppression and addressing the continued perpetuation of white supremacist assumptions and structures that remain today. In order to avoid the white-washing that has so often occurred in Christian churches, the School of Theology is working to display an image of Jesus that better reflects his historical identity as a Middle Eastern Jew.
The Rev. Malcolm McLaurin, T’21, a student representative on the School of Theology’s committee, remarked, “Sewanee was not just an innocent bystander in the wounds of racial injustice; Sewanee is a place that caused many wounds of racial injustice. And, I believe that Sewanee has a responsibility and an obligation to do our part in healing those wounds.”
Under the leadership of committee chair Bishop James Tengatenga, distinguished professor of global Anglicanism, the group of students, alumni, and faculty collaborated to discern what would be presented to the full faculty of the School of Theology. At the end of October, the school’s faculty endorsed the committee’s recommendation to commission an artist who would paint the new crucifix in a style inspired by the Ethiopian icon tradition. In doing so, the new crucifix would not only better reflect Jesus’s historical identity, but also will be in keeping with the colorful Greek-style icons already in place in COTA.
“The space itself is so filled with light,” commented committee member Dr. Kenneth Miller, assistant professor of Church music. “We were thinking through the different styles and what appealed to us among the painted images of the passion was the Ethiopian style because of the play with color.” Moreover, the choice to transition to a painted crucifix rather than a carved one allows both the artist and the worshipers to experience the story of the passion through a wider lens. “Unlike a carved crucifix, a painted crucifix gives you the option to include more elements of the story than simply the corpus,” explained Miller. Thus far, members of the committee have discussed the possibility of including Jesus’s mother and St. John alongside Jesus on the cross.
In addition to how the painting would play off of the already existing features of the space, Turrell expressed excitement over the opportunity to participate in the creation of the art itself. “This is a wonderful opportunity to increase the diversity of representation in our chapel, to have a piece of original artwork, and to collaborate with an artist as the art comes into being.”
“Any good artist who is making things for liturgical spaces is in good contact with the space itself and the people who are going to be using it,” agreed Miller. Additionally, McLaurin emphasized the importance of such a relationship. “I truly believe that the steps that Sewanee is taking towards naming its history, and growing from that history, could make the University of the South a model for what’s getting ready to happen all across the country. If the University of the South, a place that was steeped in the confederacy and white supremacy, will honestly own and name its history and use that recognition to envision a better future, then anybody can do it.”
Thus, the chance to create this new art for the Chapel of the Apostles is not just a gesture toward a program that is inclusive, but rather a deliberate step toward creating a lasting legacy of racial reconciliation in Sewanee. “As the only African American student, the only School of Theology student that is a direct descendant of American slavery, I get to have a conversation with many students of color that are thinking about coming to Sewanee. But every time I talk to someone, the question of how to navigate the presence of a worship space with an ahistorical Jesus comes up. The Sewanee that I will be leaving is not the Sewanee I came to. And I fell in love with the Sewanee I came to!” McLaurin laughed. “But now, I have an even deeper relationship with and love for Sewanee. It’ll be hard to get rid of me; Sewanee will always have my voice.”
Thus, the opportunity for students to see a crucified Christ that reflects the reality of his identity as a non-white man allows marginalized students to see an unedited picture of Christ that does not purposefully obscure their skin color for the comfort of white worshipers, and further, asks white students to confront their own privilege, which has for so long edited the image of Jesus to reflect the assumptions of white supremacy.
Though the existence of white Jesus is one which dates back to the Middle Ages, it is important to note that the practice of painting Jesus to reflect the identity of worshipers was common through the 17th century. Images exist of an Indian, Ethiopian, and even a Japanese Jesus, as missionaries painted icons that would speak to newly converted Christian worshipers. However, as European countries not only continued to colonize the non-white world, and also to justify the theft of land and slavery through the belief in white supremacy, white Jesus became the standard image of Christ proliferated around the globe. White Jesus became a justification for European violence against people of color, rather than simply a reflection of a worshiper’s identity. This is perhaps seen most profoundly in Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ,” which was painted in the 1940s and has become the most widely reproduced, and thus accepted, image of Jesus in existence.
Because the image of a white Jesus is welcoming to the largely white population of Episcopalian worshipers and Sewanee students, many failed to question how that image might not feel welcoming to people of color. The privilege to ignore this purposeful choice has also relieved white people of the burden of correcting it. Thus, to choose to address this legacy is to choose to create a community that actively values its members of color. The School of Theology is relentlessly pursuing the creation of a “Beloved Community,” and the new artwork, which will be installed in the Chapel of the Apostles, is a commitment to direct action toward achieving that goal.
The committee is currently in discussion with New York artist, Laura James, a self-taught painter and illustrator, to commission the new artwork. Her African and Caribbean American heritage, along with a love of stories, design, and color, make her the ideal choice to create a new crucifix representation for the Chapel. Originally captivated by the Ethiopian Christian Art form, James’ work employs this ancient way of making icons and expands on the collection of stories traditionally painted in this style. In her own words, James describes what creating this piece means to her. “I find it inspiring and commendable that an institution founded by slave traders has come to a place where you would allow a brown image of Jesus to be venerated on your campus.”
By Carly Nations