How painting can become an act of penance

“We all leave here with the stigmata.” John uttered this response to a classmate in his small group as they discussed the weekly reading. But he misspoke; what he meant to say was stigma. We were analyzing Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and how persons convicted of felonies in this country, disproportionally persons of color, are branded and denied access to jobs, housing and public services upon re-entry into society. They are at once hypervisible, the face on the evening news, and invisible, figures in the shadows of society.

John and his classmates do not need a book to tell them these facts. The class during which we were having this discussion takes places in Westville Correctional, an Indiana state prison.

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“Today mass incarceration defines the meaning of blackness in America: black people, especially black men, are criminals,” writes Ms. Alexander. “That is what it means to be black.” This stigma is experienced by persons of color upon leaving prison, but many carry it long before any conviction.

Teaching in prison, and a racially charged encounter, amplified my consciousness of race in religious imagery.

Weeks before John made that comment in class, I walked into a hardware store to buy a compressed wood panel to serve as a canvas for an upcoming art project. Little did I know that my experience that morning would provide the subject material to cover a future canvas. About 20 steps into the store, I overheard one employee saying to another, “Keep an eye on that guy, he looks rough.”

“Who, me?” I uttered silently as I turned my head toward the employees, only to see that they were looking beyond me. My stomach immediately tightened. It took me only a moment to realize who the employees were tracking—the man at the very end of the lumber aisle, wearing a Los Angeles Dodgers cap, the non-white man. I paused, turned and with a tinge of nervousness approached the employees. “Excuse me, sirs, can you tell me who looks rough?”

“What?”

“You know, the rough guy you’re watching. As your customer, I want to know that I’m safe shopping here.” They recoiled, fumbled their response and walked away. My adrenaline surged, I was furious. After my pulse slowed, I tracked down one of the employees and asked him a more inviting question. We then had a conversation about racial profiling during which he seemed to admit his wrongdoing, only to conclude by telling me it was all O.K., because it turns out that the guy “was with another man”—undoubtedly a white man.

I did nothing more about the matter, which I regretted during the car ride home. I remained upset; the experience threw my entire morning off. But what about the consumer, guilty only of shopping in his own skin? Is every day of his life thrown off?

Art by Michael Hebbeler
Art by Michael Hebbeler

This mixed media painting is an exercise in seeing and in feeling, asking you, the viewer, to picture the arms and hands on this body, to imagine his face or her face or your face. Can you see or feel your flesh in these clothes, carrying this wood, bearing these wounds, crowned in this cap? And should one live in such a body? Consider that when John spoke in class, he did not misspeak. Maybe, in truth, he and his classmates bear the stigmata.

My encounter in the hardware store and experiences in prison have amplified my consciousness of race in religious imagery, which, embarrassingly, I only started paying attention to about two years ago after reading Bishop Edward Braxton’s pastoral letter, “The Racial Divide in the United States.”

Bishop Braxton begins by inviting the reader to envision walking into a Catholic church in the United States and seeing only black figures in the paintings and statues. Remarking on the figures’ faces, Bishop Braxton writes, “You notice that even the angels in the church have African features.” He comments, “If angels have no bodies and no gender, if they are pure spirits, why are they not represented in all races?”

In reality, when dark figures do appear, they are disproportionately represented in the role of the antagonist. For years a framed picture of St. Michael, my namesake, has sat on my dresser. It is a Catholic gift shop print, not attributed to any artist, that appears to be modeled after Guido Reni’s famous painting of the archangel. Only recently did I notice the color disparity between figures: St. Michael is white, and the devil is, well, not. To be fair, in Reni’s original work Lucifer and Michael share similar skin tones, and in this contemporary rendition one could explain the different shades as being a result of Lucifer’s positioning in the shadow of the flames. Furthermore, what’s the big deal? Satan is, after all, the Prince of Darkness.

But this symbolic use of color extends beyond skin tone in various representations of biblical narratives. Consider the painting of the Last Supper that hangs in my kitchen. Jesus and the apostles, save one, are cloaked in white. Who appears offset and robed in black? Judas, of course—the betrayer. The message is clear: Whiteness is good, and blackness is bad.

What would religious art look like if color schemes were flipped?

Bishop Braxton’s pastoral letter prompted my own imaginative exercise. What would religious art look like if color schemes were flipped? How would sacred art be received in the pews if dark-skinned bodies appeared, front and center, as protagonists? Could increasing the visibility of underrepresented bodies sharpen the critical lens through which one sees black and brown bodies in society at large? And finally, as a white male Catholic who has long worshipped and worked in these spaces decorated with white bodies, how am I called to respond?

I began this artistic exercise by sketching out the figures and backdrop in pencil on a white canvas. Two of my classmates passed by the sketch in our art studio and nodded with approval. “St. Michael, very cool,” one said. “Looks like St. Michael holding Thor’s hammer,” offered the other. Interestingly, a couple of weeks later, when another pair of classmates passed by my canvas as I neared the completion of my painting, all colored in, their faces gave off a quizzical look. I paused, set my brush aside and asked, “What do you see?” They glanced at the dark-winged figure standing over the white one and shrugged their shoulders.

Did flipping the color scheme inhibit the viewer’s ability to identify the scene?

Art by Michael Hebbeler
Art by Michael Hebbeler

In my rendering, the scale of justice in the hand of St. Michael is replaced by a hammer. The hammer is beating the sword into a ploughshare, a symbol of the victory of nonviolence over evil, though the act in this particular scene carries additional importance: To put a black or brown man standing over a white man with only a sword risks perpetuating the myth of his dangerousness in the United States. It would also be reductionist—reducing a minority to only responding or reacting to an injustice caused by the majority, never living in his own autonomy.

In heaven as it is on earth, the black St. Michael cannot get away with what the familiar white St. Michael can. Maybe I erred in thinking that I needed to blunt the sword to assure the viewer that this dark-skinned man meant no physical harm. And no, it is not Thor’s hammer I attempted to model in this scene. It is the hammer of John Henry, an African-American folk hero. In this painting, the hammer is doing the erasing, putting a death to violence; the protagonist is front and center, dark and visible.

In heaven as it is on earth, the black St. Michael cannot get away with what the familiar white St. Michael can.

The dangerous black man has long been a myth perpetuated by the power holders in the United States, seeking to control black bodies once equated with slavery and now synonymous with incarceration. In The Scandal of White Complicity in US Hyper-Incarceration: A Nonviolent Spirituality of White Resistance, co-author Laurie Cassidy explores this myth in revealing what is truly dangerous—the pictures that we whites have created in our minds. From the slaveholder to the lawmaker to the television producer, black identity continues to be defined and depicted by white Americans. These images have become omnipresent, so much so that one no longer has to look at the newspaper or watch a crime show to learn who the bad guys are; these images are firmly etched in one’s own head.

Ms. Cassidy writes: “These pictures in our heads condition how we relate to each other in everyday life.... Only by exposing these pictures to critical reflection—and grace—can we understand how we are complicit in the everyday enactment of white privilege and racism.”

I, too, carry these pictures and their consequences with me. There are times when I drive up to the ATM downtown and in the adjacent parking lot I see black teens walking in my direction. Without fail, my instinctual reaction is fear. It lasts for only a second before I catch myself, but I find that moment embarrassing and sinful. If there is any justifiable momentary fearing of the other in this country, it should be on the part of black or brown individuals as I, a white man, pull up in my car.

This is why I consider my painting as penance. It gives me an opportunity to expose my participation in racism to critical reflection, both as a Catholic and a U.S. citizen. And I wonder, if I prayed in the morning to a framed black St. Michael on my dresser—or a brown stain-glassed Michael watched over worshippers departing from Mass or posed in an icon atop a police officer’s desk—would it help shape the pictures in our heads? And could these images then reshape our encounters on city streets? To move from penance to communion is the hope, and the religious artist has a role to play in creating an economy of inclusion.

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Christopher Lochner
5 months 2 weeks ago

There is no nice way to put this- what a load of, uhh, malarkey! I imagine the black guys I know who won't go into the rough neighborhoods of Baltimore must be racist too. (Actually, they want to leave and for good reason. And this type of discussion filled with mindless frivolity will do nothing to rectify any of the multitude of problems)... People don't refer to academia as "ivory tower syndrome" without good reason... Sure, pray to a black Jesus, be naive, put yourself in harm's way, get attacked and wonder why. As the old saying goes, sir, at least try to go around the block once.... Myself, I want a dark St. Michael to keep in the car for spiritual cred. Black guys'll call me fool. They'll be right. BTW curious how the author assumed the individual was with someone who was white, maybe it was his grandpa.!

Patrick Freeman
5 months 2 weeks ago

I agree, as I was once like you - one who thought the Black Jesus thing was overrated, until I witnessed my Latino friend assaulted by a white campus police officer in rural Illinois (and witnessed my friend's assault reinforced by the local county police), only to learn (in court) that there was a history of this with this officer. My Latino friend and I met at Mass on campus, and I never felt the same again walking into that church on the same campus as a white person who would never have to face the same challenges as my brown friend. Like you, I felt that a dark St. Michael on the dashboard of that officer's car might have made a difference in a fellow Catholic's life that night - never mind if the other minorities on campus would've thought the officer was a fool. Indeed, our devotional prayer practices do shape us, and it would be great to see Catholics being more intentional about how they engage or ignore race in their prayer lives and devotions.

Jason Douglas
5 months 1 week ago

The religious artist has a role to play in creating an economy of inclusion...
run 3

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