When the television producer Robert Eric Wise looks at ancient Judea, he sees a familiar world. “That was the hood,” he told Vice Media in August of last year. “In fact, Judea was so much of a hood that Rome sent Pontius Pilate, the biggest thug governor in the empire, to govern it.” (Ancient Jewish writers Philo and Josephus both describe Pilate’s frequent provocations toward Jews, including hiding soldiers in crowds to randomly attack and kill Jewish protestors.) “Even though it sounds funny to say,” muses Wise, “the real biblical and historical Jesus was born and raised in the hood.”
From Wise’s idea of “Jesus in the hood” grew the live action television series Black Jesus, which recently finished its second season on Adult Swim. Set in the Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles, “Black Jesus” tells the story of a Jesus who dresses like the figure of old—heavy robes, sandals and long brown hair—but is very much a man of his new community, “smokin’, drinkin’ and chillin’” with his homies, as the pilot puts it. And when they say “smokin’,” they don’t mean cigarettes.
That’s right. In many ways “Black Jesus” is far from the story you heard in Sunday school. In this version, the Son of God doesn’t mind a toke every now and then. Nor is he afraid to push back when people become full of themselves. “Ms. Tudi, why you acting all bougie [short for “bourgeoise”] and s--- like you’re some kind of angel or something,” he asks one character. “How many times have I looked away with my holy and infinite gaze when you was doing janky s---?”
Likewise, when his pals complain about him always mooching their weed, he notes, “You do realize I died for your [expletive] sins?” “Ah, that s---’s getting old,” one responds. “Homey,” Jesus fires back, “that’s my life!”
Still, as played by Slink Johnson, the character of Jesus is also absolutely familiar (and pretty wonderful). No matter what situation he is in or how frustrated he gets, Johnson’s Jesus is always able to offer love and understanding. When some white kids from the suburbs try unsuccessfully to rob his homies (at gunpoint), he tells them: “I swear I wanna put my holy hand on you. But I forgive you. C’mon, look,” he says with a playful warmth, pointing at one of them, “he look like a little smurf.”
When a homeless alcoholic asks what Jesus can do for him, Jesus replies, “I got some kindness, I got compassion and I got love for all mankind.”
“Ain’t nobody want no s--- like that,” the man replies, disgusted. A hilarious (and unprintable) argument ensues, at the end of which Jesus says, “I still love your b---- a-- by default, fool.”
Every time Jesus greets anyone, he is ebullient, his joy in seeing them apparent and genuine. Even Vic, the landlord at the apartment complex where his friends live, a religious man who has nothing but insults for Jesus (and is ultimately responsible for having him locked up in a mental institution), is always received by Jesus with open arms. “And bless you too, Vic,” he tells him after one round of mockery.
As one might imagine, this depiction of our Lord and Savior has not gone down well in all quarters. Upon the show’s debut, Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, said, “If it’s possible for a cable television program to set a new record in deplorability, ‘Black Jesus’ did just that.” One Million Moms (a division of the A.F.A.) has issued regular press releases over the last two years, calling on advertisers to boycott the show (which airs on Friday nights at 11 p.m. E.S.T.), claiming that “The show makes a mockery of our Lord. The foul language use, including using the Lord’s name in vain, is disgusting. In addition there is violence, gunfire, drugs, and other inappropriate gestures which completely misrepresent Jesus. This is blasphemy!”
Others have criticized the portrayal of Jesus’ followers—some of whom are ex-cons, drug dealers and loafers—as racist, though in fact all the main characters on “Black Jesus” are the kind of people you’d like to have as friends. Yes, their choices are not always perfect, but they are good people, who listen to Jesus even when doing so demands sacrifice. For example, in the most recent season they agree to go legit because “Pops” (a k a God) wants it. The homies even take Jesus to task on occasion. “This isn’t very Jesus-y,” one friend tells him after he suggests they should steal money back from a local pastor who has been stealing from his congregation.
Certainly, the language and subject matter may keep some people from ever watching “Black Jesus.” But it is a show worth considering, especially in this season, in which we celebrate the Incarnation. At Christmas we are able to largely whitewash over the edgy parts of the idea of God becoming human, the Nativity rendered as a story written by Charles Schulz.
But in fact the concept of the Incarnation has always been a reason both for great hope and great scandal. From conception to crucifixion, the Incarnation is God defying expectations, coming not as we anticipated or even as we hoped. Ask the Pharisees and the Saducees, even the disciples, or Jesus’ parents (or a lot of Christians over the centuries), and they will tell you: Jesus hung out with the wrong people; he often said and did the wrong things; he died in the most scandalous of ways.
“Black Jesus” is definitely irreverent. But it is also that rarest of programs that attempts to recover the sense of surprise and shock that the coming of God inevitably brings, while also unabashedly embracing the warmth and kindness of Jesus Christ. Some of us might not be keen to imagine the Son of God smelling as if he just came from a Grateful Dead concert. But watching “Black Jesus” certainly offers a glimpse of the loving, joy-filled Lord we all hope someday to meet.