The Symbol of Jesus
Jesus Christ is the central figure in the Christian tradition representing God's human manifestation, the son of God, a savior, a prophet, a teacher, and a healer. Although there are many facets Christ's identity, yet there are few modern visual representations that stray from the depiction at the top of the page: Christ as a dark haired man with European features. The images of Christ are based on the personal assumptions of people in the past who created the images, because nobody knows exactly what Jesus looked like. However, the dominance of one representation of Christ shows that the image is based mainly on images of a select group. If people are to identify with the central figure of their tradition, many believe that the symbol itself should encompass the group as a whole. Some feminists believe that the symbol of Christ is patriarchal and should be liberated; artists like Edwina Sandys have even gone so far as to create a female image of Christ. Rosemary Radford Ruether, feminist author and theologian, addresses the question Can Christology Be Liberated from Patriarchy? One of the ways in which women are excluded from the tradition through the symbol of Christ is the argument by the Catholic hierarchy that women cannot be priests. They conclude that priests are representatives of Christ and Christ was male. According to Ruether this is one of the ways women are oppressed within their own tradition through exclusion based on a closed image of Christ.
Jesus as the Passive Lamb
In a world of sexual, physical, and mental abuse, it is important that women are reminded of the power they have over their own bodies and minds. In the Christian tradition, Jesus is supposed to represent a model for a Christian's actions and behavior. Although he is viewed as wise and strong by followers, some believe that his model of a passive sufferer, the sacrificial lamb, is a negative symbol for women because it gives the message that in order to be a good Christian, one must suffer silently without struggle. Rita Nakashima Brock states,
"Theologically, we are told that the Father God, who can do no wrong, sent his own Son to be killed and the good, obedient Son went willingly, without complaint. If cosmic child abuse, to save humanity, is acceptable, and human parents are to obey the example set by the Father God, then the violation of children can be justified on the same grounds. Protection from such abuse-- a false protection-- comes from being obedient and innocent" (Brock, 38).
This message of obedience and suffering for God carries over into other areas such as child abuse and adult sexual abuse. One example of passive abuse is Maria Goretti, who was hacked to death rather than be "spoiled sexually". Goretti is used by Catholics as a model of good Christian morals. Therefore if a woman is being abused by her husband, she might think of Jesus as a model for suffering silently, and feel that as a good Christian she must do the same. Many feminist theologians believe this this message is dangerous for women and children who already struggle silently enough and do not have great access to a large group consciousness of oppression. In order to shed this image of Jesus as a passive sufferer, or the sacrificial lamb, Brock believes that we should be aware of the dichotomies in our lives, or as she states "be willing to stay in the messy middle" (Brock, 47). In this "messy middle", we must recognize ourselves as oppressors and the oppressed. Brock ends:
All such death, including the crucifixion of Jesus, is tragic and should be mourned as tragic. As long as we continue to say that his death was necessary to save us, we are saying that those who hated, feared and killed him were right ant that those who loved him and wanted him to live were wrong. Hate is not right and love wrong. Jesus did not die to save us. He died because the political, patriarchal powers of his day saw the danger of his life and his movement to their system of oppression (Brock, 49).
Jesus as a European
Jacquelyn Grant states,
The constant battle between light and dark, good and evil (God and devil), white and black, is played out daily in racial politics of the dominant Euro-American culture, and at the same time, theologically legitimated and institutionalized in the racial imageries of the divine. the racism is reflected in the fact that white imagery is presented as normative to the exclusion of any other possible imagery of Jesus or God (Grant, 60).
Jesus Christ is dominantly represented as a white, European male. Grant says non-European women, such as African American women are "twice removed from the image of God" (Grant, 63). In the history of feminist theology and Christology, intellectuals have tended to focus on the oppression of women and mostly of white women, forgetting the other exclusionary traits of the symbol such as class and race. This exclusion of race and class issues have turned many women off to feminist theology just as it occurred with feminist movements in general. However, it is important to recognize this failure and begin to incorporate the multiple restrictions of the Christ symbol. By simply focusing on the patriarchal issues of Christology it is the same act when the oppressors simply label Jesus by his maleness and thus exclude women from the priesthood.
The Feminized Jesus
The European image of Jesus Christ is also interesting because it often portrays him in a feminine way. Although this was probably not the intention of the artists who conceived of him as European, their images of Jesus nevertheless emphasize feminine qualities. Take, for example the depiction at the top of this page. Jesus there has long hair and fine facial features. Rarely does one see a depiction of Christ which shows him as exceedingly masculine--he is rarely large or muscular, rather he is thin and frail. Many of these "feminine" qualities can be attributed to attempts at historical accuracy--most men had long hair during Jesus's lifetime. Nonetheless, it is interesting that in a religious tradition which emphasizes the importance of Jesus's gender identity, no one has had a problem with this depiction of him.
Jesus of the People, by Janet McKenzie. Copyright 1999.
Read more about this piece at Bridge Building Images
However, artists who feminize Jesus to the point where his gender becomes questionable or who turn him into a woman altogether have caused controversy. This image "Jesus of the People" by Janet McKenzie portrays Jesus as relatively androgynous and as black. Edwina Sandys' Christa portrays Jesus as a woman hanging on the cross, and was extremely controversial. Reinterpretations like these make the symbol of Jesus Christ accesible to people who do not wish to accept the traditional white European male image. Many feminists have chosen to reinterpret Christ, not visually but theoretically, and this is often labeled feminist christology.
Stevens, Maryanne. Reconstructing the Christ Symbol. New York: Paulist Press, 1993.