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Sunday Reflections: This is what happened when they showed a picture of the “Real Jesus” in church today? A discussion on why Representation Matters.

Today has been a weird day for me. Yesterday, I took the girls to see Hidden Figures. We waited for months to see what turned out to be one of the best movies I have seen in a long time. We were excitedly not only because I want to signal boost girls in science to my girls, but because it highlights the struggles that women of color face in our world. It is part of my commitment as a parent of young women and as a conscious consumer to invest in both women and POC in all forms of media. We’re voting with our dollars. That’s not the weird part of my day.sundayreflections1

As a parent, and as a citizen of the world who wants to actively practice love, acceptance and basic humanity, I work hard to practice conscientious consumption and parenting. We talk about gender norms, religious and ethnic stereotypes, and more. My teenage daughter will watch a movie and exclaim, “Of course the one black character dies first.” These are kids that have been taught to think about what is happening in the media they consume and what it means about how both they and our culture think and feel about a wide variety of topics, including how we view other human beings.

For example, after we watched Hidden Figures, we had conversations about how it was hard for these women not just because they were women who wanted a career in science, but because they were black women who wanted to pursue careers. When The Teen wanted to talk about the challenges women faced in that day and age, I reminded her that these particular women had additional challenges because not only were they women, but they were women of color. I think it is important for my children, and for us as a culture, to understand that although yes there is a lot of discrimination against women, there is even more so against women of color.

In my family, we actively parent in ways where we try to break down gender roles, stereotypes and more.

Which is why what happened today in church surprised me.

Our pastor was preaching and he showed a picture of what he explained was an accurate representation of Jesus according to forensic scientists. It looked like this:


My 8-year-old turned to me and said, “he looks like a criminal.”

I tried to ask her why she thought this and her response was, “I don’t really know.”

It’s interesting to note that when I shared this story on my personal FB page and expressed concerns that my child saw a man of color as a criminal, many of my friends said that no, it looks like a mug shot. I even posted several other examples of painted portraits to demonstrate that this was, in fact, a typical painting portrait style. (And for the record, I find his eyes to be expressive and inviting.)

So what does this mean? Does it look like a mugshot because of something stylistically? Or does it look like a mugshot because we have internalized racism and our first response when we see a picture of a brown skin man is to think mug shot?

The truth is, of course, is that Jesus was – in fact – a criminal. He was a radically compassionate refugee who challenged the current political and religious institutions of his day. He asked his followers to feed the hungry, heal the sick, forgive their enemies, and serve one another. He called the religious leaders of His day Pharisees, and it wasn’t a compliment. He said to pray in private, turn away from greed, and to not store up for yourself treasures on Earth. He ate with sinners, washed the feet of his disciples, and proclaimed that the first would be last. He was so radical, they killed him. They killed him in very public ways to make an example of him. When we consider criminals, Jesus was public enemy number one during his lifetime.

But when we look at this picture and see a mugshot, is that the reason why? Or is there something else at work here, like internalized and institutional racism? Do we see a standard portrait painting of a man with brown skin and automatically think criminal because of something in us, something we have been taught to do through cultural indoctrination?

So in the interest of research, I googled “Portrait Paintings” and did an image search. Here’s a screen gab of what comes up.


I then did a Google image search for “Portrait Paintings Jesus” and this is what came up.


As I said, the picture of the “real Jesus” shared in church today is, to me, a pretty standard depiction of a portrait painting. I don’t see mug shot. (Although what the heck is up with that picture of smiling/laughing Jesus on the third from the bottom right? That’s just terrifying to me.)

What it means to me is this: as a parent and a librarian, I have to continue to do the work of challenging and breaking down stereotypes. There is a very real possibility that my child, despite all the hard work that I have tried to do, looked at this picture and thought criminal because in all honesty, we tend to depict people who look like the real Jesus as criminals and terrorists. I will continue to seek out positive representation for all people groups. I will continue to talk with my kids about the images they see, the tv and movies they consume, and the books that they read. I will continue to ask them questions and make them think about what they are taking in and how they are processing it.

In contrast, look at this amazing story that Diego Luna shared earlier this week about Star Wars Rogue One:

Representation Matters.


  1. Frank Allen says:

    The first time I came across this picture, I was in the middle of writing a book about the life of Christ; not a documentary, but a historical novel. As soon as I saw this picture, I said “YES!” It was exactly as I had portrayed Christ in my book, with dark brown skin, short rumpled hair, wide, warm eyes, expressive eyebrows, and yes, he’s not very comely, just as Isaiah described him. I believe the forensic scientists are a lot closer to the truth than any of the other artists and movie makers who had depicted Christ as an effeminate, long-haired “pretty boy.” Jesus was a man’s man, a tough, courageous, yet kind individual, not a playboy. I find this image very reassuring. Glad you do too.

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