When Jesus offends just by being himself

April 16, 2014

Looks like Jesus the Homeless is coming to Chicago. Erica Demarest reports that the local Catholic Charities office plans to put up one of Timothy Schmalz's sculptures—which depict an unkempt Jesus, with stigmata, sleeping on a park bench—this spring.

Weekend Edition did a segment Sunday on the sculpture at St. Alban's Episcopal in Davidson, North Carolina. Apparently some locals aren't fans:

The reaction was immediate. Some loved it; some didn't.

"One woman from the neighborhood actually called police the first time she drove by," says David Boraks, editor of DavidsonNews.net. "She thought it was an actual homeless person."

That's right. Somebody called the cops on Jesus.

"Another neighbor, who lives a couple of doors down from the church, wrote us a letter to the editor saying it creeps him out," Boraks added.

Some neighbors feel that it's an insulting depiction of the son of God, and that what appears to be a hobo curled up on a bench demeans the neighborhood.

It's a strange reaction, and not just for all the obvious biblical and theological reasons. It's striking that the mere image of a homeless person is offensive to people. It's as if we can't even look at the representation of a poor person without jumping to all our highly charged moral and political debates about poverty. But Jesus the Homeless isn't protesting cuts to shelter budgets or veterans' services or mental health care. He isn't raising anybody's taxes to fund the welfare state. He's just existing, visibly. And as with Sesame Street's Lily character, this very existence manages to bother people.

But thankfully, not necessarily very many of them. The comment thread on the Charlotte NBC affiliate's story is very pro- the statue. The NPR segment reflects this too, though it sort of buries the lede—the quote above only cites two actual humans, along with the unnamed "some neighbors" who are offended on behalf of a God they don't seem to have read much about. At the end, NPR adds this:

Back at St. Alban's in Davidson, the rector reports that the Jesus the Homeless statue has earned more followers than detractors. It is now common, he says, to see people come, sit on the bench, rest their hand on the bronze feet and pray.

I look forward to doing the same once there's a homeless Jesus sculpture here in Chicago.


When Artist and Subject Bring Us Up Short

From an art history standpoint, Timothy Schmalz takes his place amongst other artists whose depictions of Jesus (as well as of Mary, his mother) ruffled sensibilities or challenged conventional ideas about how to represent these holy subjects. Renaissance artist Caravaggio is such a case in point, who in several of his paintings, represented Jesus in a less than "idealized" manner, or who showed Mary with work-worn hands and dusty bare feet. To represent the holy as ordinary is a kind of iconographical blasphemy, and it is this, I think, that makes some of us uncomfortable. What is interesting is that people are becoming comfortable enough to now sit by Mr. Schmalz's sculpture and to touch it. The real test is whether we can become comfortable enough to sit next to a real, live, breathing homeless person and place our hand on him or her. As someone who commutes daily by subway trains, in which homeless men and women often sit or lie down, and whose very presence can clear out an entire train car if their odor is too unbearable to our nostrils, my hunch is that we are a very long way from being able to place our hands on them than on a statue of the One who had done that very thing so easily and lovingly.

Maybe too rosy

Social ills need real attentions from Christians, renaissance, avant-garde and performance act should be saved for elsewhere. The current situation of homeless people and panhandlers is very grave, most of them are struggling with mental and physical issues - really existential crisis. For those who grew up in humble status, the romantic description provided by this article can be quite disturbing, sorry for being critical here.

It takes discernment to know

It takes discernment to know about this, and that seems to be what you're saying. Also (acc. to Renald Showers, "The Wisdom of God," current Israel My Glory), there's a difference in day by day and ultimate discernment or wisdom. My favorite theologian (Ellen Davis) always says go to the roots in a situation or in your thinking. People need the Lord and they need to see Christ in others; does this placement point the way to Him and others appropriately, decently and in order ? Rowan
Williams might say as he often says, Time will tell.