Jani Leinonen's McJesus/APA piece of art in Israel has sparked outrage among the Israeli Arab Christian minority. The art work in question is entitled “McJesus” and displays a crucified Ronald McDonald. It is on exhibition in the Haifa Museum of Art.

Nissim Tal is the Director of the museum and made it clear in public statements that the art intends to represent the worship of capitalism, not the defamation of a religion. Jani Leinonen is the Finnish artist of McJesus.

The art piece has been the subject of protests, and Christians in Haifa have thrown stones and firebombs at the Museum. Riot police were called in. My concern is not directly related to religious freedom or artistic expression, but to why the crucifixion of Jesus is an automatic cultural signifier for sacredness.

To be sure, using religious symbols in art to display social criticism or raise a question is understandable. Religions of the world belong to cultural histories and political orders. In democratic societies, which rely on a free press and freedom of speech, it is necessary to tolerate things we may find offensive on a personal level. There are limits to such tolerance, of course. It depends on the act in question. However, when it comes to art making a point about capitalism through a religious symbol, that is well within the legal limits of freedom of expression. The art piece is designed to make us think about how we have, or whether we have, placed consumerism above the value of life. When we think about various ways religion is sold in the market place, we may well hold sympathy with the artist Jani Leinonen.

The other point, though, is how and why the cross of Jesus ends up being the sacred center of Christianity. Historically, especially through the Middle Ages, the cross of Jesus became the object of worship. When Westar welcomes James Carroll, author of Constantine’s Sword, to its annual meeting in March, the question about the cross progressively moving into the center of Christianity may come up. However, prior to Constantine, there were several other symbols and metaphors at play in Christianity, none of which posed as the sine qua non center of a rising tradition.

The Westar’s Christianity Seminar has shed light on the Praying Woman as one of the central images of earliest Christian communities. If you see an ancient image of a woman with arms raised in prayer, you know that the site is one of a Christian grave. The fish was another symbol of Christianity still popular as a bumper sticker, but the fish was about a communal banquet, which in turn is about life. It’s not a symbol of death but of living community.

What would have happened if the artist dressed a fish in a Ronald McDonald suit? My guess is nothing much. There is also much evidence in the Q Gospel and other non-canonical gospels that for many of the earliest Christians, the crucifixion of Jesus was not a concern at all. The spirit of Jesus, and speaking in the spirit of Jesus, were concerns that featured more prominently. This, I would argue, we can translate today as the way of Jesus.

The earliest Christian communities were interested in living in the way of Jesus, whether speaking in his name (like Mary in the Gospel of Mary) or retelling his parables and aphorisms like the Q people. Finally, we can also say that for many of the earliest Christians, the cross was about the integrity of Jesus, not about a sacrifice or a divine plan. “Carrying the cross” meant to walk with the same integrity; it meant to bear in your own life as a member of the body of Christ the potential persecution that came with the territory in ancient Rome. The “carrying the cross” saying does not include any explicit reference to being crucified or to the resurrection. As a saying, it is something like “foxes have holes and birds have their nests, but this mother’s son has no place to rest.”

The earliest Christian communities had multiple ways to express their identities and their challenges, but they did not obsess over the cross of Jesus. This leads to a final point: should Christians today place so much emphasis on the cross such that it is almost impossible for an artist to use it in an exaggerated way to make a social point? Is the point of Christianity sacredness surrounding the death of Jesus?

I would like to venture that the answer to this question can be no. The cross of Jesus should be about the integrity of Jesus and not about sacrifice, sacredness, and necessary confessions. As far as we can tell, at least among those who accept the parables and aphorisms as the best representation of the historical-jesus, ideas of the sacred were something Jesus, too, exaggerated in his own form of art called parables. The mustard seed parable is a perfect example of making a mockery out of the sacred. To really participate in the spirit of Jesus may well mean to be able to caricature the holy for the sake of making a point about life, its value, and what sincerely is important.

---- There is another point here to consider. Roman imperial forces used crucifixions to shame, silence, and eliminate their victims. From this angle, the McJesus figure potentially backfires. While the artist wants to critique the worship of capitalism, he also expresses an imperial wish to shame, silence, and eliminate capitalism, which could then invoke solidarity with capitalism. Likely this is not intended if the artist only sees the cross as a symbol of worship. At Emmanuel College in Toronto, an art installation of a crucified woman by Almuth Lutkenhaus-Lackey was erected in 1979. In this case, the artist knew her critique was of imperial forces. The sculpture expresses how women in history have been shamed, silenced, and eliminated under patriarchal social orders. In this case, too, Christians got upset because they saw the cross as a symbol of worship. They did not see the cross as a symbol of Roman imperial power where one should be in solidarity with the victims of such power.----

This post is the opinion and contribution of the author. It does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Westar or its scholars. Westar welcomes diversity of thought. If you’d like to contribute to the blog, click here.

David Galston is the Executive Director of the Westar Institute and the Ecumenical Chaplain at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, where he is also an Adjunct Professor of Philosophy. A co-founder and Academic Advisor of the SnowStar Institute of Religion, a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar, and a United Church minister, David has written several articles and led many workshops on the question of the historical-jesus, the future of Christianity, and the problems of Christian theology in light of the historical-jesus. He is the author of Embracing the Human Jesus (Polebridge Press) and Archives and the Event of God (McGill-Queens Press). David holds a PhD in the Philosophy of Religion from McGill University.

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