May 7th, 2013

Where Our Demons Hide

In 2007, I had the opportunity to visit Africa as part of a three week humanitarian trip with a group called Mothers Without Borders (MWB). Perhaps at no time in my life have I been so strongly reminded that the lives we each lead are complex and difficult to discern through limited information and interactions.

Our group in Zambia consisted of over 20 Americans, most of them members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Liz Lemon Swindle, a Christian artist, had also come to Zambia with MWB along with her small entourage. They were working on Liz’s next project: a painting depicting Jesus and an African child.

MWB operates an orphanage with a couple dozen kids at any given time, and during the course of our stay we were briefly told some of their background—their family life, their medical challenges, and why they ended up under the care of MWB. Their stories were obviously heart-breaking, and seemed like situations from a world with which I was barely familiar. I struggled to imagine what their lives would be like.

As it was explained to us, Swindle’s painting would be based off of a photo, or a composite of multiple photos, that her photographer was there with her to take. She had a “Jesus model” as well—a kind man named Philip who looks similar to the Americanized Jesus we’re used to in familiar art. We were further told that the project entailed simulating Jesus meeting these children by having the model approach them without the children knowing it was a simulation.

Apparently when Swindle had previously done this in Utah, the little children were happy and excited, beaming with enthusiasm at getting to meet the Jesus that they sing about so often in Sunday School. Perhaps Swindle’s group thought that this result would remain consistent in Africa, and they would be presented with a plethora of perfect photos from which to base their painting.

We Americans sat off to the side at the orphanage to watch the simulation unfold, and my uneasiness at the experience was likely evident on my face. These children were being lied to, effectively exploited to produce an emotional reaction upon which to base a painting. I remained silent and observant, eager to watch what happened.

As “Jesus” approached these orphaned African children, and as the children caught a glimpse of a long-haired Jesus-looking man in robes, they began to cry. Seconds later there were outbursts of uncontrollable sobbing among some of the children. They stood, shocked, before being prodded by somebody to walk out to meet “Jesus”. One girl in particular was a weeping mess, loudly crying at the thought of meeting God.

We were later told the cause of the reaction: the children felt unclean. They felt ashamed, unworthy to meet God. Many of these orphans had experienced sexual or physical trauma, had AIDS, and had otherwise experienced things in their life that made them feel dejected and disowned—including by the God they praise so often, and who they thought was now standing before them.

Only after several minutes and some singing did the mood begin to lighten, and the children began to smile when seeing a kind “Jesus” who was not angry with them, but affectionate and friendly. Lots of singing, dancing, laughter, and photo opportunities ensued, and over the next few days the children learned that it was not actually Jesus.

I had interacted often with these kids, and was informed (if only briefly) about their life experiences. But nothing prepared me for the raw emotional reaction that was produced that day when they thought they were being confronted by their Creator. I did not understand the complexity of their hearts—their fears, their concerns, and their lack of feeling self worth.

These thoughts surfaced recently as I watched a newly released video by Imagine Dragons for their song “Demons” which depicts a similar theme:

How often we judge people based on their appearance, their outward attitude, their performance, or any number of discernable but extremely limited characteristics. Even in trying to understand the African orphans I interacted with, I did not know how much I did not know.

Road rage, workplace conflict, political strife, sports competitions, and any number of other scenarios afford us many opportunities to cast judgment upon others. I suggest, based on my own experience, that such personal judgments should be significantly tempered by the realization that each person may carry substantial baggage that affects their actions or attitude. We do not know how much we do not know.

9 Responses to “Where Our Demons Hide”

  1. outside the corridor
    May 7, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    beautiful, Connor.

    I think that the limited understanding many ‘westerners’ have about Africa is staggering in its absolute-ness. Strange wording, but I didn’t know how else to say it.

    I don’t want to get personal about Africa, so I won’t–
    but I know about orphans, very personally.

    I also know that there are many traditions in Africa that show God (especially Jesus) as black. And why not, indeed?

    I have my own theories about what ‘race’ the God of Heaven and Earth is–

    and they are not typical. I wince when I see the “Americanized” interpretations of Jesus (in paintings, movies, etc.)–

    because, though He was obviously half Jewish from the time period of over 2,000 years ago, He was also half God (His Father being God the Eternal Father), and one could get into a lot of theories about that. In other words, Jesus may have looked ‘different’ to the Jews of His time; Isaiah implies that much–

    and certainly wouldn’t have looked English/Scandinavian–

    but that is beside the point. Many black Africans (and others) picture Jesus like themselves.

    But orphans can, I know, take God much more seriously than most other children. Orphans are precious, whatever their ‘baggage’.

    I am eager to know everything about Africa. I look forward to the time when the mysteries are cleared up–

  2. iimx
    May 7, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

    OTC & Connor,
    Half-god, half-jewish? I guess that makes sense in a way, but usually christians say jesus was fully man and fully god. Most people view ‘demigods’ as half-breeds in greek, roman and perhaps hindu religion. I have recently become interested in jewish religion. There is this organization online jews for judaism, a very interesting source of information. This rabbi has some interesting utube videos on various topics. I always wanted to know what they believe, and why they believe what they believe. Probably the best source ever. In jewish theology a human/god hybrid isn’t possible. I suppose thats enough said. The source isn’t so much to appeal to christians, but to educate people about the torah.

    I am not sure what to make of someone named “swindle” telling children that this person is ‘jesus’. It probably wasn’t such a great idea. Will they ever trust what they are told ever again? Especially on the topic of christian religion.

    A very interesting take on ‘demons’. To compare demons with emotional baggage is surprisingly atheistic. Whats particularly interesting is the greek word originally just meant ‘spirit’, without any negative connotation.The hindu word ‘asura’ is something similiar, just ‘spirit’ but is sometimes translated as ‘demon’. Its only correct if its the original neutral word as in the greek. It was only until the christian era that this word specifically meant evil spirit. The more recent modern use of the word has come to mean something like ‘baggage’.

    Its kind of strange to me that ‘jesus’ can take on such a varied appearance. Any theories as to why there isn’t a universal appearance? Why isn’t this person more universal in general? If he was to be an incarnation for the entire planet, it seems like this person should have been from multiple cultures, races, religions. Thats one thing that to me doesn’t make much sense.

  3. Chris Baker
    May 7, 2013 at 10:44 pm #

    Very excellent article Connor.

    As I said in the facebook post, I am unsure about how to feel about the painting now. On the one hand, it is my favorite depiction of Christ – the lighting, the mood, His facial expression, the expression of child…it speaks to me on a plethora of emotional and spiritual levels.

    On the other hand, the fact that these children were lied to – and not just lied to, but lied to concerning the coming of our Savior to them, personally, at that time…I don’t understand how a Christian organization/photographer could, in any way, find that ethical or ok. The lying itself is immoral, but to tell them it’s Jesus on top of it? It’s difficult to imagine something more cruel – especially knowing what these poor children have suffered through in their short lives.

    On a totally different note, your article is spot on. At the end of the day, we really don’t know how much we really don’t know. I think the Savior’s advice to “judge righteously” often times entails the principle of not judging at all. As we say with the issue of free-speech, sometimes it is our responsibility to use our right to free speech to not speak at all. It often works the same way with judgment – often enough, the most righteous judgment for us mortals is perhaps to not judge at all.

  4. Scott Stover
    May 8, 2013 at 6:29 am #

    Very nice, Connor. Thought provoking. Are WE ready to meet our savior? It breaks my heart that it is fear and not the savior’s love that is taught, either culturally or instinctively. We MUST focus on teaching that love, on being examples of that love, because THAT is the “good news” of the gospel.

  5. outside the corridor
    May 8, 2013 at 9:02 am #

    2 For he shall grow up before him as a tender aplant, and as a broot out of a cdry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no dbeauty that we should desire him.

    This is the verse in Isaiah that makes me wonder if depicting Jesus as a ‘handsome man’ isn’t a terrible mistake.

    The fact is that He was poor, and even the very wealthy didn’t have a way to have their portraits done reliably (possibly busts) during the time that Jesus lived on earth–

    I agree with you, iimx, about Swindle, and I don’t think it shows integrity in an artist to do that.

    I also think that what this shows anyone who is willing to think about it is that *we* tend to project our own biases and beliefs onto God. That’s a scary thing to do. We either take God as He is, or we lose our chance to know God.

    Anyway–

    I’ve said enough.

  6. iimx
    May 8, 2013 at 4:34 pm #

    OTC,
    Curious, things I never thought about. I don’t know how many paintings are surviving from the period Jesus was supposed to have lived. I did a search, and there are cave paintings which are supposed to be 30,000 years old. So I suppose there is a possibility of an original of Jesus in a cave somewhere, or maybe in some other protected place. How well that could represent his image according to the modern eye….who can say?

    I did a search of other figures from a long time ago. Images of Zarathustra seem to be rather consistent. Middle eastern looking, persian and probably immediately indentified. Confucius is consistent, chinese, scholarly, wise looking etc. Greek philosophers same story, I probably could confuse one to the other, but greek looking.

    Buddha is a slightly different story, some images are probably more true to his story than others. Most look chinese, japanese or some other asian, and a few look rather Indian. The indian images are in the minority, which is probably the most accurate, if there was ever a historic buddha. However, I have only seen Asian or Indian buddhas.

    Matthew 2:11 states that the Magi gave him gifts of gold, and frankincense and myrrh. The value of each varies, but at times fankincense and myrrh could be very valuable, exceeding that of gold. So, he at least started life off pretty well. There are other indications that he lived comfortably, but some examinations of christian scripture are controversial, and might be misleading as to the meaning.

    It just seems to me that the imagery of an actual historical figure should be a little more consistent. But perhaps the size of the following and the number of cultural influences could make the contribution of imagery of jesus a bit confusing. Followers seem to have a need of an image they can relate to, and perhaps control.

  7. outside the corridor
    May 10, 2013 at 8:58 am #

    You have meaningful things to say, iimx–

    I think it’s meaningful that Jesus’ appearance can’t be pinned down–

    and that last sentence says it all: control–

    Few “Christians” can accept Jesus on His own ground–

  8. iimx
    May 11, 2013 at 7:29 am #

    OTC, I am glad you are thinking and commenting, but in what way is it meaningful that Jesus’s appearance can’t be pinned down? The imagery often does have a few things in common, long hair, robes and austere affect. I saw one very shocking image of jesus with greyish green skin on a local church, perhaps the strangest yet. But most generally are close enough that people get the idea of ‘jesus’. Most will not have him with short hair or wearing modern clothes like a suit.

    I think you are on to something. I actually learned the most about christianity from listening to a Rabbi on you tube. I often get the sense that christians are too busy believing and not really critically examining whats in the NT.

  9. outside the corridor
    May 12, 2013 at 8:30 am #

    It’s meaningful, because he wasn’t . . . attractive or appealing to other human beings; it was His Spirit that was full of light, not his ‘looks'; we live in a very image-conscious culture now, and I think it’s always been that way, so, beyond knowing that people dressed in a certain way, it’s obvious that what Jesus looked like didn’t get passed on–

    he was never described, even–

    because he was not ‘appealing’–

    he wasn’t ‘handsome’–

    But in our image-conscious society now artists make him look like a movie star–

    :(

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