In the first season of Adult Swim’s Black Jesus, the titular hero discovers that the tomatoes he and his friends are growing in the community garden seem to mysteriously and magically have the same effect as marijuana.
“God’s love will get you fucked up quick,” Jesus says.
Embarking on its second season this week, the show—a powerful exercise in small-screen theology—tips over every sacred Christian cow it can get its hands on, offering up a world where Jesus, a semi-homeless man living in Compton, spends his time “smokin’, drinkin’, and chillin’” with his friends, de facto disciples of a messiah who has no qualms about breaking the law if it suits the common good. And while this isn’t the first pop-culture Black Jesus by a long shot it may be the most elaborately worked out—and the funniest.
In Black Jesus, creators Aaron McGruder and Mike Clattenburg offer viewers a daring perspective not only on the figure of the Messiah, but also on the nature of the Divine. In the first season we are confronted with a simultaneously radical and confessional street-level theology, one that honors the Jesus of the Gospels before he was whitewashed and scrubbed clean of the grime of his mission amidst dirt roads lined with sinners.
Black Jesus‘ savior continually references God (“I’m not in charge of the miracles. That’s Pops, man,” “Me and Pops come through all the time. You all, not so much”), while making it clear that God’s priority is on the here and now, about faith transforming this world as opposed to the next.
In opening lines of the first episode Jesus greets Lloyd, an old man living on the sidewalk in a box, and asks him what he wants today.
“The Lotto numbers,” Lloyd replies.
“Come on, man, you can do better than that,” Jesus tells Lloyd, who angrily storms away. “I still love your bitch ass! By default, too!”
When Jesus and his friends decide to create a community garden (to grow weed) the vacant lot they choose is littered with trash and the soil is not at all appropriate for farming. However, in the theopoetics that Jesus deals in (biblical Jesus as well as comedy Jesus), where metaphor and symbolism are essential teaching tools, the garden represents more than healthy food or a place to grow weed, it is a transformation of the neighborhood and those who live there.
“I think Jesus just wants us to be better people,” says Ms. Tudi, a local marijuana businesswoman.
This transformation is most notable in Fish, an ex-offender who resembles the disciple Peter in his stubbornness. Early in the first season Fish has very little faith that the garden will work, to which Jesus tells him, “Faith of a mustard seed. That’s all I ask. You gotta believe in something. Why not believe in me?” Soon after, following threats from Latino gang-bangers, Peter tells Jesus, “That no violence thing is your rule, not theirs.” To which Jesus replies, ““Do you have any fucking faith at all? I told you Pops has a plan, he’s gonna lead us through this,” recalling the frustration of Jesus with his disciples as they struggled with the profound implications of his teachings (Matt. 15:16, Mark 7:18) .
By the end of the series, however, Fish stands tall—notably in solidarity with the gang-bangers—as the community garden is shut down and Jesus is committed to a mental health institution by law enforcement. “It’s all a big test of faith,” he tells the others in the last episode, understanding that faith isn’t about winning or losing but about persevering, even forgiving the somewhat villainous Vic, Fish’s landlord and the prime force behind their eviction from the garden.
You’ve probably figured out by now that Black Jesus is not necessarily for the easily offended, and it certainly has its share of detractors, unsurprisingly from some Christians, as well as from people concerned about race-based stereotypes in the show. But these anxieties don’t necessarily detract from Black Jesus as an important exercise in theological exploration, examining questions about faith and skepticism, the uncomfortable (for some) enmeshment of the sacred and the profane, and the idolatry of orthodoxy and tradition that McGruder and Clattenburg consistently deconstruct throughout the first season—and which, as indicated by the trailer, looks to continue throughout season two (Jesus’ Church of Compton and Taco Truck anyone?).
Ultimately, theology is less about what we say about the Divine and more about what we perceive the Divine to be telling us. In Black Jesus, the divine protagonist is shouting, “We gotta get back to some love and kindness with a quickness, or else we’re fucked,” admonishing his disciples to not only have faith, but reminding us all that we are the engine through which this faith manifests in the world—whether that means reconciling with our enemies or creating a community garden out of a garbage-filled vacant lot.