Take HIM down? Saint Junípero Serra and the Persistent Question of Christ

You might be able to aquire a public education without hearing about the Christian foundations of orphanages, hospitals and universities, of the faith that underpinned western science and inspired the abolitionists to work for the end of slavery.

You may never have heard about the Christian recognition of the image of God in people of every race and nationality or of the enormous action for the common good undertaken through the centuries by a great diversity of men and women moved by their faith in Christ.

But it is difficult to avoid a schooling in the the misguided mixings of cross-and-crown crusaders, of the atrocities of the European Age of Exploration, of cruel Christian slaveholders, scandalous pastors and hokey opponents of evolutionary theory.

If you’re a serious Christian, you have to deal with truth that hurts.

You have to be open to hearing about the pain Christ’s followers (so-called, at least) have caused their fellow human beings. If you justify the horrors or pretend they didn’t happen, you won’t be the first to avoid the truth in this way.

If you walk away from Christ because it’s hard to be associated with so much sin done in his name, you won’t be the last who will do so.

But if you face the facts of history and yet continue pondering the life, death and resurrection of Jesus himself, engaging the entire record of his influence throughout history, your heart may warm to Something worth living and dying for. Mercy and unconditional love. Even for your enemies. Even for yourself when you fail in representing him well.

Which you will.

During this statue-toppling time of righteous anger and malicious mayhem, the now-famous tweet by activist Shaun King that “the statues of the white European they claim is Jesus should also come down” has provoked sorrow in the hearts of many. King, himself a former pastor, calls them a form of white supremacy.

Some of them may be for all I know, and where that is found to be the case, I’d call for their removal too, because they don’t represent Christ with one smidgeon of reality and are perpetrated by people on the side of his enemies. But that’s hardly the case for the majority of religious art.

Still, it is fair to say that Jesus’ skin wasn’t fair and that racists have manipulated his image for their own sick reasons.

“White Jesus” is not only inaccurate, but can hurt the hearts of some of those who see him portrayed this way in our churches. People of color are no more monolithic than white people are and experiences of “white Jesus” differ. Motives for portraying biblical characters with fair skin vary as well. They’re not all about white supremacy.

A composite obtained from a gallery of public domain Wikipedia images

The issue, as it has arisen in response to the brutal murder of George Floyd, bears reflection, and it takes me back to the little prairie church where I first heard that God is love and that in Christ there is no Jew nor Gentile, male nor female but all are one in him.

I’m pretty sure a copy of Sallman’s Head of Christ was on a wall somewhere in that building, but the image I vividly recall was larger and more prominently displayed in the “annex” where the western Kansas farmers who made up my father’s congregation held their potlucks, wedding receptions and special events.

I’ve never seen an image that matches the painting in my memory, though many kitschy depictions of “Jesus and the Children of the World” pop up when I search for it.

In the painting I recall, Jesus is a dark haired, dark-eyed man (light-skinned) with a gentle smile. He’s sitting, surrounded by children representing native peoples of every continent, affectionately conversing with them.

The image calls to mind Christ’s promise to gather all nations to himself, and it emphasizes the truth of racial equality in the eyes of God.

My dad was fond of telling a sweet story about the time he and my little brother Mark had a conversation in front of that painting when they were alone in the church one weekday afternoon. Dad was not only the pastor of the flock but also the custodian of the building, and Mark often hung around him on weekdays when the rest of us siblings were in school.

My brothers and I all had roles in Dad’s repertoire of sermon illustrations, and that’s why I remember this story about Mark. Dad liked to reminisce from the pulpit about the day he and Mark, a preschooler at the time, stood before that painting together.

Surrounded by children of every nation and race, Jesus is depicted as smiling directly at the boy closest to him, the one in traditional Native American dress. On the day in question, Dad decided to ask Mark what he thought the Lord was saying.

Mark was a very thoughtful little boy, about the same age as the children in the picture. As he considered the Christ in the painting, he mused:

He’s saying, ‘Are you hurt?’

“That’s what Christ is saying to each one of us,” Dad would remind the congregation. “Jesus is asking you today, ‘Are you hurt?’ God demonstrated his concern for each one of us by becoming one with our humanity in Christ and in suffering the pains we suffer. He knows how we hurt and he wants to meet us there.”

Today I understand that the painting in my memory might well cause hurt to individuals wounded by the failures of Christian missionaries to love in the measure of Christ’s astonishing gift.

My heart will never know the measure of their hurt, but as I ponder Shaun King’s tweet and listen to the vengeful cries recorded when the statue of St. Junípero Serra was toppled and splattered with red paint in Los Angeles last week, I hurt too. It’s a teardrop in comparison with the ocean of agony felt by those who ancestors were decimated during the conquest of California. I know that much at least.

I hurt nonetheless for all their injury, especially the injuries inflicted by people who ought to have loved them with God’s perfect love. I hurt for the tone deaf racial ignorance I have heard from church members and for the truth that I’ve sometimes made excuses for violence or have acted in thoughtless ignorance when I could have listened and learned.

To paraphrase Maya Angelou, we can’t do better until we know better, and many white Christians are hurting and willing to listen and learn in this moment.

I’m thankful for my faith foundation in that little country church, and after I grew up and moved away from home I studied Christianity in earnest, attending various churches in every place I moved with my husband and two sons.

Engaging the history and practices of the early church eventually led me to convert to Roman Catholicism in identification with the Church’s universal mission as it unfolded in from the beginning.

I realized, as I studied, that if you’re a serious Catholic, you really have to deal with truth that hurts.

And I do. That painful reality hit me once again as I considered the toppling of Serra’s statue.

The Spanish-Catholic conquest of the southwest is layered with expansionist greed, ambition and atrocity against indigenous peoples. Yet there is also found in many of the priests who established the missions, the sincere motive of the evangelist in love with Christ and on fire to travel to the end of the known world to share that love with people who hadn’t yet heard his name.

Pick at these threads and you realize how intertwined they remain. The history of the missions is mixed. For many of those whose ancestors suffered deeply in those days, it isn’t, and it’s easy to understand, with sorrow, why they act in vengeance today.

But it’s not the whole of the story.

“The mission builders of the American Southwest were full of God,” writes N. Scott Momaday, the first Native American to win a Pulitzer, in the introduction to A Sense of Mission: Historic Churches of the Southwest:

…The missions concede something to the Indian world, a simplicity, a touch of patience and calm, a world view founded upon symmetry and balance, a profound understanding of the earth, water and sky.

Momaday never shies away from the wounds of his people, yet he paints a larger picture, noting the multicultural appreciation of the missioners for “Moorish and Spanish, Mestizo and Pueblo, the old world and a world older still.”

The missioners believed that everything good, no matter what its cultural or religious roots, was a gift from God and was to be taken up into the whole, to amplify appreciation for his gifts.

Acknowledgement of good done by Catholics is hard to come by these days, even startling when you stumble on it in secular sources.

I was reading Paul Horgan’s The Centuries of Santa Fe on a trip to New Mexico years ago when I happened on lines from Pope Paul III’s Sublimus Deus, the 1537 papal encyclical written to address the treatment of native peoples in the Age of Exploration.

I hadn’t heard this fact in school, but it turns out that the 16th century pope not only disapproved of mistreating native peoples, but could not have been more clear about what was expected of faithful Catholics as they entered what from their perspective was the New World:

[All people who may be discovered by Christians] are by no means to be deprived of their liberty, or the possession of their property, even though they may be outside the faith of Jesus Christ;…nor [should they], in any way be enslaved.

“It was under these terms,” writes Horgan, “that the missioner lived with his people.” The legendary failures of the time are tragic. But that does not change the directive of Rome, stemming from the gospel of Jesus Christ, and it doesn’t change the gratitude of many native peoples who were cared for in response to the missioner’s version of Christ’s question, “Are you hurt?”

Serra’s incredible successes in feeding, sheltering and teaching the people he lived with, learned from and worked beside after leaving his comfortable, scholarly life in Spain were thoroughly explored during the process that led to his 2015 canonization as a saint.

Many descendants of those people rose to Serra’s defense. Others rose to condemn him, and his flaws were thoroughly explored as well.

Every saint is flawed. Only of Christ can it be said, “I find no fault in this man.”

Richard Rodriguez, that master of melting pot memoir, explores Serra’s contribution to his people in a reflection written after the 2017 decapitation of the Serra statue at Santa Barbara Mission.

“The blazing white walls of the California missions enchanted the people who came down from the hills to see them,” Rodriguez, the son of immigrants, writes. “My father would have come. I would have come down to see what the missions were about. To hear about Jesus-God.” He concludes:

As a mestizo, like most Mexicans alive today, like my ancestors, I was made by the missions…You may find yourself unwilling to praise the old priest. But I will. 

It was the “Jesus-God” who informed the pope’s insistence, in 1537, that the native peoples were equal in dignity to any European. It was the “Jesus-God” who informed Serra’s intrepid correction of Spanish military abuses. Serra saw himself not as a saint but as a sinner who needed grace as much as anybody else did, including those he served in the missions.

Artistic images of Jesus, whether sculpted, laid on canvas, or arranged in glowing bits of stained glass, are just as flawed as the people who create them. They are just as flawed as the people who follow him, including Saint Junípero, are.

But Christ is not flawed. Take HIM down? Well, he was taken down once before. He has a way of rising, showing his wounds, and offering peace to people of good will.

Even if you could repeat the first bloody attempt to take him down, he’d still find a way to ask the question sensed years ago in my little brother’s heart.

“Are you hurt?”

He already knows the answer.

And no matter what people have done or will do in his name, his love remains the same.

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If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Does Your Heart Break Now? Mourning George Floyd with Two Songs and a Conversation and Galileo’s Daughter Meets God and the Astronomers: When Faith and Science Confront Infinite Mystery.

The mission church in Ventura California, founded by Junípero Serra, is attempting to preserve a bronze statue of the saint by having it peacefully removed and placed in a different location through dialog with the local Chumash tribe elders, the Catholic News Agency reports. “We are going to become a model for the nation so it’s not this riot mob act and desecration, and even having a statue broken into pieces. That is our goal, and that we hope will come to fruition,”  Father Tom Elwaut, pastor of the San Buenaventura mission church, stated in his homily on June 21. The decision remove and relocate the statue by working with tribal leaders toward a peaceful solution is controversial.

What do you think? Please comment below!

Featured photo by Zachary Olson on Unsplash. Jesus in the Fall by Rennett Stowe and Jesus Composite courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

8 thoughts on “Take HIM down? Saint Junípero Serra and the Persistent Question of Christ

  1. In pondering this post, I have mixed thoughts. On one hand, I viewed it from a Catholic/Christian perspective. But, on the other hand, there are those who, like the Antifa folks, who are indiscriminately destroying property, including statues, for the purpose of fomenting a revolution. This type of thing has happened throughout history (French Revolution, Russian Revolution, Chinese Revolution, etc.). You approach the issue from the perspective of a warmhearted evangelist, which is noble on your part. But, as has been the case in these types of events, the revolutionaries want to destroy and replace an existing society. The result is usually tyranny. The people reading your post may be influenced by your apologetics, but the people tearing down the statues don’t care about Jesus. They want to extinguish Him and all remnants of existing society and form a new secularist society. Bless you Peggy for being a voice for Christ.

    1. Really thoughtful response; I appreciate it! Yes, the revolutionaries care little for thoughtful debate. If they do succeed in setting up a new secularist society, I fail to see what the foundation would be, since destroying property without seeking community consensus seems to be one of their primary strategies. The Russian Revolution was had similar problems from the get-go. The intellectuals wanted to free the underclass but without a strong moral foundation to underpin the goal, a horrific number of people wound up suffering in the Gulag for dissent of any kind.
      Richard Rodriguez (cited here) spoke strongly in defense of Serra. He’s an ornery, independent thinker and I was gratified by his perspective and wanted to share!

    2. Your use of the word “Antifa” frames your response and perspective, especially in view of the fact that white supremacists have been responsible for much of the fomenting and destruction that you are addressing. “Warm-hearted evangelist?” That phrase also is worrisome. Your response is also a bit scattered but I gleaned this main idea: “Tearing down statues is a bad thing and not defensible.”

      “Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.”
      White supremacy and institutionalized religion have been the source of incredibly brutal pain and suffering of peoples for hundreds and hundreds of years. Catholicism is right up there at the front of the line in causing these sufferings. This is undeniable. We Catholics see the beauty of what the faith and love of Christ could be and so we give a lot of things a pass because of that. The ones suffering for centuries do not, cannot, will not. And why would we blame them for that? To them, the statues represent pain and oppression and are a constant reminder of both those things.

      From my morning reading, an appropriate addition to my response:
      “All that you touch / You Change. / All that you Change / Changes you. / The only lasting truth / is Change. / God / is Change.” (Octavia Butler)

      Why are we so afraid of change? Do we not think our God is powerful enough to take us through those changes? Do we not trust our faith enough to carry us through change? Why does the tearing down of statues unsettle us so? Could it be that it’s not so much the history and tradition as it is relinquishing the control (and the ability to write the narrative) we’ve had for ages and ages? What are we afraid of?

      The created cannot imagine the creator.
      The oppressor cannot imagine living the life of the oppressed.
      We should look to our own selves before we accuse others and make them the villains.

  2. Hi Sharon,
    Thanks for commenting; I’m grateful for such a reasoned response and I am in agreement actually of much of what you say (including the quote you shared by Octavia Butler–beautiful), so I’m a little unsure about responding except to clarify. I’m still learning and you have helped me!

    Years ago, before I was Catholic, I was stunned when I stumbled on the pope’s 1537 encyclical forbidding the abuse of native peoples because I had never, ever anything but what the people who violated his directive did, and I thought that should be pointed out in the context of the Serra issue. The abusers were NOT following the faith and Christ wept (yet again!!). So much tragedy in his name.

    I thought that the atrocities of the period are well known but pope’s stand against those atrocities and the good that Serra did might not be. On the destruction of his statue, I’m not sure where you stand on the vandalism, but I agreed with Richard Rodriguez who wrote about another destructive incident in 2017 regarding a different Serra statue and I linked to it in my post. His perspective deserves a hearing too, it seemed to me. I also linked to information on the Buenaventura Mission whose pastor is listening to tribal elders and hoping to peacefully have a statue of Serra relocated rather than destroyed. It’s controversial, but I felt that the pastor was really trying to be prayerful and respectful while also attempting to preserve what he feels is sacred. From everything I’ve read about it so far, the process has produced a valuable conversation for both sides.

    I totally agree that we must continue to listen those suffering today and to sorrow for sins of the past, not only looking to the beauty of the faith but facing the ways we’ve scarred Christ’s image with our sin. I wrote about it in my previous post, published after George Floyd’s murder. It’s hard to say everything all at once. Indeed, we are reaping the whirlwind and the anger blazing out is totally understandable. We can only hope that the Holy Spirit will lead us in a solid and ongoing movement of serious change, not just lip service and then business as usual. Many Catholic voices are on record about this, including mine. This isn’t going away, nor should it!

    Peace be with you as we sorrow together, listen to the wounded, learn from the past, pray in penance and move into the future with Christ as guide. Thanks again for speaking up; it meant a lot to me.

  3. Peggy and Sharon,
    I choose this venue to express my views because I knew that the discussion would be civil. I appreciate that there are no ad hominem atacks.
    I know that God, in his Mercy, saves us, and we can trust in Him to guide us. God is Love. He allows change. He allowed our first parents to
    turn away and change their world from a Paradise into toil and pain.
    The purpose of my first post was to point out that those who are indisciminately destroying property and tearing down staturs are operating from a different worldview than that which Peggy is proposing. If God is allowig change to occur at this time because our society’s sins, God’s will be done.

    1. Thanks as always, Craig. I learn from everything you say and it means a lot to me that you take the time to share. I don’t know how to reach those who see destruction as the answer but I know they aren’t at peace because only Christ gives it. I’m sorry for their pain for sure. I really enjoyed the exchange here. Grateful!

    2. Craig, thank you for your kind response.

      What we are seeing are the symptoms of much deeper issues in our world. And we can have rules put in place to prevent the tearing down of statues and yet refuse to see or address the root causes of those actions: outward manifestations of inner pain and suffering.

      May God guide us to understand and have compassion for what we’ve never experienced and to try as best we can to see the reality that others live in.

      Peace be with you.

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