An Ohio public school superintendent is defending the ginormous reproduction of Sallman’s “Head of Christ” that hangs in a Jackson City school building. He says the iconic portrayal of a white Gentile Jesus does not privilege or establish religion, but merely reflects “the culture of our community.”
You can use a lot of words to describe a larger-than-life reproduction of this particular painting, but I’m not sure “culture” should be one of them. (OK, yes, fine — everything is culture. But still.)
Hemant Mehta says the portrait is a clear endorsement and privileging of sectarian religious and that it has no place in a public school. He’s absolutely right.
It’s not just that this is an illegal establishment of religion, but that it’s just plain not fair to privilege one particular sect over everyone else. Instead of plastering pictures of Jesus in our public spaces, forcing non-Christians to see that our team outnumbers their team, Christians should try to think about what Jesus told us. He said we should be fair. He said “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Hemant doesn’t quote that verse from the Gospel of Luke, but he cites the idea of it in another post about yet another public school where a teacher has turned her classroom into a sectarian shrine, covering the walls of the room with Bible verses. Hemant writes: “Can you imagine what the response would have been like if [the teacher] were Muslim, with Koran verses lining her walls? Or an atheist, with quotations from Christopher Hitchens greeting students each day?”
The Jackson City Sallman’s “Head” print was a gift to the school in 1947 from a student YMCA club. The YMCA had distributed pocket-sized versions of the picture to GIs during World War II.
Groups in Oklahoma and Indiana conducted campaigns to distribute the image into private and public spaces. One Lutheran organizer in Illinois “said that there ought to be ‘card-carrying Christians’ to counter the effect of ‘card-carrying Communists.”
So there’s quite a history of using this particular image as a tribal totem for culture warriors.
In other words, this isn’t about “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” This is just about pissing on trees to mark our tribal territory.
On the positive side, though, at least the Jackson City school just has the painting hanging in a stairwell. It could be worse — they could be using it in art classes.
Sallman’s “Head of Christ” can be found in almost every evangelical church in America. It is a popular, iconic, beloved image of Jesus for millions of American Christians. Yet defenders of having the painting in a public school argue that this devotional icon of Jesus Christ has no sectarian meaning.
This is why the separation of church and state is vitally important for Christians. When Christians are standing around arguing that Jesus Christ has no particular religious significance to us, then something has gone horribly wrong.
For a good history of Warner Sallman’s ubiquitous image, see Victoria Emily Jones on “Sallman’s Pretty Jesus.”