The Sacred Heart of Appalachia

The Sacred Heart of Appalachia June 13, 2023

My grandparents had a big throw blanket with a picture of Jesus on it. At first there was nothing sacred involved.  Eventually, it moved from the couch to be tacked up on the wall like a tapestry. My grandfather appreciated the idea of Jesus watching over the family. The throw was a symbol for that. When he was laid out in his casket for visitation (what some call a wake), the backdrop of the throw made a different point. “He is now with Jesus.”

Sacred Images

There was only one issue with the image. It was the Sacred Heart of Jesus and very Catholic. My grandparents were never Catholic. They would likely have been offended if one of the grandchildren asked about the Catholic image. They, like many old-time religion people in the region, could object that it was never a Catholic image because it was Jesus not Mary.

All the neighbors, cousins, family members and friends who visited them did not see the image as anything other than Jesus. Many people in the area have statues, pictures, and other images of the sacred heart of Jesus. Why is it so popular? Why do these Billy Graham evangelicals choose images of Jesus with the sacred heart?

Symbols of Suffering

The heart in the image is surrounded by a crown of thorns and bears wounds. Jesus appears fully clothed. The face of Jesus is unmarred. His eyes are neither stern nor sentimental. Rather, they appear to know and understand. His hands show the red holes of the nails from his cross. Either atop or within the sacred heart is a flame under a cross. The gospel as lived by Jesus and preached on Pentecost is demonstrated.

The viewer sees these details but takes in the whole image. My grandparents understood one thing. The experienced poverty their whole lives. They always had a landlord of some sort. My grandfather worked for very little in return. Like many families in the area, theirs was large – eleven children – and my grandfather’s nephew whose step-father did not want him.

Sacred Suffering

The sacred heart of Jesus expresses the sacredness of people who suffer. Suffering is not in itself holy. It is the result of sin. Jesus’ own death was from the sinfulness of people in places of power. However, the people who suffer are sacred. For my grandparents, Jesus got it. Many of my colleagues see similar imagery of the sacred heart of Jesus in other homes. The items with the images were acquired sometimes as gifts for ordering subscriptions.  The images though are rarely tossed aside. The owners want the assurance that “Jesus knows all about our troubles.” They do not compare their trials with his. But they recognize the unfairness of life. Now these images are beginning to disappear with the people.

Country Gentrification

Rural areas are good examples of income inequality. They always have been. But they are becoming worse. Hobby farms and subdivisions replace cornfields and pastures. Widening highways cut up rural communities to get people and goods from city to city. A couple who retired to Appalachia from Chicago, built a house and planted a vineyard only to learn that life was very inconvenient when it came to entertainment and medical care. Others make use of the highways to go to theaters, restaurants, and coffee shops.

Rising real estate values squeezes out the heirs of the former residents. County governments raise taxes on projected property values from the highways, new wine hobbyists, and country wedding venues. Selling the property is the best option for them. People who only view images of dead presidents as sacred toss the sacred heart aside.

The Death of the Sacred

People bemoaning the decline of Appalachia culture make the same mistake of thinking other people are disposable. Claiming a culture is in decline is really claiming people who do not “appreciate” (read exploit) what is there should be discarded.

The image continues letting people know someone understands their lives even when others want to forget them.

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