An advertisement encouraging children to attend Sunday school classes hosted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland has stirred up controversy following its social media release earlier this month.
The ad, brightly colored and cheerful, depicts a smiling cartoon Christ leaping amid the greenery outside a church populated by grinning multiracial children. Jesus has long hair and a beard, and He wears a long white gown — not so different from His traditional fashion choices, really, except that the fit of the garment reveals that this version of Jesus has breasts. His bright pink lips, rosy cheeks, and dark lashes also suggest to some that He’s wearing make-up.
Exactly what is Jesus’ gender identity in the ad? The ambiguity, says minister Guðrún Karls-og Helgudóttir, is precisely the point:
Each person interprets something in this picture. Some people interpret it as a trans Jesus, others as a [cis] woman. Some see Mary with a beard, and others see a genderqueer person. Views within the church are just as diverse as elsewhere.
The ads were initially unveiled on Facebook and the church’s website, and they’ve also appeared on public transit in Reykjavík.
But when the inevitable backlash arose, taking the ad’s creators to task for “humiliating” Jesus, the church scrubbed the image from social media and released a statement of apology to anyone hurt by this depiction of a gender-ambiguous Christ:
Kirkjuþing 2020 [the church assembly] is very sorry that a picture of Jesus in an advertisement for the church’s Sunday school has hurt people. The intention was to emphasize diversity, but not to hurt or offend people.
The church has yet to apologize to people harmed by the apology, which uncritically accepts and supports the notion that there’s something inherently shameful or humiliating about being transgender or gender non-conforming.
Fortunately, it’s clearly a form apology, the kind that says “sorry you were offended” rather than admitting to any real harm. And Church of Iceland media director Pétur Georg Markan continues to stand by the idea that “it’s okay” to depict Jesus in a range of different ways:
In this [advertisement] we see a Jesus who has breasts and a beard. We’re trying to embrace society as it is. We have all sorts of people and we need to train ourselves to talk about Jesus as being ‘all sorts’ in this context, especially because it’s really important that each and every person see themselves in Jesus and that we don’t stagnate too much. That’s the essential message. So this is okay. It’s okay that Jesus has a beard and breasts.
He adds that this is only the first in a series of ads that will illustrate different aspects of the church’s view of Christ. The next one is slated to show a Jesus who cares deeply about the environment.
But just as those who consider the picture blasphemous are unlikely to be appeased by an apology, queer activists want the church to stand up for its convictions. Þorbjörg Þorvaldsdóttir, chair of Iceland’s national queer rights association Samtökin ’78, expressed disappointment after the Church of Iceland gave in to transphobic backlash:
When it has been decided to make as much of a ‘statement’ as the image of Jesus in question, the minimum requirement is for the national church to stand on its own two feet and show that it is a real ally of [LGBTQ] people, even when faced with blows… Will the national church be our real ally or not? Is it enough for people to be offended and call the Episcopal Office for it to turn its back on us? From the events of the last few days, it is difficult to deduce much determination or sincerity in the Church’s support. [Loosely translated from the original Icelandic]
Þorvaldsdóttir stated her intention to bring her concerns before the bishop, but there’s been no word on what came of their meeting.
It’s hard to imagine the omniscient, omnipotent Creator of the Universe being this invested in policing whether people’s secondary sex characteristics all line up on the same side of the gender binary. Seems like even the Church of Iceland concedes that such a deity isn’t worth worshiping.
But that conclusion is only useful to the extent that they’re willing to stand by it in solidarity with the LGBTQ community to defend it.
(Thanks to Brian for the link)