Beware of holy images that don't look like you...they steal your divinity & annihilate your self esteem

Yesterday morning my young son went to church with his grandma. It was Palm Sunday for the millions of Catholics around the world. I was moved by the fact that my son was going to the same church that, as a little boy, his father had visited with her. More than a religious outing, I saw this as a celebration of tradition. Rituals are important for connection to the tribe. To belong to something ancient or larger than you is a beautiful lesson at any age. The last thing I was thinking about was the danger that he would encounter when he visited a place of worship where everywhere he looked divinity hardly resembled him.

Hours after his first Catholic church outing my 9 yr. old son called over to show me his latest digital drawing done on one of his electronic game consoles.  "Look, mom," he said, "I drew God." And when I looked, I was horrified. God was a white man, sporting long blond hair with a thin nose and lips. I asked him what made him think that God looked like that and he said that he saw statues and pictures of him at the church he'd just prayed in with his grandmother.

I immediately took my son to the mirror and asked him to look at his beautiful brown glory. And said, pointing to him, "now that is God.  You are God. God resides in you and looks like you, your daddy, brother, cousins, uncles and grandfathers." Then I said, "look at me, I am the Goddess. And so are your aunties and grandmothers." He said, but mom, "those pictures in grandma's church didn't look like us."  "I know," I told him, "and they got it all wrong."

Now I should add that this is a church in Spanish Harlem, one of the mecca of the Latin New York and a stone's thrown from Harlem, mecca for African American life. Images in that church look nothing like the residents of that neighborhood. I suspect that this church is no different than millions of churches around the world. And why would they? Could that explain the low self esteem of many people of color?

How is my young boy to know that he is divine, sacred, a reflection of Godly if, when he looks at pictures and statues of holy and they don't look like him? It's not just media images we need to protect our black and brown selves from, this also includes religious iconography. I saw the clear connection between robbing someone of their sense of self and sacred that looks nothing like you.

In media, particularly feminist and queer theory, there's a term called symbolic annihilation.
I just heard it over the weekend when I screened the film, "Miss Representation." Even if you don't know the term you know the feeling if you ever felt invisible when you look at media and images that resemble you are absent. Or when you do find images, they are distorted. In the social sciences this term is used to describe a tool of maintaining social inequality.  While the term is usually used in media criticism to describe a way in which media promotes stereotypes and denies identity, I saw it in it' full glory with religious iconography.

I am not the first to write about how religion and lack of representation of you in holy images is linked to low self esteem. The absence robs you of your power and beauty. Marta Moreno Vega talked about this when I interviewed her for the film, "The Latino List." Her questioning these white images of the Catholic church that she was raised in led her to the African religion of Lucumi.

Like Dr Moreno Vega I too questioned the same invisibility, not to mention the outright hypocrisy and chauvinism of the Pentecostal Christian church that I was raised in. The quest  led me to seek divinity elsewhere. And I found it inside me. And that truth that I discovered decades ago was a profound find and one that I know empowered me in ways that I still am discovering.

Last night, I saw how even giving in a tiny inch to an idea that God is a white blond male was dangerous for my young son's sense of self, so I stopped it as soon as I saw it creeping in. And I suspect this will not be the last conversation on the topic. I am vigilant of the images he consumes. I will continue to remind my young boy of his divinity.

So it's worth asking: is the God or Goddess you pray to a reflection of you?  And if it isn't, what does that say about your sense of holy.




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