When fashion and fine arts photographer David LaChapelle saw someone wearing a “Jesus is my Homeboy” T-shirt in 2003, he was touched by the simplicity of the message. It made him wonder who Jesus’ original homeboys (the twelve apostles) were—or rather, who they would have been had God chosen to incarnate himself in twenty-first-century America instead of in first-century Palestine.
“The apostles were not the aristocracy, they were not the well-to-do, they weren’t the popular people; they were sort of the dreamers and the misfits,” LaChapelle said in a 2008 interview for The Art Newspaper TV. If Jesus were here today, he said, he would be hanging out with the street people and the marginalized: the poor, the homeless, prostitutes, drug dealers, gangsters, and so on. And more than that, these people would have been his closest and most faithful band of followers.
And so LaChapelle created this series of six photographs entitled Jesus Is My Homeboy, which was originally published in the British magazine i-D in 2003, then exhibited later in 2008 in London and St. Moritz, Switzerland.
LaChapelle said that through this series, he wanted to “rescue the teachings of Christ” from the fundamentalists, who use Jesus’ words to judge and condemn rather than uplift. Unlike a lot of contemporary Jesus art, he said, Jesus Is My Homeboy is not meant to be ironic or shocking, but to convey a beautiful sentiment, and the sincerity of his own faith.
The subjects of the photographs wear do-rags and sweats, piercings and tattoos. They’re not necessarily criminals; they’re just multi-ethnic youths who come from a rap and hip-hop culture, a group that’s often stigmatized by the way they look, dress, and speak. They’re the ones with whom, if you passed them on the street, you’d probably try to avoid eye contact for fear of them. And yet in these photos, Jesus sees beyond the stereotypes and welcomes each one into his company.
For an artist who regularly turns convention upside down, I find it interesting that LaChapelle chose to represent Jesus in such a traditional way—open-armed, stoic, and glowing like a nightlight (and unmistakably white). The choice was intentional, no doubt; I’m just trying to figure out what purpose it serves, because I feel that that sort of Jesus doesn’t fit comfortably into a modern-day context—he’s too rigid and inapproachable. In the photos, Jesus isn’t really hanging with his boys (or with his homegirl, Mary M.). Instead, it looks as if he dropped in from another planet. Any thoughts?
As I said earlier, LaChapelle’s main objective for this series was to help dispel the judgmentalism of fundamentalists by situating Jesus in the present day, surrounded not by Samaritans and lepers and demon-possessed individuals, but by the outcasts of today—suggesting that rather than shun these people or else just shrink away from them, we need to invite them into our community and show them the same tenderness and compassion that Jesus showed them. However, I would mention one historical correction: the twelve disciples weren’t all of one homogenous background. They truly were a motley crew, made up not just of lowbrow fishermen, but also of a few wealthier, more educated men (Bartholomew, Matthew), as well as a political revolutionary (Simon the Zealot). (And outside this circle of twelve was an even more variegated group of followers and friends, comprising people of all different races, socioeconomic statuses, professions, and political leanings.) Perhaps a more accurate photographic rendering would have shown a greater mix of people—like an IRS agent to represent Matthew, or a member of al-Qaeda to stand in for Simon. The photos seem to suggest that the disciples all got along swimmingly, having come from similar places, carrying similar baggage, and sharing similar interests. But this just wasn’t so.
Another caution I would put forth is to be careful with the ever-so-popular idea that “Jesus accepts you just as you are,” which I’ve heard uttered countless times and which is a logical extension of the “Jesus is my Homeboy” philosophy. Now, don’t get me wrong: The phrase is true in the sense that Jesus saves you just as you are; we don’t have to be intelligent or rich or virtuous or loveable to come to him for salvation. We need no merit at all. But when Jesus saves you, he sets you apart—from sin, and to righteousness. That means that once you cede your life to him, he will no longer tolerate your old lifestyle (“no one pours new wine into old wineskins”). Jesus meets us where we are, but he doesn’t want us to stay there. He wants to transform us, to regenerate and renew us. As chummy as he was with others, Jesus always confronted their sin, because he came to Earth not to watch us waste away and self-destruct, but to bring healing to our lives (Matthew 9:12-13), to give us the power to overcome what holds us back.
I very much enjoyed seeing and reflecting on these photographs. They give the gospel new color for me by reminding me that Christianity began as a local movement of misfits, to whom Jesus paid loving attention. These misfits got to hang with the greatest man who ever lived, and he fitted them for his kingdom. He brought the outsiders inside, giving them a dignity and a worth they had never had before. And we who have inherited this movement (we who call ourselves Christians) ought to do the same.