Original Research

Black Christ and Cross-Roads Jesus for white South African Christians

Wilhelm J. Verwoerd
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies | Vol 76, No 3 | a5836 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/hts.v76i3.5836 | © 2020 Wilhelm J. Verwoerd | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 05 October 2019 | Published: 30 July 2020

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Wilhelm J. Verwoerd, Studies in Historical Trauma, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa

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A significant factor undermining real racial reconciliation in post-1994 South Africa is widespread resistance to shared historical responsibility amongst South Africans racialised as white. In response to the need for localised ‘white work’ (raising self-critical, intragroup historical awareness for the sake of deepened racial reconciliation), this article aims to contribute to the uprooting of white denialism, specifically amongst Afrikaans-speaking Christians from (Dutch) Reformed backgrounds. The point of entry is two underexplored, challenging, contextualised crucifixion paintings, namely, Black Christ and Cross-Roads Jesus. Drawing on critical whiteness studies, extensive local and international experience as a ‘participatory’ facilitator of conflict transformation and his particular embodiment, the author explores the creative unsettling potential of these two prophetic ‘icons’. Through this incarnational, phenomenological, diagnostic engagement with Black Christ, attention is drawn to the dynamics of family betrayal, ‘moral injury’ and idolisation underlying ‘white fragility’. ‘White fatigue’ is challenged by stressing the Biblical nature of Cross-Roads Jesus’ confrontational, ‘ugly’ portrayal of the systemic violence of apartheid and colonialism. It is also argued that a combination of Louw’s shocking portrayal of an enraged, emaciated township Jesus with the explicit depiction of white historical responsibility in Black Christ increases the counter-cultural potential of these icons to disrupt denial amongst white South African Christians. However, the realisation of this potential will require the cultivation of more capacity to work creatively with the intense emotional, moral, spiritual discomfort brought to the surface by this type of religious icon.

Contribution: The article argues for a contextualised, South African engagement with the crucifixion of Christ, through an embodied interpretation of two anti-apartheid religious paintings. It makes a contribution to critical whiteness studies and practical theology and thus fits into the interdisciplinary, hermeneutical scope of HTS.


racial reconciliation; white denial; white fragility; white fatigue; family betrayal; moral injury; shared responsibility; systemic violence; religious icons; black Christology


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Crossref Citations

1. Diagnosing and dismantling South African whiteness: ‘white work’ in the Dutch Reformed Church
Louis R. Van der Riet, Wilhelm Verwoerd
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies  vol: 78  issue: 4  year: 2022  
doi: 10.4102/hts.v78i4.7402