When the Image Is of Jesus

At Radford U., cartoon called "Christ on Campus" sets off debate on free speech and responsibility.
February 27, 2006

Muhammad isn't the only figure who can set off a debate about religious sensitivities and free speech.

At Virginia's Radford University, a student cartoon called "Christ on Campus" is entertaining some students, but offending others -- and the administration is calling in student journalists to discuss the matter. The cartoon has been published throughout the academic year, but discussion of it has intensified amid the public debates over the Danish cartoons of Muhammad, which have recently spread to American colleges.

At Radford, a publicly supported institution, Christian Keesee said he started the cartoon because "no one ever does a cartoon about Jesus" and he wondered "if I could go there." A Pentecostal, Keesee said he views the cartoons as "pro-Christianity." The weekly feature appears in Whim, an online magazine produced by Radford students.

Keesee said he is particularly proud of the "commercialism vs. religion" theme of his Christmas edition of the cartoon, which shows Santa and Jesus fighting and in which Santa stabs Jesus. Keesee said that his seriousness about the messages of Jesus inspired the cartoon. Whim allows readers to comment on the cartoons, and reactions to this one included a range. The work was called "disgusting" and full of "hate" and also praised as insightful, funny, and the cartoonist's best work ever. (Generally, the comments indicate that this and other cartoons sparked discussion at the university.)

Several of the cartoons explore issues of responsibility -- why God would have allowed Katrina to harm so many people in New Orleans, why students think God can solve all of their problems without helping themselves, etc. While a number of the cartoons are not obviously pieces that would upset religious Christians, the uproar over others is less surprising. One cartoon features Jesus being asked by a woman he has been kissing whether he has a condom, while another shows Jesus trying to ignore a gay couple. In a cartoon relevant to the recent uproar over images of the Muslim prophet, Jesus is playing poker with the devil and various non-Western deities, one of whom may be Muhammad.

Keesee said that those who have objected to his work "are too quick to judge the cartoon because it's not a picture of Jesus with Bible scripture next to it." And he said that he believes his non-traditional portrayals of Jesus are consistent with Christian belief. "Jesus was a regular guy and by drawing him like that, I think people can relate."

Not everyone at Radford is relating.

Norleen Pomerantz, vice president for student affairs, said that she requested a meeting with Keesee and his editors because of complaints the university has received. Pomerantz said that the university has not tried to censor or punish, but that the cartoon raises issues.

"We do respect the rights of the students and the student-controlled media to express themselves. That's important," she said. But Pomerantz said that "we also want students to be aware of other people's sensitivities and taste and journalistic standards that they have to adhere to."

Pomerantz said that she hoped the meetings with students would be "a learning experience" for them.

Keesee said he would meet with administrators, but that he was "shocked" to be called on to defend his cartoons to university officials. "I"m trying to explore issues," he said, adding that once he started making Jesus a regular in his cartoon, he decided that the cartoons "should make a point."


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