(Photo: Screen grab/KCAL-TV)
A California church has received threats and criticism after placing a figure of a bloody Trayvon Martin in its nativity scene.
Since it hired artist John Zachary, 58, in 2007, Claremont United Methodist Church in Claremont, Calif., has used its nativity scene to intentionally spark what the church sees as challenging, and at times, uncomfortable conversations.
Zachary pointed to the second chapter of Matthew's description of King Herod calling for all boys younger than 2 to be killed, when discussing what inspired him to include the 17-year-old African American teenager in his setting.
Although Jesus' birth meant joy for the shepherds and prophets Simeon and Anna, for dozens of families, Christ's birth meant "parents in agony because their children had just been killed."
"What if Jesus was lying there bleeding to death? I was kind of thinking of that," said Zachary.
"Ya'll are disgusting, replacing Jesus with that thug Martin? Seriously? Just keep turning people away from Christ, that must be your mission," Deb Burke Vaughn wrote.
Another commenter told the church that it should leave its politics out of Christmas.
"Your nativity scene saddens me greatly. By bringing politics/agendas into a holy day and time, you are perpetuating how far our world has gone from honoring our Father and His son! The nativity is honoring our saviour's birth! Not a place to debate the wicked ways of man. Do the right thing and remove this ridiculous display and replace it with what it was intended for! Praying for the elders of this church and the example they are setting, members should be looking to other places to Worship," Melissa Voight Cook wrote.
Zachary's pastor even acknowledged that she, herself, finds the violence jarring.
"I found this year's hard to look at. It's hard to look at a young man who's shot and bleeding to death. But even though I'm uncomfortable with it, that's the point. We have to take a look at the violence," Sharon Rhodes-Wickett told The Daily Bulletin.
"I think the value of this is that it stretches us to think, what does the birth of Christ call us to do?" she asked.
Commenter Wesley Hawkes suggested that seeing Martin reminded him of why Christ had come to earth.
"After reading many of the comments about the nativity scene I see some troubling trends. First, the demonizing of Trayvon Martin. By making him the worst of all possible people then we don't need to feel so bad that he was killed or that Zimmerman was acquitted," wrote Hawkes. "But isn't it just this kind of person (along with the rest of us) that Jesus came to save?"
Zachary, who has attended the church for 15 years and works as a Hollywood production designer, said that when he first took on this role at his church, he felt it was important to challenge a Christmas image that usually reflects "privilege."
"There's a lot of people who don't have that privilege," he told The Daily Bulletin. "Maybe I should do something that's provocative, that's more in keeping with the teachings of Jesus."
In Zachary's first year, he cast Mary and Joseph as a contemporary homeless couple.
Unlike this year's figure, the community responded positively to his artwork. Someone left an anonymous food donation and elementary students wrote notes of support, encouraging Zachary to continue finding modern contexts for his nativity scenes.
Other scenes Zachary has depicted include turning Mary and Joseph into Iraqi war refugees, would-be Mexican immigrants halted by border control agents, a single African American mother, and prisoners.
In a sign outside its nativity scene last year, Claremont United Methodist Church reminded viewers that "whatever you think about the virgin birth or the historical nativity scene, the nativity is a symbol of acceptance and even celebration of those who have been outcast."
"Jesus, who was born in poverty, out of wedlock and from a foreign land came into the world with the promise of greatness and a celebration fit for a king. As we celebrate Christmas this year we should be reminded of all of those who are excluded, unwelcomed, rejected and oppressed."