Can the representation of the Magi with the black Melchior be racist? A debate has broken out on this question. It sparked a parish in Ulm. And the carol singers are now also being discussed.
Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar belong to the Christmas story like shepherds, like angels, like ox and donkey. But is that correct? Ever since a Protestant parish from Ulm wanted to banish the Three Kings from its Christmas crib as a precaution because of racist characteristics, there is a debate about how to depict the wise men from the Orient today. Even if it’s a long time until Christmas.
“Nonsense in Perfection”
“From today’s perspective, the wooden figure of Melchior with its thick lips and misshapen stature is clearly to be seen as racist”, the dean of the Protestant Münster community, Ernst-Wilhelm Gohl, explains the decision. That makes waves. While there is also a discussion in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, it is said from the Diocese of Passau: “At first, this topic left us speechless.” Opinions differ.
The spokesman for the diocese of Regensburg, Clemens Neck, cannot understand the decision. “It is clear that the portrayal of King Melchior as a black person has nothing in common with racist thinking. In this way, allegations deprive a long tradition of its impartiality and subject it to inadequate pressure to adapt.”
The “Passauer Neue Presse” published a whole special page on Friday with letters from outraged readers: “Nonsense in perfection” and “ridiculous kneeling before a presumed public opinion”. The Black People Initiative in Germany, on the other hand, found the decision to be correct. “It shows that there is now a more consistent approach to handling racism there, “says spokesman Tahir Della.” I see political leaders as having a duty. “With a view to basic values of society, they should also make decisions that would not be immediately supported by the majority.
“Very ambivalent situation”
Jürgen Bärsch, Vice Dean of the Theological Faculty of the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, speaks of a “very mixed situation”. “In the Ulm case, it is very striking that stereotypes are used that are problematic.” It is true that it is an older representation that must be seen in the context of its time. “But in this discussion you have to keep in mind that we have a different sensitivity today – especially because of the current debate on racism in the USA.”
The art historian Stephan Hoppe from the Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich is fundamentally critical of interventions in art. “You can add to the story and comment on it. But you can’t twist the story as you would like it to.”
For Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, Chairman of the Council of the Protestant Church in Germany, the Three Wise Men are above all “part of the fascination of the Christmas story”. “For me it is crucial whether the depiction of different skin colors implicitly or explicitly implies different values,” says the Bavarian regional bishop. “The Three Wise Men are about high-ranking personalities who come to the manger together with the poor shepherds. Different values are not ascribed here. On the contrary.”
“Is it appropriate that one of the carolers should be painted black?”
Carol singers: The sponsors of the Dreikönigssingen campaign recommend that children no longer wear black make-up. (Source: Future Image / imago images)
But the debate is not just about the representation of kings in cribs. “There is a similar discussion with regard to star singing,” says Bärsch. “Is it appropriate that one of the carolers should be painted black?” In Germany around the Epiphany on January 6, around 300,000 carol singers go from house to house to collect donations. The sponsors of the Dreikönigssingen campaign – Kindermissionswerk and Bund der Deutschen Katholischen Jugend – recommend that children no longer use black make-up.
The custom has nothing to do with racist “Blackfacing”, it says on the website of the Mission. It goes back to the fact that Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar represented the three previously known continents Asia, Africa and Europe. The black king stands for Africa. “Nonetheless, the equation of skin color and origin no longer works. We believe that the original meaning of tradition becomes clearer when children sing as carolers as they are: diverse in their appearance.”
However, the last word on how to deal with the crib figures has not yet been spoken in Ulm. The community wants to make the final decision “calmly” in the New Year, says Dean Gohl. He could imagine that the figure would still be shown – but with classifications and explanations.