The Color of Christ -- A Review

THE COLOR OF CHRIST: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.  By Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey.   Chapel Hill:  The University of North Carolina Press,  2012.  325 pages.

       A young African American boy – he might have been twelve years old – came to the microphone and asked the panel of religious leaders gathered to address issues provoked by Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and askedWhy is Jesus always pictured as being white?  The venerable and to many saintly Catholic priest took the microphone and intoned – “Why, because he was Jewish.”  Is that really the reason?  Or is there more to it than this?  Could it be that there is a link between our vision of Jesus and a sense of cultural and even racial superiority?  I should add that the Imam responded that in the Qur’an Jesus is said to have brown skin – sort of like a Palestinian. 

Why do so many of us think of Jesus being white?  Could it be that through centuries of images we have bought into a view of Jesus’ body that fits our own cultural needs?  And if so, what are the implications of visualizing Jesus in this way? 

            On the cover of The Color of Christ by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey you’ll find the striking image of a young African American boy, maybe twelve years old, sitting on what is supposed to be a throne.  He’s even wearing a paper crown. But above this young boy is a picture of the famed Sallman’s “Head of Jesus surrounded by banners reading: “Christ, Lord of All.” The question raised by the authors of this book concerns the way in which our perceptions of Jesus help form socio-cultural identities.  This is a topic that the two authors, Blum and Harvey, are well equipped to handle.  Both are historians who have devoted considerable attention to the role of religion and race in America.  Blum is Assistant Professor of History at San Diego State University, with a research focus on race in America. He’s also the author of the  W.E.B. Du Bois, American Prophet (2007).  Harvey is Professor of History at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and focuses on race and religion in the American South.

So, why is it that Jesus, who was a Palestinian Jew, always seems to look like a northern European?  For its part, the New Testament says nothing about Jesus’ appearance, but that hasn’t stopped us from creating images of Jesus, and the most common image of Jesus is one that looks a lot like the one appearing in Warner Sallman’s “Head of Jesus.”  He’s white, with shoulder length light brown hair, possibly blue eyes though they could be brown, and of course a nicely trimmed beard.  It’s a portrait that has deep roots in European Catholic iconography, but has also been a point of contention over time – in large part due to questions of identity and power.

 Being that the authors are historians, they examine their topic chronologically, beginning with the coming of Jesus to the Americas and then taking us on a journey from those earliest encounters with Jesus in the Americas to the present. In the course of this powerful and thought-provoking study of race and religion in America, we encounter a white Jesus who became the conflicted icon of white supremacy.  They write in their introduction:
At the center of this book is the story of white Jesus figures made, embraced, challenged, and reformed over the last five centuries; how he arose to become a conflicted icon of white supremacy; how he changed appearances subtly with shifting perceptions of who was considered genuinely white; and how he was able to endure all types of challenges to remain the dominant image of God’s human form in the nation and throughout the world. (p. 7). 
The authors’ thesis is that there is a connection between racial and religious power and that this is symbolized through the descriptions and images of Jesus. 

            This is a long and complicated story that involves relationships of power, wherein white Europeans and European Americans sought to maintain supremacy over Native Americans and African Americans, by portraying Jesus as like them (us).  The book is divided into three parts – Born Across the Sea (taking the story into the early years of the American Republic); Crucified and Resurrected (from the contested ante-bellum period through the bloodiness of the Civil War with an aptly titled chapter, “Christ in the Camps,” and on into the early twentieth century when Nordic and Nativist sentiment drove the new American imperialism; then in Part III the authors take us through the contested years of the twentieth century and on to the present.  In this last section they address the challenges of the Civil Rights era to our traditional visions of Jesus.  Then in an Epilogue entitled “Jesus Jokes” they take us into current conversations that can be less than reverent but which represent for us the challenges of understanding the role Jesus plays in our culture.

With images of Jesus being so prominent today, it might surprise some that in a Puritan dominated Colonial America there were few pictures of Jesus present. This was an expression of Protestant iconoclasm that rejected Catholic images and pictures, and so if Jesus was pictured it was as light rather than as white. Images of Jesus were, however, present in some cases as with French and Spanish engagements with Native Americans, and for many Native Americans it wasn’t whiteness that stood out but the bloody realities of the cross that represented to them their own suffering.  By the time that the new nation moved into the nineteenth century, with questions being raised about what makes for a citizen (whiteness), the visage of Jesus begins to make itself felt.  Pictures began to emerge, some of which took their cue from a fraudulent letter supposedly written by Publius Lentulus, governor of Judea, that described Jesus as white, with long brown hair and a beard – much like the pictures of Jesus that we all know and perhaps even love.  That this letter had long been considered fraudulent didn’t stop it from being of use, especially in efforts to claim Jesus in support of white, European supremacy in the new nation.

The authors mix into the story attempts to portray Jesus as white along with the challenges from Native American and African American communities.  While the picture of Jesus being white cemented a sense of culture superiority among white Americans, for Native Americans and African Americans, both of whom experienced oppression on the part of whites pointed to the hypocrisy of white embrace of a Jesus who was suffered and died at the hands of persons of power.  It was and is a battle to control a sense of identity, and Jesus has often become the focal point of a community’s identity.  Thus, during the ante-bellum period, Jesus comes to be seen as an abolitionist hero in the north, while during the Civil War the South embraced Jesus first as a warrior leading the troops into battle and then as one, ironically, who suffers as they suffered ignominy of defeat.  But then here and there Jesus emerges again as the hero of white supremacy, with the Ku Klux Klan embracing him and then in the twentieth century as American imperialism comes to the fore we find Jesus pictured as muscular and powerful and even Nordic.  Yes, the Jewish Jesus takes on that Scandinavian look of the blue-eyed blond, an image that continues to make itself felt today. 

In the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement the use of Jesus as the hero of white supremacy has become much more muted.  In the tradition, you might say, of Martin Luther King, the color of the skin is less important than the content of the character.  Thus, there are few direct and overt references to Jesus’ whiteness.  Jesus is portrayed as having a universal, non-specific racial identity.  Everyone, whether red or black, white or yellow, their all God’s children, and yet the images continue to portray Jesus as that white male with long brown hair, beard, and sometimes even with blue eyes.  The authors ask us to consider whether or not the images themselves continue to reinforce this idea that not only is Jesus white but that whiteness must be akin to godliness.  Of course, that image continues to be contested, either by portraying Jesus as a Native American, Asian, Black, or by turning the image on its head, reminding us of the hypocrisy of using Jesus in an imperialistic and supremacist fashion. For instance, Langston Hughes wrote a piece in 1931 entitled “Christ in Alabama” that declared that Christ was “a nigger, /eaten and black.”  His mother was a “Mammy of the South,” while his father was the “White Master above,” making Jesus the “Most holy bastard/ Of the bleeding mouth:  Nigger Christ/ On the cross of the South.”  The words may take some aback, but they are reminders of the contested nature of our vision of Jesus.

Window at 16th Street Baptist Church
 Birmingham, Alabama
 The book is extremely powerful because it raises to the fore questions that we tend not to wrestle with. In our day questions of race and power are suppressed, especially when the President of the United States happens to be Black.  We wonder is the opposition to him rooted in racist sentiment.  Are the questions about his religious background and connections with Jeremiah Wright, an adherent of James Cone’s Black theology, remnants of this debate over how we image Jesus?  It’s interesting that those who oppose affirmative action like to point to Martin Luther King’s “dream” of a day when people will be judged by character not color.  And so the idea of a Jesus who transcends race is popular, but is this because it allows us to keep our image of a white Jesus in place while atoning for our sense of white guilt?  Ultimately, when we think of Jesus, what image comes to mind and how does that image help form our own sense of identity?  We may try to update our picture of Jesus, perhaps making him look less feminine and manlier, but in almost all portrayals, including the film versions, he remains white.

Returning to that opening question – “why is Jesus always pictured as white?”  The answer can’t be – because he’s Jewish.  There is, as the authors demonstrate so clearly a much more complex answer to the question and the answers may not be to our liking.  Perhaps, as the authors suggest, after centuries of attempting to resolve the relationship between racial tensions and our vision of Jesus, we’ve turned to jokes.  They write that “Laughter at the Lord was a sign not of less faith in God but of dwindling trust that the people could right the nation’s social wrongs – with or without Christ’s aid” (p. 265).  Our vision of Jesus will remain, Blum and Harvey suggest, “white for most Americans, because that Christ is but a symbol and symptom of racial power yet to be put fully to death.  But because of the nation’s racial and religious histories, Jesus will continue to be a complicated savior made and remade in red, white, and black” (p. 277).

We are indebted to Blum and Harvey for their effort to unearth and reveal this picture of American encounters with the image of Jesus.  It’s appropriate that the book, which focuses its attention on our images of Jesus, is fully illustrated with twenty pictures. 

This is an extremely powerful book that will not only inform but probably make the reader, especially if that reader happens to be white, just a bit uncomfortable.  I will opine that this is a must read, but even more than this, the subject of this book that must be wrestled with if we’re to find any sense of true community in this nation, and I know of no better place to start than with this book.  Our hope of finding reconciliation, especially as Christians, would seem to require that recognize that the way we envision Jesus may not be as true to his own identity as it is true to our own, and that has important implications for our relationships with one another.   


Elmer E. Ewing said…
Well done--we should all read and ponder this.

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