Jesus in Black and White

By Walton, Jonathan L. | The Christian Century, October 31, 2012 | Go to article overview

Jesus in Black and White

Walton, Jonathan L., The Christian Century

The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America

By Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey

University of North Carolina Press, 336 pp., $32.50


The Color of Christ confronts the complicated history of the Christ image and racial politics in the United States. The authors' ambitious-some might say audacious--aim is to track "the creating and exercise of racial and religious power through the images of Jesus and how that power has been experienced by everyday people." Their professed task is tantamount to telling the story of American Christianity in its manifold manifestations and interpretations across four centuries. In this bold project, Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey have produced a rich and readable narrative that begins with the Puritans and concludes with Jesus in the age of Obama.

Blum and Harvey are two of the more productive chroniclers of American religion on the scene today. The duo has collaborated as coeditors of The Columbia Guide to Religion in American History (2012), as well as on the Religion in American History blog, where Harvey is editor. As historians who specialize in the southern region of the United States at the dawn of the 20th century, they have helped to advance the field of U.S. religious history in both print and digital media.

Readers familiar with Stephen Prothero's book American Jesus will recognize the narrative arc of The Color of Christ, but the two volumes should not be confused. Blum and Harvey's diachronic account of the changing face of the Christ figure demonstrates an impressive collection of data, which includes artwork, sermons, music and personal testimonies. They present a dizzying number of illustrations from about seven historical epochs. In the process, we learn how people of faith--most notably white and black Protestants, white Mormons, Native Americans and European Catholic immigrants--rejected, embraced and interpreted the sacred Christ image across religious, racial and class lines.

For instance, the iconoclasm of Protestant colonists clashed with French and Spanish Catholic iconography in the 17th century. During the Revolutionary era, the founders kept Jesus at bay in favor of deist philosophy while enslaved African Americans and subjugated Native Americans were "making the Son of God a son of liberty." And beginning in the 19th century, according to the authors, hypercommodified constructions of a masculine, de-Semitized white Jesus pervaded the culture.

Jesus was everywhere and on everyone's side. Northern abolitionists envisaged Jesus as a courageous, freedom-fighting martyr in the vein of John Brown, the raider of Harpers Ferry. Post-Civil War southerners wrapped Jesus in the Confederate flag and their lost cause. Persecuted Mormons affirmed the sacrality of Jesus' whiteness, along with their own, as a means of joining a perceived American mainstream that exalted white skin. Jesus intermeshed with a Paiute religious leader named Wovoka in the Southwest, encouraging the Ghost Dance movement. And everyone, from government officials to denominational mission boards, deployed Jesus as the face of American empire, an imperialistic totem that could redeem the lost, colored children of the world.

Even when Jesus sided with peoples of color, this does not mean that they believed the Christ looked like them. The rare instances of ethnic identification by blacks and Indians could hardly counter the cultural power and white supremacist logic that bolstered Jesus' image in American society. Blum and Harvey go to great lengths to demonstrate that prevailing conceptions of a Nordic Christ were not easily disrupted. It was not just that few communities of color had the mass production capacity or consumer power to create a counter-image to William Pendleton's Letter from Publius Lentulus or James Tissot's The Life of Our Savior Jesus Christ. …

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