Review: The Color of Christ
Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey. The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012. 281 pp. ISBN 978-0-8078-3572-2.
The Color of Christ is the latest in a number of studies in recent years that examine how Americans have encountered Jesus. Nearly a decade ago Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus (2003) and Richard Wightman Fox’s Jesus in America (2004) mined representations of Jesus in American history. In different ways, those studies explored the permutations of images within a deeply religious society. But neither focused extensively on the significance of race, and this is the gap that The Color of Christ seeks to fill. Edward Blum and Paul Harvey examine how Americans from early Euro-American contact with indigenous peoples gave Jesus physical form, refashioning him as a symbol of their deepest fears, hopes, terrors and dreams. Framed by the narrative of the stained-glass Jesus shattered by the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963, it is also a study deeply imbued with a post-civil rights morality, challenging its readers to explore divine embodiment as intrinsically linked to struggles for social and political equality.
Working chronologically, the authors situate the American Jesus in multiple frames, moving from the colonial era to the digital age. They focus primary attention on white Protestant images, but also include extensive discussion of African American, Catholic and Latter-day Saint representations. In an expansive account, they argue that Jesus received relatively scant notice from the Puritans and French and Spanish Catholics, but became increasingly popular by the early national period. Inevitably, they explain, his portrayal served as a lens into the power of race and its increasing salience and malleability in American society. Jesus stood up for white supremacy and challenged it; he embraced the dictates of slavery and called for liberation. By the early twentieth century the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon, masculine and heroic Christ was nearly complete, and had eclipsed the cultural reach of contending images proposed by cultural outsiders.
A major strength of this sweeping study is the plethora of evidence provided about the qualities of Christ, from Moravian views of the “bloody” Jesus to Phillis Wheatley’s poetry to contemporary film and even humor. The book is a tremendous resource for teachers seeking to educate students about the myriad movements in the U.S. that have taken Jesus’ name and image, as well as general readers seeking a lively introduction to the topic. The narrative is also admirably inclusive both racially and confessionally, weaving a synthetic account at once expansive and politically pointed.
Yet the issue of Christ’s color is also confusing, conflating as it does race as a social category, a phenotype, and a theological statement. This mixed message proves confounding when discussing, for example, the Moravian Jesus as “red” because he is represented as drenched in blood (61). The authors conclude that “Before Jesus rose to dominance as a white figure in America, he was red”(66). But what does this mean, exactly? And how is it necessarily related to the issue of race? The Jesus of enslaved Africans, even when depicted as light-skinned, is deemed to “affirm blackness” because theologically he was thought to have sided with the oppressed (94). This leads the authors to conclude that the slaves “bent” whiteness in order to subvert the Euro-American Jesus; he was still white, but with “subtle differences” (99). In related manner, the authors use “whiteness” as a provocative category in places where other descriptors are historically more accurate, such as in their assessment that Samson Occom was critiquing “whiteness” when talking about “Christian nations” (59).
The conceptual slippage, rather than making the authors’ point about the significance of race in our understandings of Christian history, actually works against this goal, because the multiple meanings of color are juxtaposed but never fully analyzed. What purchase do we gain on understanding race by calling the Moravian Jesus “red” or the Jesus of the slaves only marginally “white”? Similarly, the authors tend to use Jesus himself—variously named as Savior, Christ, Son of God, and even “the Cross” (166–67) as a synecdoche, a stand-in for Christianity in its entirety. In this sense, the book prompts important insights about the ways that race consciousness and categorization have shaped American Christianity, yet it elides theological distinctions. A more robust parsing of the many elements of color (and belief) under discussion could have sharpened those notions.
The relatively loose interweaving of images, devotional life, and political convictions as material for analysis also has both advantages and disadvantages. Certainly, the authors emphasize (as did Fox and Prothero) that this Jesus is ubiquitous, is not easily equated with the creation of cultural similitude (since African Americans and Native Americans have at times revered a “white” Jesus), and bears profound political significance. Yet the intermixing and virtual equation of these elements also makes for a curiously flat concept of culture, begging some of the most critical questions: Are images of Jesus (or anyone else) that are white in color necessarily racially white? What is the relationship between seeing, consuming, or even worshipping an image that is rendered as white, and a political commitment to white racial superiority? What does it mean for the authors to note that some people have “defended the whiteness of Jesus”? (256) All of these questions, so central to the last thirty years of critical race theory, would have been useful to consider in light of the documentary evidence.
Stories of the Mormon Jesus demonstrate the density of images that is flattened (and in this case, misrepresented) by the under theorized concept of color. The authors argue that Mormons “became some of the most powerfully committed to Jesus’ (and their own) whiteness and strength” (136), and they base this claim on a reading of images of Christ beginning in the early twentieth century. Yet the evidence cited provides many more wrinkles to the narrative, including the fact that Mormon visual images of Jesus (largely borrowed from Protestant Europeans until the mid-twentieth century) were dismissed as inaccurate and even foolish by some LDS because of the Teutonic qualities believers knew to be misleading. Similarly, much is made of the large Christus statue fixed in the LDS Temple Square Visitors’ Center in 1966, presumably (according to the authors) as a symbol of racial dominance. No evidence supports this claim, and neither do the authors discuss the possibility that white marble statues are, well, white marble. Others may read the racial symbolism in any manner of ways, but it seems a leap to claim that Mormons are engaged in “rhetoric-versus-image magic” (253) because they discuss racial integration but keep a white marble Jesus in their vestibule.
My point is not that race is unimportant. Quite the contrary. Characterizing every sighting of Jesus’ color as racially and thus morally significant devalues the importance of race when it matters most. And it also avoids the most interesting lines of inquiry for the cultural historian: Is it possible for whites, in a racist society, to portray a white Jesus that is not stamped with the oppressor’s mark? Is any representation by whites of Jesus necessarily racist? One strategy would be to present these questions as compelling puzzles with unclear outcomes, and highlight the ironies and disjuncture of various portrayals. But the morally infused tone of this work sends a different, less variegated message. Indeed, The Color of Christ is a jeremiad, a lament for the impossibility of Christian imagery about Jesus ever to be free of the taint of the racist society in which it is produced. Liberation theologians, we learn, tried to free the trapped Jesus, but even they failed to create a unifying image and fell prey to the own “blind spots” (241). The authors seem to want to preach to us—to give us the moral tale. But they do not quite articulate the compelling moral, even theological, concerns that underlie their narrative.
Ultimately, the lessons of this story, other than showcasing sheer variety of representations, are not entirely clear. What should the reader take away, for example, from the framing narrative: the 16th Street Baptist Church replaced its shattered white Jesus with a dark-skinned icon. “The holy face of Christ,” the authors lament, “had to have a race.” In this sense, they echo a much longer strand of Christian moralizing. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica states in an expressly theological register the puzzle that animates The Color of Christ: Was it fitting that God should become incarnate? In other words, what was the point of the Divine taking bodily form? The downsides seem so numerous: bodies are flawed, flesh is prone to failure, and physical forms are read through temporal eyes, the eyes of limited societies. Aquinas knew that bodies are read through culture and history, and he argued that Jesus’ body suffered that fate for a salvific purpose. The Color of Christ suggests, simply, that no matter this purpose, Christ’s incarnation is a racist realization. Such an observation must be considered alongside the accounts of believers who have seen more in Christ than the designated color of his skin.