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The Color of Christ: The Son of God & The Saga of Race in America
The Color of Christ: The Son of God & The Saga of Race in America
Paul Harvey; Edward J. Blum
Univ of North Carolina Pr, 2024
340 pp., 42.47

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Robert Elder

Color Blindness

Racialized images of Christ.

As I read The Color of Christ, I recalled a meeting of the Christian fellowship I attended in college during which the minister warned us against a conception of Christ he jokingly called "Vidal Sassoon Jesus." We all knew exactly the image he was talking about. Without knowing its name, most of us were probably picturing Warner Sallman's 1941 painting Head of Christ, which today has been reproduced over 500 million times. As Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey show, this moment was not inevitable. The white Christ has a history. That history is complicated, confusing, and deeply consequential for Christians and Americans of all creeds and colors.

In September 1963, a bomb went off in Birmingham, Alabama, claiming the lives of four little girls playing in the basement of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Upstairs, one of church's stained glass windows depicting an image of a white Christ remained perfectly intact save for the face, which was neatly excised by the blast. In the wake of the bombing, observers struggled to comprehend "what it meant for the white Jesus of a black church to have his face blown out." Writer James Baldwin called the missing face "something of an achievement," one that freed black Christians from the depredations of an "alabaster Christ" and gave them license to give their God a "new face." The window in Sixteenth Street Baptist was eventually replaced with one featuring a black Jesus, but the ambiguity of the missing face remained.

Blum and Harvey don't resolve the deeper meaning of that missing face. Instead, they set out to answer a set of historical questions it raises. What was a white Jesus doing in a black church in the 1960s? What did this figure mean to a black congregation locked in a struggle for their civil rights against a white power structure? Why, for how long, and by whom had Christ been pictured as a white man? In many ways, their book is a history of the nation and race told through the changing ways in which Americans conceived of Christ's color.

The white Christ didn't appear on the American stage until the play was well under way. Heirs of Reformation iconoclasm, the Puritans displayed no images of Christ in their churches or homes, and until the early 19th century most Protestant Americans continued to agree with the famous American painter Washington Allston, who declared Christ "too holy and sacred to be attempted by the pencil." In the 17th and 18th centuries, most visions or descriptions of Christ tended to obscure him in blinding light. During the Great Awakening, some of the most striking imagery surrounding the Son of God focused not on the color of his skin but on his broken body. The pietistic Moravians used graphic descriptions of Christ's bleeding wounds to evangelize Native Americans, who embraced the bloody savior (one Indian woman declared that "her Heart lov'd the Side Hole very much & wish'd to sink yet deeper into it"). This Christ was blood red, not white.

The origins of the white Christ, the authors argue, lie in the 19th century. In the first decades of the century, organizations such as the American Bible Society (established in 1816) and the American Tract Society (established in 1825) flooded the nation with pamphlets and illustrated Bibles that depicted Christ as a white man in an era when debates over slavery and immigration increasingly made whiteness a marker of citizenship. Northern white Protestants mass-produced images that spread along the same canals, railways, and roads that fed the growing markets and expanding borders of the new nation. This white Christ appeared prominently in the revelations of Joseph Smith, father of the era's most successful new religious movement.

Like many other Americans of his time, Smith may have been indirectly influenced in his description by a medieval forgery, and Blum and Harvey weave the strange history of the "Publius Lentulus letter" into their narrative. The letter, a description of Christ supposedly penned by a Roman governor of Judea, describes Christ as a man with hair the color of a "ripe hazel nut" and a "ruddy complexion." The Puritans knew the letter was a fraud, as did most Americans well into the 19th century, but the forgery's appeal grew steadily. As early as the 1830s, the artist Rembrandt Peale called it a "Portrait of Christ." This false account formed the scaffolding for the construction of the white Christ, but it would be largely forgotten in the 20th century.

Not everyone embraced such a savior, but neither were they free to remake him in their own image. Slaves identified with the white Christ's suffering and servanthood, and in their tales and visions of him they often shrunk him into "a little man," a trickster figure who would help them escape slavery or their master's notice. Yet the economic, industrial, and cultural power of whites assured that material representations of Christ as white worked their way even into the dreams, visions, and churches of non-white people. Nothing illustrates this better than the answers renowned sociologist E. Franklin Frazier received in 1940 when he asked dozens of young black people, "Is God a White Man?" Most thought he was. Thus, when the bomb went off in Birmingham, it was a white Christ that it defaced.

Between 1890 and 1914, nearly 1.5 million Jews emigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe, and a rising tide of anti-Semitism fueled white efforts to distance Christ from his Jewishness. During this period, New York attorney Madison Grant, in an influential book defending the supremacy of "Nordic whites," argued shakily that Jesus' Jewish antagonists in the Bible "apparently regarded Christ as, in some indefinite way, non-Jewish" (emphasis added). To Grant, this suggested Christ's "Nordic, and possibly Greek, physical and moral attributes." Filmmaker D. W. Griffith agreed, and in his 1916 film Intolerance he treated viewers to a white Christ (played by the same actor who had portrayed Robert E. Lee in his epic Birth of a Nation!) being crucified by dark-skinned Jews.

In the 20th century, the white Christ went global thanks to missionaries, Hollywood, and Warner Sallman. Movies such as Cecil B. DeMille's King of Kings (1927) brought the white Christ to life in black and white and resurrected him in Technicolor. Influential as Hollywood was, Warner Sallman may have been an even greater influence on how people pictured Christ. Painted in 1941, Sallman's iconic Head of Christ had sold 14 million prints within three years. For many, Sallman's painting became the face they prayed to in their most private moments and saw in their dreams and visions. (A 1958 letter to Christianity Today claimed that the painting bore "a very close resemblance" to the visions the writer had seen of Jesus.)

The most significant challenges to Christ's whiteness in the 20th century originated from the Civil Rights movement and black liberation theology. Martin Luther King, Jr., stressed Christ's universal message instead of his race, but others soon took aim directly at the white Christ. Blum and Harvey extend the roots of black liberation theology back far beyond the small group of academics such as Union University's James Cone, who led the attack in the 1960s. Cone's declaration that the "white God is an idol, created by racist bastards" may have been shocking, but its charge wasn't wholly new. Blum and Harvey trace the beginnings of black liberation theology to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and '30s, when intellectuals and artists led by the likes of W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes portrayed Christ as a black lynch-victim.

Examining the outrage surrounding the Jeremiah Wright affair during the 2008 election, some of which revolved around Wright's comment that "Jesus was a poor black man," Blum and Harvey suggest that the white Christ is still with us. They chronicle his disappearance from sanctuaries of megachurches appealing to interracial audiences, as well as a devotional by evangelist Josh McDowell calling the white Christ a "racist myth." Yet, Blum and Harvey show, even as "the white Jesus and white privilege were denounced by everyone, … they remained still-powerful material realities," reproduced on book covers, T-shirts, and in movies and devotional literature. Blum and Harvey compare this situation to the "place of race in conservative politics" in the late 20th century, in which seemingly color-blind language carries loaded racial meanings. "Divorcing word from image," they write, "white Christians gained the power to present themselves as egalitarian heirs of the civil rights movement and to continue as producers of racial sacred imagery that tied whiteness to godliness. In essence, they could sanctify whiteness without saying a word."

Blum and Harvey are persuasive, but a somewhat different reading might have emphasized recent work by Christian Smith, Michael Emerson, and Peter Slade, who have documented from different angles how evangelicals generally embrace an individualistic approach to race, in which it is considered more essential to change hearts than to oppose embedded structural injustices, which they assume either don't exist or will eventually right themselves. Thus, warnings against the "Vidal Sassoon Jesus" in your heart, instead of the one on your T-shirt, are generally considered sufficient. By this reading, many evangelicals are sincere in their intentions to oppose the white Christ, but they fail to reckon with the overwhelming importance of their own economic and cultural power. Blum and Harvey provide ample evidence that this approach is naïve, even willfully so, but little evidence that it is calculating, as the political comparison seems to suggest. Regardless, their book tells a fascinating story that we cannot afford to ignore.

Robert Elder is a Lilly Postdoctoral Fellow and lecturer in the humanities at Valparaiso University.

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