Four years ago, America was on the verge of electing the country’s first African American president—a stunning marker, for many, of the promises of progress fulfilled. This year, Barack Obama faces a Mormon challenger, and religion, not race, fuels at least some of the suspense of this close presidential contest.
But religion and race in the U.S. share a profound and tangled history—one that Ed Blum and Paul Harvey bring forth vividly in their new book, The Color of Christ. What did a white Jesus mean to a population of enslaved Africans, or to Native Americans? Why were Mormons in particular so committed to a lily-white God? What can we read into the shattered image of the stained-glass savior in a Birmingham church? The book—an illuminating and powerful read—dives deeply into these and other questions.
Anthea Butler, Professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, hosts this conversation with the book’s authors, along with RD’s own Joanna Brooks and Memphis Theological Seminary’s Andre E. Johnson.
Why is it important to discuss The Color of Christ now in 2012, when the election of President Obama was heralded as the beginning of the “post-racial society”?
Paul Harvey: It’s not exactly news to point out that we don’t live in a post-racial society. To that obvious point, our book adds the underlying theological current of the sacralization of whiteness.
The birth, growth, and evolution of white Jesus imagery dating from the antebellum era and exploding in the twentieth century coincided with the birth of an American empire founded, in part, in notions of race. The assault on that sacralization of whiteness through the civil rights years has not, and could not, defeat it entirely, and the depth of religiously-fueled sentiment directed against Obama suggests that as well.
Jeremiah Wright’s preachings of a black Jesus created a media firestorm in 2008, and Obama’s connections to Wright and black-liberation theologians remain a staple of the right-wing talk circuit. Although the white Christ has a varied, sometimes sordid, history in the United States, it is the norm. It is the default image. It is there even when being challenged, mocked, and parodied (as has been the case on television in Good Times and South Park, and in films such as Talladega Nights and Dogma).
Ed Blum: Post-racial is both an illustration and an illusion. On one hand, it means we have moved past the overt and blatant racism of the past that kept African American women and men from voting booths and housing areas. It also hides, though, the power white supremacy in history and whiteness today.
When it comes to the color of Christ, this illustration and illusion is still with us. Billy Graham, for instance, has now said that “Jesus was not a white man,” but he never apologizes for using massive billboards with Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ” on them.
When it comes to post-racial, we have a Jesus who can be white without words. This is even true of the digital age. Google search “Jesus” and we get hundreds of white images. If one wants other Christ figures, one must explicitly type “black Jesus,” “Asian Jesus,” “Chicano Jesus.” The color of Christ continues to reflect our racial realities and fantasies. In post-racial America that means rhetoric of being beyond color but still beholden to history and power of whiteness.
Joanna Brooks: I think we’re all agreed that post-racial just… isn’t.
But I’m thinking too about the multidimensional influence of race on faith. The sociologist Stuart Hall once said, “Race is the modality through which class is lived.” That’s always stuck with me. I wonder if race is not also a modality through which faith is practiced. I think many people aspire to practice faith toward the end of eliminating or transcending human divisions like race. But race, class, gender, and sexuality profoundly shape the practice of faith and the different paths of faith people have to walk.
For Christians of color in America, for example, this may mean that being Christian requires pushing through the racism—deadly in so many precincts of American life—of an American Christianity that has colored Christ white towards claiming a God that looks more like home. For white Christians, it means pushing through what may feel safe—inherited privilege and blindness—to leave home and migrate towards images of God that do not look like us.
Andre Johnson: Not only have we not achieved the post-racial society that so many claimed and desired, I wonder sometimes if we are even post-racist.
Nevertheless, despite president Obama’s election, racism, as we have seen throughout his administration and during this campaign, has not disappeared. The Color of Christ comes at the right and appropriate time, reminding us about how belief in and of the color of Jesus functions in a society that so desperately wants to hang on to its myth of colorblindness.
You begin The Color of Christ by invoking and analyzing the bombed-out stained glass face of Jesus at 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four girls died in 1963 as a result of dynamite set off by white supremacists. How does this broken image connect to the anecdotes in the book about the uses and misuse of Christ’s body? Are these representations always intentional, or are racial and class structures so deeply embedded in American society that images of Christ are not the real issue, but just code for broader sets of values for particular groups?
Paul Harvey: The fact that the white Jesus was in the stained glass window of 16th St. Baptist emerged from a long history in which the image of Jesus represented, in one sense, racial and class structures deeply embedded in American society. That’s why that image, and not some other, was there in the window in the first place.
The fact that the image was transformed in the process of replacing the face, and the window, suggests the recognition of those structures which came with the rethinking of American history (and imagery) spurred by the black freedom struggle. And yet it cannot be reduced simply to a code for broader sets of values for particular groups, because the use of Jesus—even a Jesus envisioned as white—destabilized white supremacy.
When asked a question about Jesus’ race, Martin Luther King responded that Jesus was “no less significant because he was white,” suggesting both how his own unspoken and even unconscious imagery arose from the history related in this book, but also the fact that his actions which arose from the spirit and biblical message burst through this preconception.
Since that era, the images have grown more self-consciously intentional (hence the proliferation of Jesus images in art, across the internet, and elsewhere), and there has been as well a self-conscious repudiation of “white Jesus.” And yet Jesus often remains, as we argue in the text, “white without words,” meaning the legacy of the image and all it represents and symbolizes about racialized and class divides remains with us still.
Ed Blum: At times, the uses of racial Christ imagery is quite intention. Madison Grant (the spokesman for “Nordic whiteness” in the 1910s and 1920s) discussed explicitly Jesus as “Nordic” as part of his attack upon immigration from Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe. Klan members of his age, likewise, linked the racial body of Jesus to their racial national view.
Of course, other times, the imaging is unintentional or at least never spoken. When Mormons erected the Christus statue in the middle of the 1960s there was no direct discussion of this Christ’s race, face, or hair. But situated in its historical moment and in the theological context of a Church that did not allow African American men to become priests, it is not too difficult to see racialized meaning within it.
Finally, when we approach the colors of Christ it forces us to reckon with the interactions among and spaces between rhetoric and material reality. Billy Graham wrote in his own autobiography that Jesus was not white; but I have never found him to take offense at any whitened image of Jesus at a church, in a book, or on a church fan. Alternatively, as African American congregations have struggled over what kinds of racial imagery to use, they often have explicit debates over what the images should look like, where they should be placed, and if they should be transformed.
Joanna Brooks: And that’s what’s important about this book. By tracking the way Jesus Christ has been rendered through the American racial imagination—actually lining up all the evidence, from Puritan witch trial transcripts through stained glass windows through contemporary movies—Paul and Ed give us a new place to start a national discussion about who owns the image of God. That discussion has been going on, as The Color of Christ demonstrates, in communities of color since the early nineteenth century, if not before.
I loved reading in this book about the Pequot Methodist preacher William Apess who in 1830 asserted that Christ was in fact a man of color. Most non-white Christians don’t even have to think about a question that communities of color have been working through for centuries, now. That’s it’s own kind of privilege—getting to assume that God looks like you. But like all privilege, growing up with these kinds of unquestioned assumptions can make the mind, spirit, and conscience dull.
As a Mormon, I spent my young childhood in a Church that discriminated against African Americans, but I didn’t know how to see the ban—just like I couldn’t really see the absence of black people from our de facto segregated Orange County, California suburb.
The ban on black ordination was lifted in 1978 (I was seven years old), to the profound relief of the vast majority of Mormons. But racist folklore and rationale for the ban continued to circulate long after it ended, and only in the last year has the pressure of the presidential election pushed Church leaders to make slightly more definitive statements that Church members should not necessarily view the priesthood ban as being of divine origin.
Only as I began to wrestle with the adult shape of my faith did I consider the question of the color of Christ. Is dealing with the racialization of Jesus a coming of age necessity for American Christianity too? That’s one of the suggestive possibilities The Color of Christ presents.
Andre Johnson: I believe that the images of Christ are so deeply embedded in our society that even when we are trying to be objective, we still struggle to move past a white Jesus. An example of this was Dr. King’s comments on the color of Jesus. While trying to be neutral and objective about color, he says that Jesus’ color is not important, but that he “is no less significant because his skin is white.” King’s construction of Christ as white was not a conscious or intentional use, but one that comes from a deep-seated embedded image.
It is ironic that white supremacists blew off the face of white Jesus and gave a black church the opportunity to replace the image with a black face. It demonstrates both a misuse—in the white supremacists’ belief that God would bless their actions—and a use, as the church found in them the image of God. As several people mentioned at a roundtable discussion we had when Professor Blum visited Memphis, it is important for people of color to believe and see the image of God in themselves.
Christus statue in Salt Lake City(L) and the stained-glass Jesus in the sanctuary at the 16th St. Baptist(R)
I was particularly interested in the section of your book that deals with the Depression era and portrayals of Jesus. Thinking about the current U.S. economic situation, I wonder if the different portrayals of a radicalized Jesus also have a class component to them as well?
And as an aside, If Jesus was portrayed by President Obama and Governor Romney respectively, what do each of you think their artistic version of Jesus would look like and why?
Ed Blum: Economic transformations have been important times in American history when prevailing norms, including images of Jesus, have come under fire. This was true of the Great Depression and is now true as well.
On one hand, some conservatives have attacked President Obama as the “Antichrist,” which seems in part connected to how he has been portrayed as a messianic figure—a black messianic figure. Alternatively, there has been a “browning” of Jesus in the Occupy Movement and the anti-Tea Party movement where one can often find posters that read: “Obama is not a brown-skinned, anti-war socialist who gives away free health care… you’re thinking of Jesus.” Sometimes these posters are accompanied with Christ’s face with brown features. The important point, in this case, is how racial perspectives are tied to political, military, and social issues: socialism, war, and health care.
Regarding Obama versus Romney and their takes on Jesus, President Obama has made it very clear that the golden rule is an animating principle of his politics. He has invoked it in his writings and in his explanation of why he now supports same-sex marriage. In this regard, he follows a long history of abolitionists and civil rights activists who have wanted to apply the golden rule directly to issues of social justice.
Romney, alternatively, has not spoken at length about Jesus in his political vision. Unlike George W. Bush who claimed that Jesus was the most important “philosopher” in his thinking, Romney seems reticent to discuss Jesus. Perhaps this is because he fears looking particularly at Jesus may expose tensions and differences between his Mormonism (and the Book of Mormon as “another testament” of Jesus Christ) and conservative evangelicals who battle all the time over their Bible, how to read it, and its importance.
For various reasons (of course neither one could say this publicly) but I think Obama would go with the “Wales Window” at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and Romney would go with the Christus. Interestingly, both were installed in the mid-1960s.
Paul Harvey: One could say that a “sub-theme” of our book is a history of representations of Jesus stamped with social class (as well, obviously, as race).
The Depression-era chapter focuses especially on radicalized images from Upton Sinclair’s little-known but wonderful novel They Call me Carpenter [pdf], to radical Jesus imagery drawn from Harlem Renaissance and “outsider” (or folk) artists. These images consistently have met counter-responses; the most ubiquitous of all, Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ,” exploded in popularity during the early Cold War, when “card-carrying Christians” took the image as their own defense of a middle-class American way of life against its atheist competitors.
The 1960s’ battles over Jesus’ race and class that came from the freedom struggle, liberation theology, and countercurrents against both replayed many of these same image battles. In the era of rising income inequality, the Tea Party, and Occupy, there is no reason to think that contending groups on the political spectrum will not adopt Jesus imagery on their side, examples of which are given in Ed’s answer. There is a long history of this in America from middle-class conservative northerners and radical abolitionists in the antebellum era to the present day.
Andre Johnson: Radicalized Jesus always has a problem with Americanized Jesus. It reminds me of a speech given by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper where she made a distinction between the Christ of Calvary versus the Christ of Culture. Radicalized Jesus could speak to the economic situation and address the class issues as well. Radicalized Jesus would challenge the status quo and invite others to see how people on the margins and all working class peoples live. Americanized Jesus, on the other hand, stands with the status quo and protects the interest of the wealthy. We have visions and portrayals of Radicalized Jesus, but since many of them come to us in brown and black skin or with tattoos and locks, we tend not to take them seriously.
The second part to the question for me is simple. Romney’s Jesus probably would be white, but loving and kind in a paternal sense. Because of Romney’s comments of late about 47% and not caring for these people, Romney’s Jesus would be a Jesus who would represent the folks Romney feel are worthy enough to have his Jesus. Obama on the other hand, would probably construct a different Jesus. His Jesus would be colorless—maybe a flash of light—because of his belief in colorblindness and his useful colorblindness rhetoric.
I want to close out with some final thoughts about Harvey and Blum’s engaging book.
It seems to me that Paul’s comment about social class is crucial for understanding how Jesus— to turn a phrase—has been “deployed” in American culture. On the one hand, he is the faithful friend that evangelicals talk to, or he is the constant companion of African Americans, who has long borne their sorrows.
How Americans see Jesus in their minds as well as in their churches and neighborhoods is also clearly a class issue. I am thinking about how many of the Gordon Parks pictures and others of black churches during the Depression era showed a white Jesus up on the walls of many black churches. Those same churchgoers had to rationalize that that Jesus was not like the White Man who may have been terrorizing them or cheating them as they tried to survive as sharecroppers. That means negotiating racial animus with a deft but important moral turn that says: even though the Jesus I see on this picture is white, he is not like these other white people who are impinging on my rights and life. That is huge.
Similarly, I would have been interested in how the color of Christ might have mattered in terms of gender. That may be harder to get to, but here I am thinking of how so many Christian women who long for a husband are always ready with the line: “Jesus can be my husband.” I just wonder if that Jesus is the long-haired white Warner Sallman Jesus, or is he a buff surfer Jesus—or a Jesus that looks like Idris Elba with dreadlocks! Fanciful yes, but since women make up a large number of the population of churchgoers, this is an important question.
Thanks to all of the panelists for an insightful discussion.