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 opens with a chilling story. In 1963, white supremacists infamously bombed the historically black Sixteenth Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four African-American girls. Along with the human destruction, the bomb shattered a stained glass window that featured a white-skinned Jesus. Outraged citizens responded, including Welsh schoolchildren who collected money for new windows. But a question hung in the air: what color should Jesus be?
Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey evoke this story of shattered lives and shattered images of Jesus to introduce their claim that representations of Jesus have “played a leading role in the saga of race in America” (5). To support their argument, the authors establish an ambitious set of inquiries. They look at the physical forms, placements, and refashionings of Jesus images throughout American history. They focus not only on the most popular and widely disseminated images, but also on minority voices that have offered striking alternative visions and responses.
The authors then make a set of claims about the intertwined development of Jesus images and race in America. Their thesis unfolds through a narrative history. Blum and Harvey argue that white Jesus images came to power and prominence in the nineteenth century and that these images’ ubiquity demanded that everyone contend with them. The prominence of these images, however, did not imply their stability. The authors contend that the images shifted as definitions of whiteness changed and as marginalized communities developed new rhetorical tools of protest against an increasingly racist status quo.
Blum and Harvey lay out their claims in historically organized chapters that begin in the religiously and racially diverse setting of colonial America. They note that some believers were occupied with iconoclasm, while those interested in Jesus images were drawn to red (i.e., bloody) ones rather than white ones. Things changed, however, in the early republic and antebellum periods as concerns about citizenship and racial categorization came to the fore. In this setting, the white Jesus emerged as a “cultural icon of white power” (78). Even so, the authors pay close attention to voices offering alternative visions. Blum and Harvey carry their investigation of the ascendant white Jesus through the Civil War and age of American imperialism, arguing that images of Jesus took on a Nordic character as definitions of whiteness narrowed. Bringing the narrative fully into the twentieth century, the authors explore the ways that “race and physical identity had become crucial markers of Christ’s spirit” among citizens ranging from Hollywood producers to YMCA leaders to early civil rights advocates (202). They conclude with reflections on Jesus images in the digital age, a period in which many Americans acknowledge that the historical Jesus was probably not white but nevertheless continue to consume from a global marketplace of white Jesus images.
This is an ambitious book and it does many things well. Without saying so, the authors place themselves in a stream of scholarship that explores how contact and encounter have fuelled religious creativity throughout American history. The book includes encounters between racially and religiously different people, as well as these peoples’ encounters with racialized Jesus images. These meetings generate new formulations about religion and race generally, and Jesus and whiteness specifically. The book’s unyielding emphasis on encounter makes it stand out in a field where such contacts typically occupy the chapters on the colonial era and the decades after 1965. Contact tends to drop out in the big middle sections of narratives that emphasize nineteenth-century evangelical consensus.
Even as they keep a variety of voices and contacts in their field of vision, the authors rely on a fairly standard narrative structure: colonial era diversity, nineteenth-century standardization, leading to the radical reformulations of that standard in the second half of the twentieth century. To be sure, the authors emphasize the instability of the white Jesus images that emerged so powerfully in the early republic. Their chapter on the Civil War reminds readers that imagining a white Jesus did not bring agreement, even among white Protestants. Even so, the narrative follows a pattern we see in studies of American evangelicalism as well as scholarship on the construction of racial categories. In both literatures, big developments in the early nineteenth-century drive the story. The authors’ narrative choices align with the literatures on evangelicalism and whiteness, helping them account for the ascendency of a white spiritual mediator in a nation increasingly divided over the enslavement of American Americans.
This periodization focused on evangelicalism and whiteness is less effective, however, as the authors bring American Indian responses to Jesus imagery into the narrative. To be sure, Blum and Harvey have clearly immersed themselves in the secondary literature on Native American Christianity. The result is a work that highlights Indian voices more effectively than almost any synthesizing work in the field. One need only think the resounding absence of native voices in Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus: How the Son of God became a National Icon (2004) and Richard Wightman Fox’s familiar constraint of Indian peoples to chapters on the colonial era on his Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession (2005). The Color of Christ is very different and most welcome.
However, including these voices does not mean that they are easily incorporated into a narrative structured around developments in the nation’s black-white racial divide. Further, it seems to me that American Indian encounters with Jesus—including many of the stories in this book—center on questions about Jesus’ spiritual power and communal status as opposed to his racial particularity. For instance, did Indians in the early republic reject the “white Jesus” (89) because he was white, as the authors suggest, or because they could not imagine that a being killed by his own followers had adequate power? When Nicholas Black Elk recalled a vision with a figure who was painted red, but was neither a white man nor an Indian, was that a “Jesus figure of racial ambiguity” (193) or a spirit being ritually prepared for war? I do not think we can be sure. I worry, therefore, that some of Blum and Harvey’s conclusions force Indian responses into the story of racial definition and categorization that drives their book.
I am also convinced that Blum and Harvey can hardly be faulted for these possible missteps. Unlike our scholarly literature on African-American Christianity, we simply do not have many detailed studies that show us how everyday American Indians have practiced Christianity generally and engaged white Jesus images specifically. Our best studies of native Christianity focus on the colonial era, before the white Jesus burst onto the scene. Even though many American Indians established various relationships with Christian churches in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the scholarship on them is limited. The literature, instead, inordinately focuses on more colorful stories, such as ghost dancers and peyote practitioners. The difficulty of making these stories work stands in stark contrast to the powerful arguments that Blum and Harvey can marshal about African-American appropriations and reformulations of the white Jesus in the ages of slavery, reconstruction, and civil rights.
This leads me back to the story of the shattered window. White supremacists murdered black girls and destroyed an image of a white-skinned Jesus. The story fits perfectly with the book’s thesis: that looking closely at images of Jesus tells us much about the saga of race in American history. It is hard, however, to find such a fitting story in Indian country. The authors tell us that the Seneca prophet, Handsome Lake, had a vision of Jesus. But we should remember that the same vision included other powerful objects, such as the moon and stars, as well as more befuddling items, including George Washington’s dog. Nicholas Black Elk saw not only a red-painted figure, but also a flaming rainbow tepee in the sky. These stories are difficult to integrate into narratives driven by developments in evangelical Christianity and the black-white racial divide. To tell the story of Native Americans and Jesus images will require many more close studies of the myriad ways Indian communities have had Jesus presented to them in the last two centuries, as well as the multiple and sometimes mystifying forms that Indian visions of Jesus have taken. I commend Blum and Harvey for featuring the Indian voices that our scholarship has made available. But to integrate Indian voices and experiences into our works of synthesis, we will need more scholarship.