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.
Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey’s The Color of Christ presents readers a detailed engagement with contentious subject matter. Religion, politics, and race are often taboo conversation topics, especially in mixed company. But this work is neither shy nor pretentious about bringing all three subjects into conversation.
The authors bookend the narrative with riveting images from the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. On a Sunday morning in September, 1963, four African American girls were killed when the church was infamously bombed—not many days after Martin Luther King Jr. gave his captivating “I have a dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The blast also damaged the face of a stained-glass image of a white Jesus. Blum and Harvey’s prologue demands that we ponder the implications of the presence of that white Jesus in that space and in that moment. Were there any connections between Jesus, the lives of the killers, and the lives of the children? What was Jesus doing there?
After the prologue, we encounter an abundance of historical content to assist us in answering those questions. But, if one were not careful, one could read the book and come away thinking of Jesus in the United States as primarily a figment of creative American minds. In Blum and Harvey’s account, Jesus may seem to be nothing more than a shape-shifting, community fetish of time-bound ideas, tooled by specific groups, at specific times, for power grabs. But that would be too narrow a read.
Instead, those who read The Color of Christ might note how the authors pay attention to the rhetoric surrounding aesthetic representations of Christ that demonstrate the potency of the relationship between race, religion, and politics in American history. Indeed, race, religion, and politics have been so bound together in the U.S. that, as Blum and Harvey so eloquently describe, images of Jesus have served to represent divine rights to white political, cultural, and social authority, as well as hope for the racially oppressed.
For example, Blum and Harvey make note of the fraudulent “Publius Lentulus” letter. They describe the “letter”—a document supposedly written by a governor of Judea during Jesus’ of Nazareth’s life, a man named Publius Lentulus, who was an eyewitness to Jesus’s appearance. But Blum and Harvey point out that it was in fact written centuries after Jesus (between the tenth and the fourteenth centuries), and served primarily to describe Jesus visually as a European male, physically and morally. That is precisely the letter’s value; it was a device meant to legitimize white power and authority from the era of slavery through to the civil rights struggle.
I agree with the authors’ take on the letter, but its significance demands a deeper engagement. The fraudulent letter’s white interpretation in America grew out of a longstanding European racial ethos. This ethos held Europe as more than a geographical location or a collection of empires. Instead, Europeans saw themselves as burdened with the task of civilizing the rest of the world in the age of discovery. As Charles Mills argues in The Racial Contract (1997), Europe was also a people-making process through which so-called “savages” in the uncharted territories were brought into existence (supposedly discovered), and simultaneously Christianized, as they were “civilized.” Willie Jennings’ The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (2010) has shown that European empires fused Christian sensibilities with imperial interests, mingling colonial desires with their distribution of Jesus. This imperial drive produced an added result of birthing the modern language of race, which worked to situate native bodies in colonized spaces, in relationship to the divine authority of European empires over colonized subjects. Empires proclaimed themselves as saviors of the world. However, multiple European empires competed for ownership of Jesus. From the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Iberian Peninsula in the south, to the seventeenth century British Empire in the north, Europeans conflicted over differing interpretations of Christ for their missionary endeavors and quest for legitimacy in their claims for power. I will say more about the international reach of the white Christ below.
The Color of Christ introduces us, in the first chapter, to the European power struggle over Jesus, in the early stages of European colonization of the Americas. The Spanish Empire, and its Catholicism, was first to assert influence in the Americas. When the Puritans arrived in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the conflict present among the Empires in Europe became one that was present within the colonies in America. And in Blum and Harvey’s analysis, that conflict fueled the drama of religion and politics that occupies the remainder of the book.
Native Americans and enslaved Africans were caught in the middle of the European struggle for Christ, played out in new religious movements and wars. Catholics (Iberian Christians) in the “New World,” and the later arriving Puritan colonists (north European Protestants), set the stage for the long-standing contest between Europeans in America that made Jesus into a totem of the powerful. In contrast to the Catholics, the Puritans were iconoclasts, and like the Native Americans and the Africans, Puritans also knew the sting of physical abuse by Catholics and the Anglican Church. Yet, as Blum and Harvey indicate, for Africans in the colonies the struggle for Christ began in the transatlantic slave trade as cargo.
For Puritans, Christ was represented in the community by nothing more than a disciplined Christian lifestyle. But in their interaction with Native Americans and Africans, leading Puritans like Cotton Mather had difficulty seeing the life of a Christ-follower as one that was possible for them. For Mather, they were perpetually the religious and cultural other. This notion justified Africans’ status as cargo. The theological performance of race, with its connection of white to Jesus, included non-white people in its Christian worldview as subordinates.
At this point in their argument, Blum and Harvey claim that a white Christ was not yet present in America. But it is clear that his absence was purely aesthetic. The rhetoric and worldview of the white Christ had crossed the ocean with the Europeans. Cotton Mather’s stated assumptions about the potential for Native Americans and Africans to be Christians indicate a devotion to a racist white Jesus that was performed in customs and rituals unfamiliar to non-whites. This devotion to the religious performance of whiteness occurred prior to its being depicted artistically as white. It was not long before the rhetoric of power, race, and religion was indeed aesthetically identified in images of the white Jesus, portrayed in artwork, literature, and later in film. The impact has been nothing less than epic.
But Blum and Harvey also point out that oppressed people were also acquainted with a hermeneutic of Jesus. The power of The Color of Christ lies within the way the authors juxtapose the oppressive white “Publius Lentulus” Jesus with the Jesus of the oppressed who see him as co-sufferer. The white Jesus cannot impose himself in such a way that disallows him from being interpreted organically within the experience of oppressed communities. Ironically, even Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ (1941) painting, the quintessential representation of the Publius Lentulus letter, served to illustrate the power of theological reinterpretation within a black experience; a Jesus made by and for oppressors, reinterpreted by and for the oppressed.
Historically, however, the people oppressed by the white Christ were not only in America. Here I want to return to my claims made above. Blum and Harvey briefly mention Dietrich Bonhoeffer and, alongside the struggle laid out in each chapter, it indicates an implicit attention to the global influence of the racialized Jesus in their analysis. The author’s arguments could be strengthened by more explicit attention to the international presence and reach of the white Christ.
Bonhoeffer’s theological education in post-imperial Germany was dripping with the rhetoric of politics, power, and religion. He became a theologian in that German environment. What he saw from leading intellectuals, artists, poets, and preachers during the Harlem Renaissance—while he was a postdoctoral student in Harlem, New York, from 1930 to 1931—was instrumental in disrupting the work of the German white Christ in his theological imagination. The language of the die Herrenvolk, or “master race,” alongside die Untermenschen, or “the subhuman races,” in interwar Germany proved deeply problematic to Bonhoeffer, but not to his other German Christian colleagues. His exposure to the impact of the white Christ on oppressed people in America was not an experience they shared. But it made him capable of seeing the white Christ and its danger in Germany. Just as he did in Harlem, Bonhoeffer chose devotion to the Christ who knew the experience of maltreatment by the imperial white Christ. In Germany, that belief him to advocate solidarity with oppressed Jews, rather than safety with powerful Aryan Christians. Hence, the American white Christ proved to be no less than a sibling of the white Christ in Germany. The two were at least related, if not the same person.