- A Christ of Many Colors
The first image in The Color of Christ is a stained-glass good shepherd knocking at a door, his white hands and feet open and angled toward the viewer. Jesus’s face is a jagged hole, his eyes shards on the ground, shattered by the same blast that killed eleven-year-old Denise McNair and fourteen-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. The 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and the exploded white Jesus who would be replaced by a darker-skinned Christ returned to the cross, serve as one of the book’s repeated themes and a stark illustration of Edward J. Blum’s and Paul Harvey’s contention that “Christ’s body” matters (p. 5).
The Color of Christ is at the same time a meditation on images of Christ, a synthetic history of race and religion throughout the span of American history, and a call for a broad public conversation about the dissonance between the racialized sacred images Americans embrace and the racially sanitized language of modern white evangelical Christianity. The book treads an astonishing breadth of chronological and geographic ground, and it stands as the kind of accessible scholarship guaranteed to spark debate both within and outside the academy.
Blum and Harvey make the case that “to focus on the holy face of Jesus in America is to reckon with the making and power of race” (p. 14). They demonstrate how more than four centuries of debate and struggle over the physical appearance of Christ played a central role in the construction of whiteness and lent it durable—albeit mutable—power. Blum and Harvey stress the importance of images of Christ in American history, but this is also a book about the embodiment of the sacred and the many ways Americans connected the broken and suffering body of Christ to the agonies and injustices of their own worlds.
The book follows a loosely chronological structure, divided into three parts of three chapters each. Part one, “Born Across the Sea,” focuses on the period [End Page 608] from first contact between Indians and Europeans to the early republic. Christ is bloody, battered, and not yet white.
Blum and Harvey begin in the seventeenth century, with several different moments and points of contact and exchange between Europeans, West Africans, and Native Americans. The authors demonstrate that the “destructive iconoclasm” of the seventeenth century meant that “New World struggles did not revolve around what Christ’s body looked like, but whether he should be embodied at all” (p. 29). The French Jesuits accepted Jesus as “a malleable power” as they exchanged religious worldviews with Indians across eastern North America (p. 37). They quickly recognized that the miraculous Jesus proved ominous, and they “created a rich literature of creation, suffering, healing, and martyrdom” that Indians in turn remade and incorporated into their own cosmos (p. 34). As they anticipated seeing Jesus upon death, Indian converts to Catholicism embraced images of him, while non-converts often came to see those images as a symbol of the intruders and so destroyed them.
The Puritans were the most insistent and the most influential of the iconoclasts, their Protestant Jesus an idea without a body. As they denied the embodiment of the divine, they opened opportunities for others—West Africans, Indians, and Europeans—to imagine Jesus for themselves. These residents of colonial America most often “beheld the divine as devastated” and rarely depicted him as white (p. 68).
This began to change in the early republic when mass-produced images of Christ for the first time “stamped onto American minds the notion of an embodied, white Jesus” (p. 78). This Jesus appeared as Americans negotiated the meanings of race and citizenship, and his whiteness simultaneously reinforced and undermined white supremacy. Jesus was white, but he was also murdered by his own people. He was white, but he was also a suffering...