Deconstructing the Whiteness of Christ
In their groundbreaking new book The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, historians Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey embark on a sweeping examination of how Americans came to believe in the whiteness of Jesus. Having grown up white in Oklahoma and New Jersey respectively, Blum and Harvey say they had to “unlearn a lot of white privilege over the years.” Chief among the ideas they sought to reverse in their thinking was the assumption that God is somehow attached to whiteness and white authority.
“We decided to write about how God has been presented as white in the form of Jesus in order to expose how insidious racism has been throughout American history — that it even wraps itself in the flesh of God,” says Blum. He adds that another motivation for the book was their concern about the false concepts that children learn about faith and race before they even have the intellectual or social wherewithal to challenge them. “Children often see the ‘race’ of Jesus before they know how to say grace in his name. We wanted Americans to confront the reality that the images we have created and continue to display influence how our children come to understand God, themselves, and others.”
In the process of their research, Blum and Harvey also gained a high esteem for “the women and men who have stood against racism and have imagined Jesus and God beyond whiteness.” White privilege benefits white people, Blum says, “but it also blinds them from many beautiful and brilliant expressions of others, especially when it comes to religious life.”
Blum spoke to UrbanFaith about his book, the origins of “white Jesus,” and how confronting the philosophies behind those misleading American images of Christ can lead to a more authentic view of God and his church.
URBAN FAITH: When we see the traditional images of Jesus as a blondish, blue-eyed European, where do those depictions stem from historically?
EDWARD J. BLUM: The first few centuries of Christianity had no visual imagery of Jesus. Then various icons were created and Catholic Europeans made them in abundance during the Middle Ages. Oftentimes, they were created by Europeans with a sense of what the “ideal” human would look like – and for Europeans, that was often European.
But these images were not present in British America. The first British settlers were radical iconoclasts who not only destroyed images of Jesus, but also opposed any displays of the Son of God. There were no dominant images of Jesus in the early America that became the United States.
Only after the United States became a new nation did Americans begin producing images of Jesus. He was not blue eyed at first, and his hair was brown. He was made white in this form at exactly the moment Americans were buying and selling more slaves and justifying the expropriation of Native American lands in the Southwest. In many ways, making Jesus white was an effort to sanctify these goals for land, power, and authority.
What about the first “American Jesus”? What did he look like, and when was it decided that he was white?
Jesus was first mass-produced in the United States in the early 1800s, but it was not until after the Civil War that his being white became an object of widespread discussion. When emancipation cut the legal ties between blackness and enslavement, it left open the question of how could whites claim to be superior. Moreover, as millions of immigrants from Asia and central and southern Europe flocked to the United States, questions of who was actually white began to animate the United States in a new way. In response, a group of white Americans started creating images of Jesus as blue-eyed and blonde haired. They knew he probably did not look this way but wanted him to be a WASP so that they could justify closing immigration doors, segregating and lynching African Americans, and viewing themselves as the most Christian and virtuous nation on earth.
Many say God transcends color and ethnicity, so why does it matter what color we make Jesus in religious and popular culture?
As much as we would all like to see God or experience God beyond color and ethnicity, we grow up in and live within a society that focuses intensely on race. For instance, Barack Obama is not known as the first president from Hawaii. He’s known as the first “black president” — even though his mother was considered “white.” Everything from legal codes to children’s shows to cultural jokes are filled with notions of biological differences and presentations of them. We learn to see and experience race at extraordinarily early ages.
This is true of thinking about God as well. Most studies show that when groups of people are asked to imagine what Jesus looked like, they see a white man. Even taught that that is not the case; even shown other images; and even knowing that Jesus lived 2,000 years ago in the Middle East, most Americans still see a white Jesus when they close their eyes. We have to work through those preconceived assumptions before getting to a God that transcends color or ethnicity. Only by first acknowledging how our society has — and does — “color” God and Jesus can we then move forward to seeing beyond that.
What does the Bible tell us about Jesus’ physical appearance?
The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John say nothing about the race or physical appearance of Jesus. They discuss Jesus having a body; they narrate how he touched and healed bodies; they tell the story of how his body was harmed, killed, and then resurrected (with the holy holes still in his hands). But the Gospels say nothing about his hair, his eye color, or his skin tone. In Isaiah and in the book of Revelation, however, there are passages that some Christians have taken to indicate what Jesus looked like. Isaiah 52 and 53 mention how the “servant” of God will be raised and lifted up. In appearance, he will be “disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness.” This servant will have “no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” Some Christian thinkers have taken these passages to apply to Jesus and to mean that he must have been ugly for his times. Then in Revelation, the author reports seeing one “like a Son of Man” whose head and hair were “white like wool” and whose “eyes were like blazing fire.” His feet “were like bronze glowing in a furnace.” For some African Americans, this has meant that his skin and hair looked more like a black person than a white person.
Evangelical theologian Thomas C. Oden has written a series of much-discussed volumes on Christianity’s African roots. How do you respond to this new evangelical awareness of Christianity’s African connection, and what might it mean for depictions of Christ?
Separating the “Middle East” from “Africa” is a certainly a western geographical fiction that hurts our understandings of the world now and in the past. The Palestine of Christ’s age was the crossroads of the world, and northern Africa was a huge player in that political, social, and cultural exchange. It is crucial for American Christians today to recognize the African roots of the faith in order to unlearn their assumptions about Africa as a monolith, as a place that is supposedly backward or uncivilized, and as a place that fails to matter.
Even more, American Christians need to begin seeing the “body of Christ” in a new way. Rather than think about what Jesus actually looked like, they could consider that other believers are the “body of Christ” and to fail to listen to them, heed their insights, or interact with them as equals, does harm to the overall kingdom of God. Oden’s work is supremely helpful in pushing all of us in that direction.
But geography should not overwhelm faith. Native Americans have no geographical tie to the biblical age, but their insights about faith, about Jesus, and about how to live in a sin-sick world should be taken seriously as well, even though there are no Native American roots of biblical Christianity.
In the 1940s, African American psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark performed famous experiments using dolls to study children’s attitudes about race. When given a choice between white and black dolls, they found that African American children typically favored the white dolls. Did you find any similar phenomena happening with children and their perceptions of Jesus?
At the same moment that the Clarks were asking about dolls, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier was asking African American teenagers about God and Jesus. What he found was amazing. He found that these teenagers during the Great Depression knew that something was up about how Jesus was presented. Although most acknowledged that Jesus was somehow white, they answered with claims that “the pictures showed he was white” or that “whites would not accept him to not be white.” These African American teenagers seemed to know that Christ’s color was complicated, that the creators of the images mattered and that those who had power in society influenced what images were made. Basically, these black teenagers in the midst of the Great Depression seemed to know something that many others have been unwilling to acknowledge: our visual depictions of God and Christ are made by particular people and for particular people.
This is why even when African Americans placed white Jesus imagery in their churches, it did not necessarily mean they had some kind of group-hating pathology. It was far more complicated. Rendering Jesus as a white man who acted unlike other white men took the power off skin and placed it onto action. Moreover, it provided a rebuke of other whites — that they were not acting like Jesus by segregating African Americans. It also served as hope that perhaps one day all the various people of the world could come together as sisters, brothers, and friends, as Jesus had called his disciples at the end — his friends.
There are two artists who represent two very different ideas about what Jesus looked like. One is Warner Sallman, whose famous Jesus painting appears on your book’s cover. Who was Sallman and what was his impact on Jesus imagery?
Warner Sallman’s “Head of Christ” from the early 1940s is the most reproduced painting of Jesus in world history. The son of European immigrants, Sallman painted for a small group of evangelical Christians around Chicago. His “Head of Christ” exploded onto the national and international scene. It is a profile of Jesus with nothing in the background. He has long, wavy blonde hair and blue eyes. For many, many Christians, this became the face of Jesus. It became the model for television and movie casting, and it went everywhere.
This calming image of Jesus was important to many Americans during the turbulence of the 1940s and 1950s. World War II was horrific; atomic bombs made it possible for the world to be destroyed. The emerging Cold War was terrifying. And then many Americans worried that their children were out of control (as shown in the film Rebel Without a Cause). Many Americans placed this Jesus in their homes and in their Sunday school classrooms to provide comfort. Somehow, a white Jesus would save them from nuclear holocaust or Communist secret agents.
The second artist is Fred Carter, who isn’t mentioned in your book yet whose work may be very recognizable for many African American Christians. Could you tell us about Carter and how you appraise his significance in this universe of Jesus imagery?
Fred Carter’s art should have been discussed in The Color of Christ. Since art historian David Morgan did such a nice job analyzing Fred Carter’s works in Visual Piety, we somewhat forgot to make a point to include Carter’s pieces. By neglecting them, however, we missed the opportunity to point out some huge changes since the 1960s in African American organizational creations and growth and how Mr. Carter’s art and its popularity were built on new organizations. If we had included Mr. Carter’s work, we would have been able to show how new art worked with new publishing houses to create a new visual culture for African American churches.
In particular, Mr. Carter’s images of Jesus reveal what scholar Anthony Pinn calls a “nitty-gritty” theology. Carter’s Christ is a full person who sweats, bleeds, and pleads. His dark skin is only one part of the reality of his embodiment. Carter shows Jesus experiencing all of the pains that we do as humans. They are poignant and fascinating portrayals. [Editor’s Note: Fred Carter’s artwork is also prominently featured in the Christian education publications of UrbanFaith’s parent company, Urban Ministries, Inc.]
In your introduction, you state that, “The white Jesus promised a white past, a white present, and a future of white glory.” What do you mean by that?
Basically, as race has been made in modern America, it presents itself as omnipresent in the past, in the present, and in the future. We are taught that there have always been “white” people, “black” people, etc. But we know that different people at different times divide themselves differently. One thousand years ago, hardly anyone would call themselves “white” and the category “African American” did not exist.
So how did race make itself seem to transcend time? We think Jesus is a key to this answer. By focusing on the body of Christ and by making him white, Americans subtly mapped racial concepts onto a person who has existed before the creation of the world and will be there at its end. If Jesus was white, then he is white. And if Jesus is the alpha and the omega, then somehow his whiteness was at the beginning and will be at the end. Of course, no one (except maybe some Klansmen) would ever say this, but the lesson is one taught without words.
Toward the end of the book, you explore a bit of the Jeremiah Wright controversy that gave his famous parishioner, Barack Obama, so much grief during his 2008 presidential campaign. You note that though white America was shocked by Wright’s “God Damn America” sermon, which in passing mentioned that “Jesus was black,” Wright’s brand of liberation theology was not that unusual or unsettling for African American audiences. Could you talk about liberation theology’s role in pushing back against many of America’s popular depictions of Jesus?
Beginning actively in the late 1960s, black liberation theologians like James Cone explicitly challenged the whitening of European and American theology and Christianity. They were reacting, in part, to how white ideologies had warped American Christianity to accept segregation, economic exploitation, and violence. The liberation theologians were also reacting to black power advocates who wanted to dismiss Christianity as purely a tool of the oppressors. Cornel West, for instance, found himself at odds with Black Panthers in California — not because of their economic program, but because of their opposition to Christianity. Cone, West, and many others set out to reconcile the faith of their mothers and fathers with their political opposition to white supremacy and class disenfranchisement.
These theologians saw Jesus as “black” in an ontological sense, meaning that regardless of what Christ actually looked like, his actions, attitudes, and sense of being aligned him with the oppressed, the downtrodden, and the hurting. In America, this means he was not only affiliated with “blackness,” but was “black” this way as well.
Black liberation theologians made crucial inroads into white universities and colleges. Cone and West obtained prestigious positions at Union Theological Seminary, Princeton, and Harvard. They then mentored dozens (if not hundreds) of scholars to continue the attack upon the whitening of the gospel.
Liberation theologians also participated in new black arts movements that visualized Jesus beyond whiteness. The theological momentum was part of broader changes in African American church life and beyond. Many whites, including myself, were first directed to challenging the white Jesus through the works of writers like Cone and West.
What are the primary myths surrounding Christ that you hope to dispel with your book?
The first and most important myth we want to dispel is that people necessarily and simply make Jesus look like themselves. This myth transforms religious imagery into little more than ethnic or cultural chauvinism. This myth also ignores so many other factors, such as the ability to create images and to distribute them widely. Technology, capital, and time matter significantly in what images can be made and which images can be widely displayed.
The second myth we want to counter is that black liberation theology is somehow new (or at least was born in the 1960s). By giving liberation theology a short history, we have ignored a much longer history where many everyday people — white, black, and Native American, women and men, young and old — have participated in challenging the whiteness of Jesus and the whitening of Christianity. Moreover, the longer history shows that the efforts to find liberation through Christian faith have touched on music and art, poetry and protest movements, and all other kinds of expressions. Black liberation theology was never simply defined by or for theologians and ministers, but it was a movement of everyday people that began almost two centuries ago.
Editor’s Note: For more information, visit the official website for The Color of Christ book at www.colorofchrist.com. At the site, readers can follow along with the images, videos, and texts described in the book and check out additional interviews with scholars, artists, and everyday people about why the color of Christ matters. Visitors also can share their personal stories about encountering Jesus in various visual forms.