'Color' and Christ in America

Jesus became white precisely at the time when the contours of American citizenship were being defined. A white nation required a white God.
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I will never forget the summer my grandmother, an evangelist in the Disciples of Christ denomination, came up from North Carolina to tell us the incredible story that she had recently "seen" Jesus.

All these years later what I remember most about that story is how she described Jesus: white hair, white robe and a cane. Although she made no explicit references to color or race, the picture I drew in my child's mind was of a "white Jesus." After all, weren't all the visual aids she used to bolster her evangelism of a "white Jesus"? Weren't all the throngs being "caught up to meet him in the air" white people?

This story from my grandmother and the issue of Jesus' "color" came to mind as I read the compelling new book by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, "The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America."

The book traces the history of the idea of a "white Christ," noting first that there is a history of a "white Christ." For those who take for granted that Jesus was white, it will be surprising and perhaps unwelcome news that it wasn't always so. Images of Jesus have been steadily "raced" over last couple of centuries. The sacred has been racialized, race has been spiritualized, and human difference has been sanctified to exalt "whiteness." Jesus moved with the nation in a journey toward "white" that coincided with the clarification of American citizenship.

This connection among race, religion and nation is perhaps one of the key features of "The Color of Christ." And what's important here is how the three became entangled -- and why they can never be disentangled. Jesus became white precisely at the time when the contours of American citizenship were being defined. A white nation required a white God.

This racialized notion of inclusion has also left its mark on immigration policies. The rise of the image of the "Nordic Christ," for example, happened precisely at a time when restrictions on immigration needed a sacred symbol. So a white "Nordic" Jesus became "the sacred face" of immigration restriction. How God "looked" determined whose God He really was, and whose He was not. So that by the 20th century it was clear: "American," "white" and "Protestant" were co-equivalents. Non-white had been rendered at the most basic level "un-American."

And on this point there is astounding relevance for contemporary debates about race and belonging. No one now should be confused about "birther" ideology. A black American President disrupts a certain historically confirmed way of understanding national identity. Obama, therefore, must be from Kenya. And post-2012 election responses from the right, having seen the voting power of non-whites, have declared that "America just doesn't seem like America anymore." Bill O'Reilly of Irish Catholic heritage bemoaned the "end of Traditional (read: white) America." What I can only hope he knows -- as he obviously places himself in the category of "traditional American" -- is that the Irish have a history of "becoming" white too, and it wasn't all that long ago.

The authors suggest that this history has particular meaning for African Americans, who since the slave era have "seen" and "remade" Jesus, often in their own image and always for their own interests. The slaves' embrace of his or her captor's God was about transformation and not conquest. For African-American Christians, Jesus was and remains "distinct."

But I wonder about this. Given the entrenchment of the notion of a "white Jesus" in American culture, is it ever really possible to transcend the idea? Can we ever transcend or disregard the hierarchies implied by color? And there are always hierarchies implied by color. Also, isn't racial substitution an ironic confirmation of the hierarchy? Replacing the bombed out face of a white Jesus with a black Jesus, as the 16th Street Baptist church did after the bombing of their church in 1963, only renders more power to the white Jesus. I'm sure that over the years people have looked at the new window only to see that it is not a white Jesus, not so much that it is a black Jesus. The tragedy of racialized religious imagery in our culture is that the presence of a white Jesus in a black church is not a benign thing, but a black Christ in its place is no solution.

And what are the theological implications of all this "seeing" and "remaking" of Jesus? Have we been too casual with this notion? While I understand this from an anthropological point of view, it has troubling theological implications. We must conclude from this that in reality we don't really know Jesus; we haven't "seen" Jesus. We only have the Jesus that we have made, having dwelt, as Ralph Waldo Emerson would say, "with noxious exaggeration" on his "person."

So, I agree with James Baldwin, who in response to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church called for us to give Jesus a "new" face. But I want to take it a bit further. How about "no" face? I would support a return to the iconoclasm of the Puritans where Jesus was "physically absent." There were no images of the Son of God. In our American context and given our racial history, as long as Christ has a "body" he will have a color. The color will be white or "not white," and black people will be on the losing side of the equation.

A productive way forward would be to consider Jesus, not in our image or anyone's image, but in a manner of abstractions that personify all that Jesus meant. Let's ask ourselves, what does love look like? Justice? Mercy? Forgiveness? Let that represent Jesus. Maybe that is the way to a universal Christ beyond "color."

The "color" and physicality of Jesus must be rendered a mystery if American Christianity is to be truly transformative. Otherwise, just like any other aspect of American culture, Christ's image will continue to be merely another manipulated player in the saga of race in America.

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