The Perkins Perspective | Features | Autumn 2012
What Color Is Jesus?
By Edward J. Blum, PhD
I turned to God because I needed a father and a brother. I had earthly ones, but they didn’t treat me very well. My father was a workaholic, alcoholic, and had all the fits of anger to prove it. My older brother was just trying to figure out how to endure and often took his frustrations out on me. So when someone handed me a Bible and the folks at vacation Bible school told me that there was a Dad who loved me and an older brother who died for me (rather than hit me), I was in.
I carried my New King James Bible with me everywhere. My middle name was James so that’s the book where I started. I read that short book over and over and over. Little did I know that its powerful words about justice and action would transform my faith years later.
I loved history because I loved the Bible. I thought interpretations of the past were crucial to how we lived our faiths today, so I went to graduate school. There, a new set of spiritual resources worked on me. I read works from black thinkers and activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida B. Wells. I read the poems and plays of everyday African-American writers during the Great Depression. And I found something. These people encountered Jesus differently than I did. While I focused on his brotherly love, they often focused on his race and how people of different racial hues were treated in his name.
When I read W.E.B. Du Bois ask what would happen if Jesus came back and was black, it changed my entire life, faith, and career. I thought back to the church I joined years earlier. I never thought about it, but Jesus in the Sunday school room was white (and all the people were white, too). If Jesus were in my high school, I would have played basketball with him and that’s about it. I found from this simple question a deep cut in my faith: that it was subtly, unthinkingly race clouded.
So I decided to study the problem. How did Jesus become white in America and how did racial representations of the Son of God influence people? What I found was astounding. First, Jesus did not come as white with the white people. The first Europeans were Protestant iconoclasts. They believed it was wrong to represent Jesus. So the white Jesus I saw in the 1980s had a history. He came from somewhere.
The story became more and more tangled. White Americans first made Jesus white in the early 1800s, the decades when the cotton kingdom was growing and the number of slaves was expanding. But it was not all black and white. It was red, too. Jesus played a role in how whites and Native Americans interacted. My co-author Paul Harvey and I even found Native Americans saying they could not believe in Christ because he had not visited their continent. Jesus had to be physically present in their spatial past for them to believe.
And when Jesus was first made white in the United States, the first person of color to challenge it was not black. He was Native American. William Apess in the late 1820s called out the white images as frauds. He said that Jesus as a Jew was “colored.” No one listened at the time, but I listened, and I kept listening.
I listened to Frederick Douglass, the former slave who became a leading abolitionist, say that he loved the “Christianity of Christ” and therefore hated the Christianity of slaveholders. I listened as black nationalists Marcus Garvey and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois claim that it was wrong for African-Americans to believe in God as white. I listened to Native Americans claim that they believed Jesus was an Indian because he was poor like they were. And I cried as I read about the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, where four young African-American girls died before church and in the process white terrorists had blown out the face of the white Jesus in their church.
With Paul Harvey, I wrote a book about our adventures with Jesus and his image throughout American history. The book became even more meaningful when I had my own son in December 2010. Elijah James Blum was named after my favorite prophet and my favorite book of the Bible. I started thinking about what images of Jesus he would see. I looked around our church and found the white Jesus in school books. I watched the white Jesus on TV. But my research had shown me artists and thinkers who had depicted Jesus in other ways. So I wrote this book for him so that we would all think more deeply about what Jesus images we present and what they mean to ourselves, our children, and to others. Today, my Jesus is not white. But to change it took a conscious process of unlearning the subtle association I had made long ago between him being white and him being sacred.
Edward J. Blum teaches history and religion at San Diego State University. He is the award-winning author of several books on race and religion, including his most recent co-authored book, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (University of North Carolina Press, 2012). Follow him on twitter @edwardjblum and find out more about the book at colorofchrist.com.
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