Alex Mikulich

Beyond death and taxes, there are perhaps two additional certainties in American culture: religion and race. Collisions of race and religion recur at many crossroads of U.S. history, including the Atlantic slave trade, the founding of the nation, the Indian removal and the Trail of Tears, the European migrations, the Civil War, Jim Crow, civil rights and, four years ago, the first election of a man of color to the U.S. presidency. There is perhaps no better way to understand these collisions than through the multiple struggles over the ever-changing face and color of Christ.

To Edward J. Blum, author of Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion and American Nationalism and Paul Harvey, author of Freedom’s Coming: Religious Cultures and the Shaping of the South from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Era, the often divergent, mutable, contradictory, conflicting and self-justifying ways Americans whitened, colored and remade the Son of God time and again into a symbol of their deepest fears, highest aspirations, devastating terrors and hopes for racial supremacy or justice, reveal deep truths and myths of American history.

Blum and Harvey dissect how the combustible elements of race and religion, gender and sex and the development of manufacturing, technology and communication were put at the service of racial hierarchy, namely, white projections of Christ reproduced in postcards, pamphlets and books to reinforce the assumption that white domination was a God-given right. If whiteness has been a central marker of identity and privilege in American history, Blum and Harvey describe how white Jesus figures have been reconfigured constantly to fit varied circumstances and create the perception that whiteness is sacred and everlasting.

One of the great strengths of The Color of Christ is its contribution to an understanding of how whiteness gained ascendancy in the early republic and, although white images of Christ were appropriated for opposing purposes in the North and South during the Civil War, they became the dominant image of Christ propagated in schools, homes and diverse publications in the United States and beyond.

Although the whiteness of Christ is an enduring, if mercurial, projection of white power and self-image that is central to American history, it is only a part of the story.

Blum and Harvey expose three myths of American history: first, that particular racial or ethnic groups necessarily create God or gods in their own image; second, that Americans simply replicated European iconography and, third, that black liberation theology was born in the 1960s.

Regarding the first myth, The Color of Christ deals not simply with the projection of images of Christ. For the Puritans, who were deeply influential in the founding of the republic, iconoclasm was a critical part of the religious ferment and migrations of the 17th century. That the image of Christ was nearly absent from the revolutionary debates and founding documents of the nation is due to colonial anti-Catholic iconoclasm and some of the founding fathers, who believed Jesus was nothing more or less than an “enlightened sage,” reflecting the philosophical influence of the Age of Reason.

The authors recount how, when white images of Jesus emerged in the 19th century, Harriet Beecher Stowe drew upon a white Jesus not to support white supremacy but to oppose slavery. The original version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin depicted a white Jesus who was morally opposed to slavery but, disturbingly, did nothing about it. Nat Turner and John Brown deployed more provocative images of Jesus as a revolutionary devoted to a holy war against slavery and racial oppression. Simultaneously, Mennonites, Quakers and Shakers drew upon a pacifist Christ to resist slavery and the Civil War.

The second myth, that Americans simply replicated European iconography, misses the fact that the images of Jesus that were distributed globally from the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries drew upon uniquely American 19th-century visionaries and the description of Christ in the “Pentulus Publius” letter, a medieval forgery that could have gained traction only in the soil of American historical ignorance.

The third myth, that black liberation theology was born in the 1960s, was widely propagated by the U.S. press during the controversy around the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, in which the presidential candidate Barack Obama was criticized for attending Wright’s church in Chicago that drew inspiration from the liberationist theology originally taught by James Cone in the late 1960s.

Blum and Harvey show how, long before the uprisings of the 1960s, slaves re-interpreted the master’s Jesus into a trickster who turned the master’s world upside down, how Native Americans used images of Jesus to resist U.S. expansionism and how former slaves, like Richard Allen, who founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794, were devoted to a liberating Christ.

If the media and others had known that liberation theology is more deeply rooted than academic theology in the struggles of many diverse ordinary people of color throughout U.S. history, perhaps we would not have had the controversy, or at least we might be more willing to converse with, and learn from, the divergent religious and racial experiences that formed the nation.

The Color of Christ is a timely antidote to the amnesia and nostalgia of contemporary political and religious movements that pine for a past religious, constitutional or racial purity that never existed. Culture in the United States was never united under any single conception of God or Jesus. In Blum’s and Harvey’s telling, there never was a universal American culture for Jesus to uphold.

The Color of Christ reveals tremendous complexity, multiplicity and ambiguity to the rich intercultural and interracial relationships and conflicts that have continually changed American culture. Blum and Harvey’s latest work deserves to be widely read so that we may yet know how our past endures in the present. We have stories to hear that are rooted in our common past. If we attend to these stories, perhaps, Americans may yet learn alternative possibilities for a truly multireligious, multiclass and multicultural democratic future. Then we may yet see the divine image in all of us.

Alex Mikulich, an associate at the Jesuit Research Institute in New Orleans, is co-author of the forthcoming The Scandal of White Complicity in U.S. Hyper-incarceration: A Nonviolent Spirituality of White Resistance.