Race, Place, and Jesus in American History



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Paul Harvey

Over at the Historical Society blog, Randall Stephens and Hilde Løvdal conduct an interview with Edward J. Blum and myself about The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (UNC Press, 2012). In it, we try to hit some of the main points of the text. A little excerpt below; click here for the rest.

Løvdal and Stephens: Could you say something about the malleability of the image of Jesus? How can Jesus appear so different depending on who is using his image?

Harvey and Blum: Great question, and that is really the heart of the book. We can best answer that by mentioning the three main myths our book explores about Jesus imagery and shifting appearances. First, there is a myth that humans create God or gods (especially Jesus) in their own image. This myth claims that people invariably represent Jesus to look like themselves. So whites make a white Jesus, blacks a black one, Asians an Asian one. But American history shows this is not true, and the myth hides how much racial groups have interacted and affected one another throughout U.S. history. No racial group in the United States has been separate enough to form distinct and impenetrable religious cultures. Moreover, lots of people have worshiped Christ figures that look nothing like them. For centuries, African Americans and Native Americans embraced white images of Jesus, debated them in their midst, and tried to replace them but generally did not. The myth hides the powers of money, of technological access, and of production capabilities. . . 

The second myth is that the United States has always been a "Jesus nation" or a "Christian nation." When we take seriously discussions of the race and color of Christ, we find that Jesus has been a lightning rod for struggle, conflict, and tension. For every occasion where someone makes Jesus into an icon of entrepreneurial salesmanship, as Bruce Barton did with his bestselling book of the 1920s The Man Nobody Knows, there are other Americans who have made Jesus a lynch victim (like W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes did in the 1930s), as a Native American who promised the defeat of the whites and the return of the Buffalo (as Wovoka did), or as a socialist who would get beat up by American mobs (as muckraker Upton Sinclair did). Jesus has not defined American culture; he has purely been at the center of the titanic and oftentimes bloody struggles over what the culture would be

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