The Contested Color of Christ

Paul Harvey

For those wanting a quick summary of some of the major points of The Color of Christ, this piece by Edward J. Blum and myself, just out in the Chronicle of Higher Education (it will be the cover story in the print edition that comes out Thursday) provides a sort of bullet point summary of some of the major themes of the work. A brief excerpt:

How is it that a Jewish prophet from the Roman era could become so entangled with the American obsession with race? How could the color of Christ be invoked throughout American history to justify some of the worst atrocities of white supremacy as well as to inspire some of the most heroic civil-rights crusades?
The first English settlers in the Americas carried with them no sense of what Jesus looked like. The Bible was central to their beliefs, but it offered no physical description of Jesus's face, hair, eyes, or body. Roman Catholics were already placing images of Christ in their churches, but many Protestant settlers were anti-Catholic and were more likely to report their visions of Satan than to worship icons of Christ.
That all began to change in the 18th century, during the Great Awakenings. Up and down the East Coast, whites, blacks, and American Indians began reporting visions of Jesus as emotional revivals pushed Americans toward personal relationships with Christ. In some cases, their images focused on the blood that poured from Jesus' hands and side. It was a broken and battered Christ that seemed to speak to their difficult lives. But mostly Jesus was seen in a blinding light. Light, not white. For colonial Americans, light connoted power, goodness, love. White was a sign of trouble. The lack of association between Jesus and whiteness left the spiritual terrain open to linking other peoples to the sacred. Thus a small but significant cohort of American Indians moved toward Christ, as did a charter generation of African-Americans.


Curtis J Evans said…
Ed and Paul,
I have to commend you two for not only writing an excellent and substantive article, but for also taking the time to respond to some rather odd and off-putting questions. And you handled them with such patience and finesse!

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