The Color of Christ Meets a Cast of Critiques: Part I of a Series from the 2013 AAR

Editorial Note: Last November, at the American Academy of Religion meeting in Baltimore, Edward J. Blum and I were given the incredible honor and privilege of having our work The Color of Christ considered as part of an "author meets critics" session, co-sponsored by the North American Religions section and the Afro-American Religious History Group. "Jesus" scholar extraordinaire Stephen Prothero was kind enough to chair the panel, and respondents there that day included Kathryn Gin Lum, Joshua Paddison, and Jennifer Graber. A fourth respondent, J. Kameron Carter, was prevented from attending due to an emergency.

Today and over the next three days I'm happy to post all the responses from that day in a four-part series, starting with Kathryn Gin Lum's response today, and concluding with a reflection on all the responses from Edward J. Blum. This will follow the model we used last June when we posted all the responses from the author meets critics session featuring John Modern's Secularism in Antebellum America -- if you didn't have a chance to look at that series last year, now's a good time to treat yourself to it. 

My thanks to all the respondents for their thoughtful, incisive, and challenging commentaries, and to the audience that day who engaged in a lively discussion afterwards. Also, a huge congratulations to Kathryn for the birth of her daughter Phoebe Gin Lum, weighing in at 5 lb., 10 oz., on April 10, 2014! 

Who Wrote the Book of Race?

Kathryn Gin Lum

Every day on my way into the office, I pass by Memorial Church, the grandiose Gilded Age monument built by Jane Stanford in memory of her husband, railroad baron Leland. Memorial Church dominates Stanford’s central quad, and its striking mosaic façade glints in the perpetual California sun as tourists make their way down Palm Drive, cameras in hand. 

The mosaic is certainly snapshot-worthy. At 84 feet wide at the base and 30 feet tall, it took twelve laborers two years to finish. It shows a bearded, blonde, and resurrected Christ welcoming the righteous redeemed into His kingdom against a golden sky, palms waving in the background.

Before reading
The Color of Christ, I honestly hadn’t given much thought to the implications of a gigantic white Christ, beckoning people in with arms outstretched, at the very center of campus. But Memorial Church fits squarely into the book’s argument. Its façade was designed by an Italian artist whose craft echoed ancient mosaics and frescos from the Sistine Chapel. While some might see the facade as a direct imitation of European art, Blum and Harvey contend that Christ became white due to uniquely American circumstances. They argue that white Americans increasingly made Christ in their own image, paralleling the rise of the white man as enfranchised citizen in the early republic, and buttressing white supremacy in the wake of the Civil War and the rising tides of immigration in the late-nineteenth century.

In California, the main ire of anti-immigrant sentiment was the Chinese. Senator Stanford himself expressed distaste for Chinese immigrants; as one newspaper put it, “He thinks they are a most undesirable class,” and “was one of the first in the State to oppose [their] immigration.” Legend has it that the tiles on the roofs of the buildings at Stanford are red for the blood of the Chinese who built the university and the railroad that earned Leland his fortune. One might venture to guess that the white Christ on the Church’s outer façade wasn’t supposed to be extending his arms in welcome to the likes of me, or to the buses of Asian tourists who now flock to campus on a daily basis. 

I want to focus my brief remarks today on the historical and theoretical framework of
The Color of Christ that underlies this important argument about Christ’s increasing whiteness. Since I am a colonial and nineteenth-century historian, I’ll focus on the first part of the book and leave the more contemporary material to others.

The Color of Christ
is exemplary in its commitment to the 3 C's of the historical craft: Change over time (Christ wasn’t always white), Contingency (Christ didn’t have to become white), and Context (which helps to explain why He does). The book is incredibly useful in the classroom since it not only gives students a compelling, mythbusters-style argument, but also because it illustrates both the promises and perils of the historical method. 

I say "perils" because, while one could hardly quibble with the importance of this historical context, Christ as religious symbol and theological concept can sometimes appear to be shaped
by existing and external racial formations and tensions more than helping to shape American racial categories. I say this having had students who, skimming quickly, wanted to take just that message from the book: Christ, one complained, seemed like an empty box that could be filled with whatever cultural currents were predominant at any given time. They wondered if similar arguments could be made about Adam and Eve, or Moses, or even God in America. Or, perhaps, the devil. Other scholars have suggested that the figure of the devil served powerfully to “other” the marginalized, from women to Native Americans to African American slaves.[i] Was the devil a more powerful racializer than the racialized figure of Christ?

I think The Color of Christ offers a more nuanced and cyclical argument than the students wanted to take from it, where Christ-as-white not only derives from but also sanctifies the white, male adult as the normative American citizen, while Christ-as-compassionate challenges the
violence of white supremacy. But because the book’s historical framework propels the narrative forward so efficiently, it can make the color of Christ seem epiphenomenal. 

I wonder, too, if the commitment to historical narrative ironically carries with it its own kind of inevitability. In order to argue that Christ
became white in the nineteenth century, the book necessarily has to argue that Christ wasn’t white before that. I am both taken by this argument, and have questions about it.I can get behind the claim that, for the iconoclastic Puritans, Christ was imagined as unimaginable. But The Color of Christ goes further and contends that “whiteness itself as a marker of racial identity and power did not yet exist” in colonial America.[ii] 

This isn’t one of the mythbusting arguments listed in the Introduction, but perhaps it should be. Reading the first part of the book inspired me to dust off those classics I last read for oral exams, Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom and Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black. Morgan argues that slavery’s eventual characterization as a race-based institution allowed white male colonists to paper over their own differences and pretend to be a society of equals when in fact, significant class inequality separated them.[iii] This happened during the time when The Color of Christ contends that whiteness did not yet exist. So: Ed and Paul, would you argue that there is another term besides “whiteness” that we might use instead, to describe the “us vs. them” that the Virginia slave laws started to inculcate in the seventeenth century?Winthrop Jordan, for his part, suggests that moral overtones connected to the colors "white" and "black" followed Europeans to the so-called "New World." Where Ed and Paul cite The Universal Dream-Dictionary of 1795 to suggest that “For colonial Americans, purity was not about color” but about “essence,”[iv] Jordan cites the Oxford English Dictionary before the 16th century to list all manner of negative terms that Europeans conflated with the color “black,” and positive connotations that they attached to light and white. “White and black connoted purity and filthiness, virginity and sin, virtue and baseness, beauty and ugliness, beneficence and evil, God and the devil,” Jordan writes.[v]

I think Paul and Ed are right to question whether the negative and positive connotations
attached to early modern dictionary meanings of colors necessarily extended to the racialization of entire peoples. Race has never just been about “color.” But I’d love for us to have some discussion of what it is about in a book where color is the centrally significant feature of Christ’s appearance in America. Despite the contention that “whiteness” did not yet exist in the colonial era, for instance, the first chapter deals with, quote, “the New World of red, white, and black.”[vi] What does it mean to use terms like these—as scholars and historians—if at least one of the terms “did not yet exist”? Indigenous Puritans are sometimes referred to as “red” in the book, as is the suffering Christ.

But what makes the crucified Christ “red” instead of simply “bloody,” but the illuminated Christ of the Revolutionary era “light” instead of “white”? And did Christ have to be “colored” a certain way in
order to confer privilege on a certain group? Colonists themselves sometimes used the term “Christian” in contradistinction to “heathen”; the name of Christ and not just the color of Christ served to create a hierarchy of “superior” and “inferior” already. And yet the use of terms like “red, white, and black” so early in the book seems to reify color as the key marker of socially constructed human difference when other markers—like saved/damned, masculine/feminine, Christian/heathen—also contributed to the construction of “race” over time. 

These questions all point to a more general yet highly debatable question: WHEN DID THIS THING WE CALL “RACE” EMERGE? Scholars have variously pointed to the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, and to places stretching from the Iberian colonies to New England and Virginia. Just as with everything else academic, how we define the term largely determines where and when we say it originated. If “race” is defined as the ascription of moral meaning to socially constructed phenotypical differences, then the late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century craze for hierarchical classification of the world’s species and peoples makes sense as the era of its emergence. But if “race” is theorized more broadly as a relationship of power between colonizers and colonized that could engage any number of signifiers to differentiate between “us” and “them,”
[vii] then we might see both an earlier start to its construction as well as more continuity in its uses over time. I am thinking here of María Elena Martínez’s wonderful Genealogical Fictions. “[A]rguing that racial discourses took a particular form in the nineteenth century is one thing,” she notes; “contending that they did not operate in the early modern period, quite another.”[viii] To apply this insight to the argument in The Color of Christ: while I’m on board with the claim that the category of “whiteness” became especially powerful in the nineteenth century, as it expanded and constricted to include and exclude certain groups from the body politic,[ix] I think similar tools could “exist” before that, too, which raises the question of whether and how the figure of Christ both reflected and animated those tools. 

Perhaps a more fruitful question than
when “race” emerged or when Christ became white, then, is the question of how racial discourses have been constructed in different contexts, and what valences of difference—pseudo-biological, religious, technological, genealogical, material, sexual, linguistic—have mattered most at any given time. I think The Color of Christ actually moves us in this direction with its attention to power differentials and access to technology, but I understand that the narrative imperative can make theoretical framing difficult. So I’d welcome discussion from Paul and Ed of how you conceptualize race, and what kinds of racial discourses you see as operative before Christ “became white” in the nineteenth century.

[i] i.e. Poole, Satan in America: The Devil We Know.
[ii] Blum and Harvey, Color of Christ, 29.
[iii] Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, Chapter 16, “Toward Racism.”
[iv] Blum and Harvey, Color of Christ, 57.
[v] Jordan, White Man’s Burden, 6.
[vi] Blum and Harvey, Color of Christ, 39.
[vii] Johnson, “The Intelligence State, the Racialization of Islam, and US Empire.” Work in progress.
[viii] Martinez, Genealogical Fictions, 11.
[ix] As in Jacobsen’s Whiteness of a Different Color, Saxton’s Rise and Fall of the White Republic, and Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness, and Painter’s recent History of White People, for instance. 


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