"How is it that a Jewish prophet from the Roman era ran so explosively into the American obsession with race that his image has been used to justify the worst atrocities of white supremacy as well as inspire the most heroic of civil rights crusaders? The Color of Christ explores the ways Americans gave physical forms to Jesus… and how they remade the Son of God… time and again into a sacred symbol of their greatest aspirations, deepest terrors, lowest actions, highest expressions, and mightiest strivings for racial power and justice.
The Color of Christ… by showing how Americans imagined and depicted Jesus Christ's body, skin tone, eye color… and hairstyle, reveals a new face of the power and malleability of race in our history. At the center of the book is the story of white Jesus… how he rose to become a conflicted icon of white supremacy… and how he was able to endure all types of challenges to remain the dominant image of God's human form in the nation and throughout the world."
-- Excerpted from the Introduction (page 7)
What did Jesus look like? The only hint we get from the scriptures is contained in the book of Revelation which describes Christ as having woolly hair*. Otherwise, we know he was a Jew from an area of the world where most folks were brown-skinned a couple of millennia ago.
So, when Christianity crossed the Atlantic, there was not yet an ethnicity associated with Jesus, since "the writers of the Bible had their own obsessions, but race was not one of them." This is the thesis of Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, co-authors of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.
In the book, the pair put forth the proposition that the religion only became racist after the American Revolution when "a white Jesus was first used to try to bring unity and purpose to the young nation." They go on to argue that the promotion of the Son of God as Caucasian put a racial spin on both creation and redemption.
Consequently, "the white Jesus promised a white past, a white present, and a future of white glory." Curiously, not only Europeans, but Africans and Indians would embrace the image of Jesus with "blondish hair that fell below his shoulders" and "blue eyes" that "gazed into the distance."
Furthermore, Christianity provided plantation owners with a rationalization for slavery, as much as it offered their desperate chattel the faint hope of ever-elusive freedom. Those diametrically-opposed perspectives survived way past emancipation with both the Ku Klux Klan and the black civil rights activists relying on the notion that "God is on our side" to advance their conflicting causes.
Blum and Harvey conclude that "Jesus will probably remain white for most Americans," because that version of Christ is "a symbol and a symptom of racial power yet to be put fully to death." An insightful, historical opus delivering a sobering message about how we all might have been harmed by the generally-accepted image of the Messiah.
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