What did Jesus look like? The many different depictions of Christ tell a story about race and religion in America. Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey explore that history in their new book, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. The book traces how different races and ethnic groups claimed Christ as their own — and how depictions of Jesus have both inspired civil rights crusades, and been used to justify the violence of white supremacists.
The Ku Klux Klan could not rely on Christian doctrine to justify their persecution and violence, so they had to turn to religious icons. "The belief, the value, that Jesus is white provides them an image in place of text," Blum tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "It gets them away from actually having to quote chapter and verse, which they can't really do to present their cause."
If Blum had to paint a realistic portrait of Jesus, he says he wouldn't be white: "I would probably paint him darkly complected, not pure black, more in a kind of light brownish [color]."
Up until the late 1800s, Blum says Americans were comfortable with Jesus' Semitic roots and depicted him with brown eyes. But as waves of Catholic and Jewish immigrants came to the United States, some Americans "became concerned that it was changing the face of America too much, changing it racially, changing it religiously." In the early 20th century, there was an attempt to distinguish Jesus from his Semitic background. Religious writers and artists who were advocating for immigration restrictions began to depict Jesus with blond hair and blue eyes.
On how slave owners presented the image of a white Jesus
"When slave owners try to Christianize their slaves, they bring Jesus in two forms — one is as a servant, and that's to say, 'Hey look, service is good, service is godly, so your work service is good.' But they also present Jesus as master ... You have to follow his lead to not lie, not steal. But when slaves take this Jesus, how they reconnect the dots is to say, 'OK, well if Jesus is master, then my earthly master isn't my only one, he's not my most powerful one, in fact I have a master above my master ... and that master can challenge the slave owner, can teach a higher law.' And then when we get to service, when slaves hear that Jesus was a servant, they say, 'Hey, wait a second, he also suffered, he was crucified, but that wasn't the rest of the story. The rest of the story was he was resurrected, and not only was Jesus resurrected, but he resurrected his friends in the story of Lazarus.'
"So for African-Americans who have death all around them — and not just literal death, but also the death of families, you know, when you see your wife or child sent away ... Jesus has resurrection power for him and his friends. So what slaves do is they basically take those models of master and of servant, and they just connect them differently than the way the slave masters intended, and they create basically a wholly new form of Protestant Christianity."
On how Mormons claimed a sacred America with the image of a white Jesus Christ
"Geographically, one of the problems Americans had had before Mormonism was they wanted to stake their belief on Jesus, but a Jesus who never lived here, never lived in this space. So when the Book of Mormon has prophecy of [Jesus] and then [has] Jesus here on the American continents, all of a sudden America is sacred. ... It precedes Columbus, and the fact that this Jesus is white with blue eyes — it gives Americans long history; not theft from the Indians, but a reclaiming of the land. So the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they're reclaiming the faith, they're reclaiming the land, and they're doing it through a white notion of the sacred."
How Joseph Smith explained race in America
"In Mormon theology — and Smith himself would claim he's not explaining any of this, that these are revelations to him from on high — that basically physical distinctions like light skin, white skin, dark skin, black skin, that those are made by God in part from the Book of Genesis, where after the flood, Noah curses his grandson and, supposedly, his son and grandson then go to Africa. So it seems that Noah's curse is actually from God, and so people of African descent are cursed. But also in Mormon theology, there is a sense that one's skin tone reflects one's pre-this-life sinfulness.
"For Mormons, one's body existed before in a pre-life state, and it'll exist after our lives — our literal bodies will — and so when Joseph Smith looked around him and saw Native Americans, when he saw black Americans, when he saw white Americans — the revelation told him the lighter the skin, the more blessed one and the less sinful one was in the past. And he actually thought that societies would lighten. So the more Native Americans, for instance, would join the church and be good Latter-day Saints, they would actually lighten over time as part of becoming more sacred. But the curse of those [of] African-American descent is intense. Brigham Young, for instance, would say that if a white man was caught having a sexual relationship with a woman with any African descent, he should be executed, perhaps even beheaded on the spot. So while Native Americans could be redeemed more with time, Africans-Americans, people with African descent, were seen really as the ultimate other."
On when the image of a black Jesus emerged
"During the 1920s and 1930s, we see people out of W.E.B. Du Bois' circle drawing Jesus as a Southern black man who is lynched, basically. And then the second time we see it is during the civil rights movement, during the mid- and late-1960s and the 1970s ... that Jesus is more Africanized. He might have an Afro, he might wear a dashiki. ... We see the rise of identity politics, and so making a Jesus who looks like you as part of an expression of power, it becomes important — and that's exactly the same time that African-Americans are quote unquote 'discovering their roots,' as Alex Haley put it. And so going back to Africa, looking more ... 'African' becomes important culturally, and so doing that to Jesus happens at the same time."
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The new book "The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America" starts with this provocative question: 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 civil rights crusades?
My guest, Edward Blum, is the co-author of the book. He said he wanted to explore the ways Americans gave physical forms to Jesus, where they placed those forms and how they remade him visually into a sacred symbol of their greatest aspirations, deepest terrors and strivings for racial power and justice. Blum is also co-author of "Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism." He's an associate professor of history at San Diego State University.
Edward Blum, welcome to FRESH AIR. So knowing what you know about religious history, if you were painting a picture of Jesus Christ, what color would he be?
EDWARD BLUM: Well, the best American painting I've ever seen of Jesus is by Henry Ossawa Tanner, and what he does is he has a figure, a human figure veiled, where the colors are somewhat grayish and brownish colors are over the face. And so we can make out that there's a man there, and he has skin that seems a little darker and hair that seems a little darker, but we can't make out the actual skin tone. We can't make out the eye color.
And I would choose that for a couple reasons. One, because America was founded by a whole bunch of Puritans who didn't want to see Jesus. They thought it was a violation of the Second Commandment to have images of Christ. And when they had dreams, when sometimes Puritans would dream about seeing Jesus, he was described as behind a spider web, and I think that's a beautiful image.
Even Joseph Smith, when he claimed to see his - to see Jesus and God the Father - Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, his first description was that it was indescribable. And so I like the notion of behind a veil or behind a webbing, that there's something, someone there that we desperately want to see and get to but just quite can't.
GROSS: OK, so you've answered and avoided the question at the same time.
GROSS: So I'm going to ask it again because, I mean, you know, Christ was actually a man. You know, he starts as a man. And he was a man in a place at a time, and he was flesh and blood, and that flesh had a color. And our depictions, historical depictions of him have differed over the centuries, but he had a color when he was alive. So if you were - if you were painting a realistic image of what you think Jesus looked like in his time, what color would he be?
BLUM: So, for that I can say he definitely wouldn't be white, and you know, the Middle East that Jesus, the historical Jesus was a part of, was the crossroads of the world, of the known world at its time. And so I would probably paint him darkly complected, not pure black, more in a kind of light brownish.
I'd probably pay a lot more attention to his size. I'd probably put him as relatively short. Usually most paintings have him as pretty tall. I'd have him as pretty short. I'd have him as non-substantial muscularly, unlike Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ," where Jim Caviezel is kind of chiseled. I'd have him pretty much look average to ordinary. So the color would be brownish.
GROSS: OK, and is that because he's of Middle Eastern descent?
BLUM: Well, mostly because it's really hard to trace back, actually, 2,000 years what people looked like back then. You know, forensic scientists want to play with this, but it's kind of like - remember that Michael Jackson video, where there were those human bodies morphing into one another? Yeah, "Black or White" was the name of the video.
And if you were to just stop in the middle of a morphing, it would look weird, and that's kind of what forensic scientists are trying to do. They're trying to take a population of millions of people and boil it down into one look. When you have people - this is the cool thing about the Bible is in the New Testament, all these people from all these different regions are running into each other. So the level of social interaction, of sexual interaction was just a - was significant.
So what would a person 2,000 years ago, one single individual, look like then? I don't know, and it's unknowable. There were four Gospel writers. Why didn't one of them say, oh, and here's what his skin looked like, and here's what his hair looked like. They didn't, none of them did, because it wasn't important to them. It's important to us.
GROSS: So one of the things you do in the book is talk about how different groups historically used Jesus and used a white depiction of Jesus to justify what they were doing. And the example I will use here is white supremacists, and let's go to the Ku Klux Klan, that had the burning crosses, the white sheets. How did a white Jesus play into their justification for their own actions?
BLUM: So in the 19-teens, 1920s, when this KKK emerges, they are adamant that they are Christ followers. And why that's so important to them and why making, seeing Jesus as white, as Jesus who wears a robe, that's important to them really because they're trying to justify things that other Christians had challenged.
For a long time, Christians had challenged racial discrimination. For a long time, there had been a group of Christians who had challenged, you know, violence against people of color, exploitation against them. They said - a number of Christians had said, we should do unto others as they would have done unto - you know, do unto others as you would have done unto you.
And so when the Klan wants to justify violence, when they want to justify exclusion, they don't have Biblical texts for it. They just don't have written texts. So they have to turn to image. And so the belief, the value that Jesus was white provides them an image in place of text.
And so that's why, you know, depicting, showing Jesus as white with Klansmen, it gets them away from actually having to quote chapter and verse, which they can't really do to present their cause.
GROSS: So were there any specific images of Jesus that were embraced by the Klan?
BLUM: The Klan, interestingly enough, they created their own. And they would actually draw pictures of new Bible scenes where they would put Klansmen in them. So there's one where Jesus is passing out the loaves and the fish to feed the thousands, and the disciples are Klansmen, and they actually put an American flag behind Jesus to show, you know, not only was Jesus in favor of white supremacy but also American supremacy.
So what the Klan mostly does is they don't take - they don't really take too much European art or American art. They just create their own drawings that insert themselves into typical Christ moments.
GROSS: Slave owners used a white Jesus to help justify enslaving people, but that same white Jesus, as you point out, was seen as a friend and as a symbol of freedom for the slaves. So can you talk a little bit about how that image of a white Jesus was perceived differently by slaves and slave owners?
BLUM: Yeah, so when slave owners bring, when they try to Christianize their slaves, they bring Jesus in two forms. One is as a servant, and that's to say hey, look, service is good, service is godly. So your work, you, slave, your work and service is good. But they also present Jesus as master, master Jesus, you have to follow his lead to not lie, not steal.
Well, when slaves take this Jesus, how they reconnect to the dots is to say, OK, well, if Jesus is master, then my earthly master isn't my only one, he's not my most powerful one. In fact, I have a master above my master. And when there's a master above your master, that master can challenge the slave owner, can teach a higher law.
And then when we get to service, when slaves hear that Jesus was a servant, they say, hey, wait a second, he was also - he also suffered. He was crucified, but that wasn't the rest of the story. The rest of the story was he was resurrected, and not only was Jesus resurrected, but he resurrected his friends in the story of Lazarus.
And so for African-Americans who have death all around them and not just literal death but also the death of families, you know, when you see your wife or your child sent away, that's the kind of death of your family, Jesus has resurrection power for him and his friends.
So what slaves do is they basically take those models of master and of servant, and they just connect them differently than the way the slave masters intended, and they create basically a wholly new form of Protestant Christianity.
GROSS: And are there, like, journals or writings by people who had been slaves or who were slaves at the time that they were writing, describing how they felt about a Jesus who was white, because Jesus was depicted as white?
BLUM: Yeah, there's a couple different places. One, there are free - fugitive slave narratives, like Frederick Douglass' or Henry Box Brown's narratives, where they talk about what they think about Jesus. Henry Box Brown actually thought as a child that his master was God, and his master's son was Jesus. He didn't see the difference between the biblical characters and the human ones.
And then after the Civil War, a number of former slaves gave interviews, talking about their time in slavery. And there's a great book called "God Struck Me Dead," which has conversion stories, tales from former slaves about how they became Christians.
And they run into Jesus. They meet him. They sometimes run into the devil. He's there in the forest. He's there in the field. And they meet a white Jesus, and he's kind of dripping with whiteness. His hair is white, everything around him is white. But he's also really short. He's also a short man who then engages them as a friend, as a savior, as a liberator.
And so what seems so striking here is that their Jesus is a trickster. He's a trickster of the Trinity, in that he's a white man who's small, who kind of challenges and destabilizes everything about white power. And none of these slaves, former slaves, ever talk about having a problem with him being white. They're usually struck more by his shortness than anything else.
GROSS: My guest is Edward Blum, co-author of the new book "The Color of Christ." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is Edward Blum, co-author of the new book "The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America," about how different races and ethnic groups have interpreted Jesus and depicted him. The Mormons play a significant role in your book "The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America," in part because Mormons, at least, you know, earlier in Mormon history, depicted not only a white but a - correct me if I'm wrong here - a fair-haired, blue-eyed Jesus.
BLUM: Mormonism is this great case study of what happens to Jesus in America, in that when Joseph Smith first has a vision of Jesus and God, he writes of it as indescribable, as he saw blinding light. So he's kind of like the Puritans. He didn't know how to describe what he saw.
And then as Mormons were embattled, as they were persecuted, they fought back. One of the ways they fought back was by saying, hey, look, no, we're genuinely American. We have, you know, our savior is white with blue eyes. And so, while Mormons are being challenged as fundamentally un-American by other white Americans, they push back by saying, no, we're the most American, and, look, even our Jesus is white, and the most white.
GROSS: And the most American in the sense that Joseph Smith said that Jesus had come to America after he was resurrected so that he precedes Columbus. And so, what is the Mormon telling of how Jesus came to America and why?
BLUM: So in the Book of Mormon, it precedes, you know, centuries before Jesus, a group of lost tribes from Israel end up making it to North and South America, and while they're here, they have their fights, their squabbles. Jesus comes to the Middle East, and we actually see it in America because there's a great light that the people of North and South America can see.
And then when Jesus is crucified, it all goes black. It all goes dark for three days. Well, then, Jesus is resurrected in the Middle East, and as the Book of Mormon goes, after he ascends into heaven over there, he descends from Heaven here. And so he comes to the Americas, and he teaches most of the same things that he taught in the traditional Gospels.
He calls the children to him, he tells everyone to stop fighting. He preaches basically the Sermon on the Mount, and then he ascends again, and the Americans at that time, the Americans live well. They do well for a little while after that, before they eventually kind of descend into chaos again.
GROSS: In the late 1800s, when immigration starts becoming a big, controversial issue in America because a lot of people living in America don't want the Jews and the Catholics coming in. They don't want the Irish and the Italian coming in. You say that the image of Jesus starts to change a little bit then. How does it change?
BLUM: Yeah. Typically, Americans had been completely comfortable with Jesus being Jewish, and they had assumed Jews had brown eyes, and so they depicted Jesus as brown-eyed. Well, as waves of Catholic immigrants with - who, you know, didn't speak English, or Jewish immigrants came to the United States, many nativist Americans became upset with that, concerned that it was changing the face of America too much, changing it racially, changing it religiously.
And so in the early 20th century, we see some writers, like a fellow named Madison Grant, who talks about, talks about how, you know, didn't it seem that the Jews treated Jesus as somehow un-Jewish, as not Jewish? There was a film by D.W. Griffith called "Intolerance," where he portrays Jesus as being intolerantly treated by Jews, and this film came out in 1916.
And we get other Christian writers talking about: haven't you ever noticed that Jesus was more cosmopolitan or more occidental, meaning European, than Oriental, meaning from the Middle East? And it's at that time that we see Colonel Henry Todd paint the first popular Jesus with blond hair and blue eyes.
And the distancing Jesus from his Semitic, his Jewish background, becomes important to a whole bunch of artists and religious writers and to folks like Madison Grant, who was actively against - actively for immigration restrictions.
GROSS: So this was a way, you're saying this was a way of distancing Jesus from the Jewish and also from the Catholic immigrants that a lot of Americans didn't really welcome here.
BLUM: Yeah, especially in the case of Jewish immigrants, where how can you bar Jewish immigrants, how can you keep them out if you believe in a Jewish savior? So that's one of the issues. Now, and then keeping Catholics immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe out, one of the arguments is that their fetish for Jesus images; all their icons, that that somehow marks them as not civilized, that the most civilized will have, you know, an image of Jesus but recognize that it, itself, isn't an idol, it itself has no spiritual power.
So Catholic immigrants were seen as less than civilized because of their continued kind of having fetishes for these Christ and Madonna images.
GROSS: So let's jump ahead in time. At what point do you start seeing depictions of Jesus as being black?
BLUM: Two primary moments. One is the Harlem Renaissance. So during the 1920s and the 1930s, we see people out of W.E.B. Du Bois' circle drawing Jesus as a Southern black man who's lynched, basically. And then the second time we see it is during the civil rights movement, during the mid- and late 1960s and the 1970s. And that Jesus is more Africanized. He might have an afro, he might wear a dashiki. So those are the two kind of biggest explosive moments of when we see black in Jesus figures.
GROSS: Now are those meant, do you think, to be, you know, like commentaries, to be metaphorical or literal because, you know, Jesus wouldn't have been wearing a dashiki, you know, in his time?
BLUM: Yeah, in the '60s and the '70s, we see the rise of identity politics, and so making a Jesus who looks like you as part of an expression of power, it becomes important. And that's exactly the same time that, you know, African-Americans are, quote-unquote, discovering their roots, as Alex Haley put it. And so going back to Africa, looking more, quote-unquote, African becomes important culturally, and so doing that to Jesus happens at the same time.
Then there's also a move among theologians who want to make a geographic claim. And they say, hey, when Mary and Joseph had to hide Jesus, where'd they take him? Egypt. And so he must have been dark somehow because there's this assumption that, you know, folks in Egypt at the time would've been dark-skinned.
GROSS: Well, Edward Blum, thank you very much for talking with us.
BLUM: Yeah, thanks for having me, Terry.
GROSS: Edward Bum is the co-author of the new book "The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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