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The Contested Color of Christ

Black Jesus 

This article originally appeared at Chronicle.com.  

In a world filled with images of Jesus, this one made headlines. He stood in a stained-glass window wearing a simple white robe and a dark tunic. When sunlight struck the glass just so, kindness radiated from his white face and warmth from his brown eyes. This was a comforting Jesus, and for decades he had been with this black congregation in Birmingham, Ala. But on Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, less than three weeks after Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed his dream of racial equality, dynamite set by white supremacists exploded outside the 16th Street Baptist Church, and four little girls who had gone to the basement lounge to freshen up were dead. The face of Jesus shattered into a thousand shards of glass. In the blink of an eye, the prince of peace was a casualty of racism.

The bombing would become a pivotal moment in the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. The outrage that grew around the nation helped spur the voting-rights campaign and pave the way for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By 2004, two days after winning the Democratic nomination for a U.S. Senate seat, Barack Obama flew to Birmingham to give a speech at the city's Civil Rights Institute. He took the opportunity to cross the street and visit the church, by then a national historic landmark. When he entered, he observed a "still-visible scar" along the wall where the bomb had gone off. He saw portraits of the four young girls and thought about his two little daughters at home. He sat to pray, and above him in stained glass was the Jesus installed in 1965 to commemorate the bombing. This one seems sad, his arms stretched out, crucified. His hair is short, cropped; his face black.

The same year the church's black Jesus was dedicated, Mormon leaders in Salt Lake City resurrected an image of Jesus to present themselves to the nation and the world. The Christus, as the statue is known, was created in the early 19th century by a Dutch artist, but Latter-day Saints made it their own when they placed a replica in a Visitors Center in Temple Square. Jesus stands more than 11 feet high. He is made of all-white marble, and his hair flows below his shoulders. His right arm and pectoral muscle are exposed to reveal his chiseled physique. He could just as easily adorn the cover of a best seller as a Bible storybook.

If these two Christ icons could stand side-by-side, their differences could not be more startling. One is huge and authoritative; the other reserved and contemplative. One showcases power, the other suffering.

Together, they illustrate how the image of Jesus has played a vital role in American debates about race, political power, and social justice. The story of the color of Christ is the story of a Jesus made white, challenged by rival figures contending with white supremacy—like the black Jesus now looking down from the window of the 16th Street Baptist Church—and re-formed in a different color.

As recent presidential elections remind us, it is also a story still unfolding.

Almost 50 years after the bombing in Birmingham and the installation of the Christus in Salt Lake City, today's campaign features candidates as different as the two Christ figures. The biracial child of an African immigrant and a Midwestern white woman squares off against the son of a powerful American midcentury politician.

Less remarked are the differences in how the color of Christ pertains to each candidate's campaign. Ever since videos emerged in 2008 of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright shouting "God damn America" and "Jesus was a poor black man," Obama has been attacked for the words of his Chicago pastor. The Jesus of Wright's black-liberation theology is too incendiary for many voters, black and white. (Surveys show that very few African-American churchgoers think of Jesus as black, and that many whites are affronted by the idea.) At the same time, Obama has been presented in rhetoric and imagery as a Christ-like figure who can redeem the nation and world (sometimes portrayed with a crown of thorns, sometimes riding on a donkey). This black savior is a fellow sufferer.

By contrast, Romney, whose religion is so very much a part of his life, has experienced few questions about the many whitened images of Jesus in Mormon art. Although European and American artists have commonly depicted Jesus as white, Mormons were among the first Americans to give him blue eyes, and their theology has a particular focus on the body—they believe that Jesus still has the same physical body he had 2,000 years ago. Even though the Christus was first placed in Salt Lake City just a few years before Romney entered Brigham Young University, there has been no public debate over the race of the candidate's Christ. Of course, no one has compared Romney to Jesus, either.

As is often true, both the rhetoric and the silence speak volumes. Time and again throughout American history, what has been said about the color of Christ (and what has been left unsaid and displayed through art) highlights some of the most profound struggles within the nation.

Read the rest at Chronicle.com. 

Image by Mark Gstohl, licensed under Creative Commons.