The Contested Color of Christ

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This article
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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

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.

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Image by Mark Gstohl,
licensed under Creative

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