In the blink of an eye, the prince of peace was a casualty of racism.
Editor’s Note: Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey’s book may generate more questions than it answers, but their work is crucial for next generation leaders working for justice in a racially divided society. All the more since Blum and Harvey report that the First Great Awakening was one of the few times in American history where the church actually led the way in racial unity. They report that in the powerful spiritual experiences in the Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield led First Great Awakening (c. 1734-1742), “The lack of association between Jesus and whiteness left the spiritual terrain open to linking other peoples to the sacred. Thus a small but significant cohort of American Indians moved toward Christ, as did a charter generation of African-Americans.”
We’re a little fearful about posting something with political overtones in a political season, but we need to address these issues head on to have any hope of helping lead a next “great awakening” toward genuine and lasting racial unity in the Body of Christ and beyond?
How the image of Jesus has been made and remade in American history
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…
The First Great Awakening
How is it that a Jewish prophet from the Roman era could become so entangled with the American obsession with race? How could the color of Christ be invoked throughout American history to justify some of the worst atrocities of white supremacy as well as to inspire some of the most heroic civil-rights crusades?
The first English settlers in the Americas carried with them no sense of what Jesus looked like. The Bible was central to their beliefs, but it offered no physical description of Jesus’s face, hair, eyes, or body. Roman Catholics were already placing images of Christ in their churches, but many Protestant settlers were anti-Catholic and were more likely to report their visions of Satan than to worship icons of Christ. That all began to change in the 18th century, during the Great Awakenings.
Up and down the East Coast, whites, blacks, and American Indians began reporting visions of Jesus as emotional revivals pushed Americans toward personal relationships with Christ. In some cases, their images focused on the blood that poured from Jesus’ hands and side. It was a broken and battered Christ that seemed to speak to their difficult lives. But mostly Jesus was seen in a blinding light. Light, not white. For colonial Americans, light connoted power, goodness, love. White was a sign of trouble.
The lack of association between Jesus and whiteness left the spiritual terrain open to linking other peoples to the sacred. Thus a small but significant cohort of American Indians moved toward Christ, as did a charter generation of African-Americans…