In their 2012 book, “The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America,” Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey look at how the imagery of Jesus Christ as a person of European descent—i.e., a white person—has affected the way Blacks, Native-Americans, whites and other ethnic groups in the U.S. interpret what is sacred.
For many of us, even to this day, the image of a white Christ predetermines how we think of God, what is sacred and who on Earth has the authority to interpret all that is right and what is wrong in the world.
The book’s authors note that even though the Bible interpreted Jesus as the “light of the world,” the first European colonists to arrive in North America did not understand that to mean the Christ of the Bible was white.
“Light was not white,” the authors wrote. “For colonial Americans, purity was not about color. It was about essence. Jesus as light connoted power, goodness and love. He was literally and figuratively, the light of the world. The color white, moreover, was not an unambiguous emblem of purity. As a color in dreams, white was considered an evil omen. The Universal Dream-Dictionary of 1795 claimed that in dreams, white or pale skin connoted ‘a sign of trouble, poverty and death.’ It was a ‘black face’ that meant ‘long life.’”
European colonists spread the idea of Jesus as a spirit of light in the world to Africans and Native-Americans. The conundrum of the fact that a white Christ cared for and died for the sins of Black and Native-American people—and yet still allowed for these people to be held in bondage by whites—was difficult to rationalize and often left Christian followers of color wondering how it all worked out.
One person who found it hard to reconcile the deceit of white colonizers with the peace and sanctity that a white Jesus was supposed to offer was Samson Occom, a native Mohegan who had found the promise of Christianity so compelling that he had taught himself to read and write in English so that he could read the Bible himself. Occom’s faith made him such a zealous convert that he became the face of a large fundraising effort. He was sent on missions to England, where he would raise money for the construction of what was supposed to become an “Indian Charity School.” Occom was later shocked to find out that the monies he had raised for what was supposed to be an Indian school would instead be spent on a school for white youth; the funds helped to create Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
“Occum crafted a morality of naming religious hypocrisy in the form of racial mistreatment,” the authors wrote. “He concluded that the spiritual thoughts and physical actions of whites proved their debasement, not that of people of color: ‘When I come to consider and see the conduct of the most learned, polite and rich nations of the world, I find them to be the most tyrannical, cruel and inhuman oppressors off their fellow creatures in the world … they are the nations that enslave the poor Negroes in such barbarous manner, as out do the savage Indians in North America, and these are called Christian nations.’”
The first European colonists did not depict Christ as white, but over decades the forces of white supremacy gained sway in the United States and led to an understanding that it was who Christ had to be.
The authors tell how Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon church, described his encounter with a vision of Christ. Initially, Christ was a pillar of fire, a light or a brightness from the sun. But over the years, Smith rewrote his tale to explain that what he had seen was a person in the middle of a pillar of fire who had a “light complexion” and “blue eyes.” The first artistic portrayals of a white Christ, as in the painting “Ecce Homo” by William Page, representing the savior as someone with a mere human form were an affront to most people who saw it. It went against the Protestant teachings, which held that Christ was beyond representation in human form. But ultimately with the acceptance of white depictions of Christ, white people in the United States found it helped strengthen their positions in the roles they played in daily life.
The “Color of Christ” helps tell the story of how people of color in the United States have been able to reconcile their faith in Christ with their understandings of who they have been taught to believe Christ emotionally and physically was. The book shines a light on the many pathways that have created the politics behind Christianity in the United States, and it can help anyone trying to comprehend how people of color adapt to the Christianity they are given, and why they have found it necessary to change it.