Lecture Tackles Racial Representations of Jesus Christ


At the end of his lecture on "The Color of Christ and the Politics of Race in Twentieth-Century America," Edward J. Blum demonstrated to an engaged audience both how much and how little has changed in the way we look at Jesus.

Do a Google image search for "Black Jesus," said the professor of history at San Diego State University, and you'll get hundreds of results. Same for "Indian Jesus," "Jewish Jesus," or a host of other ethnicities. Advances in technology, along with the Civil Rights movement, immigration, the rise of diversity on television, have combined to chip away at the monolithic image of Jesus as a fair-skinned, blue-eyed man.

But if you do an image search just for "Jesus," you may as well be back in the 1940s. "The normative, the unspoken assumption in the algorithm in the millions and millions of zeroes and ones, is that this is Jesus," Blum said. "Google's not racist -- it's just built on a racialized history."

In his lecture, held February 28 at the Sweeny Student Center, Blum went over some of that history in the United States -- how defining the physical form of Jesus became a tool of racial oppression and white supremacy.

Blum said the search for a non-Jewish Jesus began in the early 20th century. Emancipation and the end of the Civil War, which sought to divorce a person's color from his legal rights, had muddled what it meant to be white. That, along with immigration and the development of new visual technologies, prompted American leaders to attempt to define whiteness more closely.

This coincided with the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, which had expanded its hatred beyond black people to include Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and socialists. The group, which had previously adopted demon symbolism in the form of horns, made the switch to Christian tropes of white robes and crosses.

It was in this environment that "Head of Christ," a 1941 painting by Warner Sallman, became the single most reproduced image of the 20th century. Many audience members said this was the first image of Christ they remember seeing. One Illinois pastor said he wanted a small version of the image in every Christian's wallet, to combat "card-carrying Communists" with "card-carrying Christians."

"It appeals to so many white Americans," Blum said.

World War II began another chapter in the struggle to define the body of Jesus, a struggle that intensified with the Civil Rights movement. But not even Martin Luther King Jr. was immune to the power of images, Blum said. Even as he advocated for judging people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, he took for granted that Jesus was white.

"The association between whiteness and godliness has endured because of its prominence in material form," Blum said. "Objects have power."

People are more aware of the issue these days, Blum said. Many megachurches, for exmple, refrain from using images of Jesus to avoid conflict. But issues remain. Blum noted that in the "Passion of the Christ," director Mel Gibson purposely gave Jesus brown eyes, but also a large nose. "Even when they're thinking outside the box," the image of Jesus is still tethered to stereotypes.

"That's the burden of history."