This book was a surprise in many ways. It is not concerned with exploring what race Jesus was. It is an exploration of how Jesus has been portrayed in America. I have often wondered why we don’t see biblical epics from the Middle East. After reading this book, I think that the American biblical epic is a side effect of America’s unique implementation of colonialism and racism.
The authors begin near the end of their virtual timeline. They begin with the bombing at the 16th street Baptist church. The bombing took the lives of the four girls and it also strikingly removed the face of the white Jesus in one of the stained glass windows of the church. The authors began their investigation to ask how a white Jesus ended up in a Black church. “How he sanctified white supremacy for some and opposition to racial injustice for others.”
One of the surprises for me was that the white Jesus was not a direct import of Europe. The Puritans forbade any portrayal of Jesus. Their visionaries felt free to describe Satan and his cohorts. But Jesus remained only a white light in their descriptions. There was a document called the Publilus Lentulus letter that purported to describe Jesus as white with brown hair parted in the middle; the letter was derided as an obvious forgery even in their time. Artists who wanted to paint images of Jesus left the states for Europe for fear of being tainted with the crime of painting icons.
I was also surprised at how Jesus was ‘sold’ to native Americans. Often the native Americans fell into two camps: dismissive of the missionaries who came from a people who killed their own god, or seeing a Jesus who was more like themselves.
Jesus doesn’t become imaged until the 1800’s. The two authors focus on three main reasons why.
One was slavery. As enslaved American and abolitionists see Jesus as a symbol of liberation, their opposition seizes on the Publilus Lentulus letter as proof that Jesus was white.
Another factor was the beginnings of the church of Latter Day Saints. The early Mormons believed that black skin was a symbol of sin. They supported the Confederacy and believed that it heralded the second coming.
A third factor was the battle to subdue the Native American population.
Thrown into the mix was America’s quick adoption of mass distribution. Mark Twain jokes about all of the biblical tracts that river boatmen were inundated with, all of them propagating a white Jesus. The image of a white Jesus with brown hair and blue eyes was exported everywhere where missionaries roamed.
The book ends in the modern era. The authors point out that while many churches have removed images from inside the church, the American image of Jesus is still propagated in “t-shirts, movies, books, and air balloons.” In 1978, the church of Latter Day Saints opened the hierarchy to Black men. They had also earlier resurrected an old Danish marble statue (11 foot) that affirm, the authors say, their commitment to Jesus, whiteness, and power.
One of the final scenes in the book is at the 16th street Baptist Church where a Black Jesus replaced the one that was bombed. The changing immigration patterns have made the image of Jesus inside the church more varied. Outside the church, American propaganda (unconsciously?) still often uses a white Jesus as a symbol of its righteousness and power.