Dr. Paul Harvey, a University of Colorado professor of history, made it clear to Baylor that there is no cookie-cutter mold for Jesus.
Attendees got the opportunity to understand Jesus through different sets of eyes Monday in Kayser Auditorium when Harvey gave a lecture entitled “The Battle for Jesus During the Civil War.”
According to Harvey, the many different images of Christ told a story of the competing ideas of race among the Civil War’s different groups.
“The battle for Jesus during Civil War era was a struggle about who and what was sacred in American society,” Harvey said.
From the pristine, white Jesus of the southern slave-owners to a personal, suffering and sometimes black-skinned Jesus, of the slaves and abolitionists, Harvey took the audience through a timeline of competing representations of what Jesus looked like physically and ideologically.
Harvey said the motto southern slave-owner’s Jesus, “treat others as you want to be treated”, was practiced situationally while the slave’s Jesus would have more closely identified with their plight and their longing for freedom.
“An oppressed slave, a victim of a crucifixion lynching a poor migrant,” Harvey said, describing the slave’s Jesus. “Long before the rise of black theology in the civil rights era, slaves and free African-Americans imagined, painted, sermonized about a Jesus who was a symbol of liberation.”
Harvey said that Union and Confederate soldiers also “enlisted Christ into their ranks” as a symbol for their beliefs.
To the Union soldiers, Jesus was a presence whose ethics and essence could be felt alongside them.
“While the spirit of Christ was present, he was also distant,” Harvey said “He was not an American, he was not one of us.”
Confederates, on the other hand made Christ both a southern figure and one that was relatable to its own soldiers.
“Confederates militarized Jesus in their imagery, becoming good soldiers of Jesus Christ meant learning how to kill and how to die… Jesus was a rugged leader of troops but also a tender warrior who could comfort the afflicted.”
However, after their defeat, the image of Jesus had to change to that of the sufferer that rose from death in order to better reflect their situation.
With every example, picture, book and letter, Harvey displayed a Jesus whose persona was molded to fit the beliefs of abolitionists, slaves, soldiers, pastors, writers and artists each group claimed him as their own.
Even Lincoln supporters drew parallels between the Jesus and Lincoln’s crusades for freedom when Lincoln was assassinated.
It wasn’t until after the Civil War, Harvey said, that ethnic groups began to claim the color of Jesus’s skin. For years, he said, black leaders encouraged a black-skinned image of Jesus to discourage the color white as being sacred and the color black as being profane.
He said one reason that the white image of Jesus won out over the black image of Jesus in American culture was buying power.
“African Americans did not have the consumer power or the production capabilities to mass-distribute black icons,” said Harvey “They could not do what white Americans had done in the antebellum era and mass produce white icons.”
Waco graduate student, Nicholas Pruitt, said that the speech covered an important topic.
“As a Christian and a historian, I feel like Christ has been exploited throughout history,” said Pruitt, “It makes me more aware of how Christ is being used today by people and movements.”
Harvey gave the speech as a special event for the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion. He delves deeper into the different depictions of Jesus in America in his new book “The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.