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December 13th, 2013
09:30 AM ET

Call Jesus (or Santa) white? Expect a big fight

Opinion by Edward J. Blum, special to CNN

(CNN) - Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly sparked outrage this week by insisting that Jesus and Santa Claus are both white, saying it's "ridiculous" to argue that depicting Christ and St. Nick as Caucasian is "racist."

"And by the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white," Kelly said, "but this person is arguing that we should also have a black Santa."

Kelly was responding to an article in Slate that said St. Nick needs a makeover from fat, old white guy to something less "melanin-deficient."

The Fox News host would have none of it.

"Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change," Kelly said. "Jesus was a white man, too. It's like we have, he's a historical figure; that's a verifiable fact. As is Santa, I just want kids to know that. How do you revise it in the middle of the legacy, in the story, and change Santa from white to black?"

Arguing about St. Nick, who was originally Greek before Currier & Ives got their hands on him, is one thing. But as for Jesus, people have been arguing about his skin color since the earliest days of American history. You might even call it an American tradition.

What's new about this latest brouhaha is how swiftly Kelly’s remarks were attacked. Thousands of people have rebuked her through blogs, articles, Twitter posts and Facebook updates.

Comedian Jon Stewart accused Kelly of "going full Christmas nog."

“And who are you actually talking to?" Stewart said on "The Daily Show." "Children who are sophisticated enough to be watching a news channel at 10 o’clock at night, yet innocent enough to still believe Santa Claus is real — yet racist enough to be freaked out if he isn’t white?”

It seems that now, if you want to call Christ — or even Santa — white, you should expect a fierce fight.

The immediate and widespread rebuttal showcases how much America has changed over the past few decades. The nation not only has a black president, but also has refused to endorse the Christian savior as white.

Since the earliest days of America, Jesus was thought of as a white man.

When white Protestant missionaries brought Bibles and whitened images of Jesus to Native Americans, at least a few mocked what they saw.

Taking the imagery seriously, the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh asked future President William Henry Harrison, “How can we have confidence in the white people? When Jesus Christ came upon the earth you kill’d and nail’d him on a cross.”

It was not until around 1900 that a group of white Americans explicitly claimed Jesus was white.

Concerned that large numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, especially Jewish immigrants, were “polluting” the nation, anti-immigrant spokesmen like attorney Madison Grant asserted the whiteness of Jesus to justify calls for exclusionary legislation.

READ MORE: From science and computers, a new face of Jesus

Making Jesus white was a means to distance him from Judaism.

“In depicting the crucifixion no artist hesitates to make the two thieves brunet in contrast to the blond Savior,” Grant wrote in his xenophobic best-seller "The Passing of the Great Race."

“This is something more than a convention,” Grant continued, and suggested that Jesus had “Nordic, possibly Greek, physical and moral attributes.”

Even Martin Luther King Jr. claimed that Jesus was white, after being asked why God created Jesus as a white man.

King responded that the color of Christ’s skin didn’t matter. Jesus would have been just as important “if His skin had been black.” He “is no less significant because His skin was white.”

READ MORE: Turkish town cashes in on Saint Nick legacy

Challenges to Christ’s whiteness have a long history, too.

Famed evangelist Billy Graham preached in the 1950s, and then wrote emphatically in his autobiography "Just As I Am," that, “Jesus was not a white man.”

But Graham was far from the first American to contradict the whiteness of Jesus. That honor goes to Methodist and Pequot Indian William Apess.

In 1833, he wrote to white Christians, “You know as well as I that you are not indebted to a principle beneath a white skin for your religious services but to a colored one.”

Almost 100 years later, the Jamaican born, “back-to-Africa” spokesman Marcus Garvey told his followers, “Never admit that Jesus Christ was a white man, otherwise he could not be the Son of God and God to redeem all mankind. Jesus Christ had the blood of all races in his veins.”

In our age, the color of Christ has become both politically dangerous and the butt of jokes.

In 2008, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s words “God damn America” and “Jesus was a poor black boy” almost derailed then-Sen. Barack Obama from winning the Democratic primary.

Now, Kelly bears the brunt of attacks and, in no surprise, was pilloried by comedians like Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

Few Americans went on public record against King when he asserted Jesus had white skin in the 1950s. Today, thousands upon thousands from virtually every race and tribe of Americans have taken Kelly’s words seriously and seriously disdained them.

All the chatter about Jesus being white (or not) shows how much America has changed. There used to be “whites’ only” restaurants and schoolrooms. Now, even Jesus cannot be called white without repercussions.

What the debate hides, however, is what Jesus of the Bible actually did and how he related to people.

The gospels are full of discussions about Jesus and bodies. He healed the blind and those who suffered from disease. He touched and was touched by the sick. His body was pierced by thorns, a spear and nails. And he died.

READ MORE: What all those Jesus jokes tell us

The phenotype of Jesus was never an issue in the Bible. Neither Matthew, nor Mark, nor Luke, nor John mentioned Christ’s skin tone or hair color. None called him white or black or red or brown.

Obsessions about race are obsessions of our age, not the biblical one. When asked what mattered most, Jesus did not say his skin tone or body shape. He instructed his followers to “love the Lord your God with all your heart” and to “do unto others as you would have done unto you.”

Maybe this Christmas season, we can reflect not so much on whether or not Jesus was white and instead consider what it meant for him to be called the “light” of the world.

Edward J. Blum is the co-author of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. He can be followed on Twitter @edwardjblum. The views expressed in this column belong to Blum alone.

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Art • Belief • Bible • Billy Graham • Black issues • Christianity • Discrimination • Faith • God • Jesus • News media • Opinion • Persecution • Prejudice • Race • United States

soundoff (7,485 Responses)
  1. theamericanfuture

    1st things 1st.... Kelly is correct, Santa...from St. Nicholas is probably a white dude. Stewart (though often hilarious) was strangely out of character when he kept insisting "he was from Turkey!!!" Did Stewart forget that the ethnicity of modern day Turkey is not the same from 400 AD Trukey? The Turks didn't migrate to the region until the 11th Century and the area was overrun by first the Thracians then the Greeks and the Romans. The only depictions of St. Nicholas (from Russia) are pretty clear that he's a white dude.

    2ndly, there is no evidence about any description of Jesus. Anywhere, period. Talking about his race is a meaningless argument as the truth is not known. Kelly was retarded for even jumping in and historians have been having this discussion for some time. There's no evidence of any sort of ancestral history...to make matters worse he was born not of normal means (if that's to be believed) which would imply his "race" probably wasn't something that would be known. Mix that in with being in the likeness of god (which we all are)...and talk about you classic meaningless argument with absolutely no possible answer.

    December 14, 2013 at 3:46 am |
    • punjab83

      Love it!

      December 14, 2013 at 3:54 am |
  2. Reality

    Christmas is historically a non-event. Ditto for the Feast of the Magi, Holy Innocents Day and the solemnity of Mary aka New Years day. Details available upon request.

    December 14, 2013 at 3:32 am |
    • Evert van Vliet

      Not even time exist….and if so (not), every day heralds a new year.

      December 14, 2013 at 3:37 am |
  3. Cafeitalia

    "Top Eleven Signs You're a Christian:"

    11- You believe in a book (New Testament) that was written 80 years after your Messiah died by men who never met him and who believed the earth was flat and the Sun revolved around the Earth, but continuously deny modern science books.

    10 – You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.

    9 – You feel insulted and "dehumanized" when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.

    8 – You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.

    7 – Your face turns purple when you hear of the "atrocities" attributed to Allah, but you don't even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in "Exodus" and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in "Joshua" including women, children, and trees!

    6 – You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.

    5 – You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.

    4 – You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs - though excluding those in all rival sects – will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet consider your religion the most "tolerant" and "loving."

    3 – While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor speaking in "tongues" may be all the evidence you need to "prove" Christianity.

    2 – You define 0.01% as a "high success rate" when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.

    1 – You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history – but still call yourself a Christian.

    December 14, 2013 at 3:29 am |
    • Evert van Vliet

      1 Sign you're brain washed;

      You use your fingers to count.

      December 14, 2013 at 3:31 am |
    • Fritz Hohenheim

      LOL, you just made my day dude.

      December 14, 2013 at 3:32 am |
      • Evert van Vliet

        Now vote for me! 🙂

        December 14, 2013 at 3:45 am |
  4. Marietta Alexander

    Silliness! Everyone is so ready to be offended! Jesus is from a middle east descent. Will people get back to being reasonable!

    December 14, 2013 at 3:22 am |
    • Evert van Vliet

      Are you offended when I observe there's no reasoning in 'jesus' what-so-ever?

      I'll spare you 'my' opinion about all non-observations.

      December 14, 2013 at 3:27 am |
  5. Kryttos82

    Obviously he was Arabic ( olive skinned, dark hair, etc ).

    December 14, 2013 at 3:20 am |
  6. Vinny

    So people are about a fictional character?

    December 14, 2013 at 3:20 am |
  7. OMG

    Barf! Why is this character an issue?

    December 14, 2013 at 3:12 am |
  8. Doug from Seattle

    Who really cares what color Jesus, Santa Claus, or any one else is!? What a lame topic of discussion!!!

    December 14, 2013 at 3:10 am |
    • Rolph

      Uptight white chickypoo pundits at FOX. Gets their knickers in a terrible twist.

      December 14, 2013 at 3:11 am |
    • Evert van Vliet

      Lame?….

      Only if nobody would claim 'rights' over 'others'.
      One country under god (or even one country)…now that's lame.

      December 14, 2013 at 3:29 am |
  9. Zac

    Isn't it apparent that he'd be Jewish? Or does it even matter? After all, how does being born of divine birth relate to any sort of race?

    For Santa Claus, it's not like we can discuss this without crushing the dreams of small children. Obviously he can be whatever color people illustrate him as, but I would like to toss my hat in the ring and say that living at the North Pole means that being a Scandinavian-esque white is most appropriate. Unless, of course, someone wants him to be Inuit.

    December 14, 2013 at 3:03 am |
  10. Ed Kidwell

    I remember a DJ back in the 60's saying Santa was a communist. He said he was Russian( St. Nicholas was supposed to be) he had long hair,a beard and he even wore a RED suit. Today 's people aren't much different. Who cares if either of them were white? They are both dead.

    December 14, 2013 at 2:58 am |
    • Evert van Vliet

      So how come we have to live by rules set by founding daddies and other utterly nonsense long gone?

      It's ALL make believe now isn't it?

      Complain at the grave markers?

      December 14, 2013 at 3:02 am |
      • Zac

        You don't. You are free to move somewhere else, but respecting the beliefs of the founders of the most powerful nation on Earth is something that is going to remain in this country, and for good reason. After all, they had to be doing something right to have founded a nation that would become the most powerful one on the planet within 200 years.

        December 14, 2013 at 3:07 am |
        • Evert van Vliet

          Dare to disagree and get the hell out of 'here'?

          And where is 'here'?

          There's way more founding daddies than 'america' is 'old'.

          Nothing new about bullying, that's a fact.
          Nations don't exist, it's folks who are taught 'it' being the case who fight over most anything we all could observe to be made up.

          Another fact remains; god and the whole show we might be willing to let go, but don't you dare to go any further!

          I'm staying put!

          December 14, 2013 at 3:19 am |
        • Evert van Vliet

          P.s.,

          Demanding respect isn't the same as getting it out of free reasoning.
          And how free is a country when it's taught to be to start with?

          All I (and anybody else) actually can observe is one and the same planet we will have to do with for the time being.
          Primitive assumptions won't ever change that.

          December 14, 2013 at 3:24 am |
  11. Ed Kidwell

    He was probably white as he would have stuck out in a crowd of brown people.I think he was either blond or redheaded to be seen easily. Race wouldn't have been a factor in those times. It has only become a factor today.People today are actually dumber than they were in ancient times. Look at the world today.........it so obvious.If Jesus came back today he would be less popular than Beiber or even Elvis because he probably couldn't sing or dance.

    December 14, 2013 at 2:53 am |
  12. Josh

    The tradition of Santa Claus doesn't just come from Greece. The German tradition of Yule (where our Christmas tree also comes from) had its own special gift-giver.

    December 14, 2013 at 2:51 am |
  13. Eric

    Just because he was born in Jerusalem it does not make him a Jew. Many white people are burned in Johannesburg but that does not make them African.

    December 14, 2013 at 2:38 am |
    • Paul Preiswerck

      Good Point!!!

      December 14, 2013 at 2:49 am |
    • Sandy

      Um, yeah, for that time period it does, besides that it has been proven. I have to wonder if your comment is a joke, because truly, truly makes no sense at all.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:58 am |
    • Evert van Vliet

      And what makes! you believe there's such a 'thing' as africans?

      December 14, 2013 at 3:04 am |
    • Ned Nederlander

      Jesus reputedly was born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem.

      If you are born and live in Africa, you are African. That includes the Arabs in the north and the whites, and whatever other race is there. Similarly, it may shock you to find out that there are black Europeans.

      And why are the white people "burned" in Johannesburg?

      December 14, 2013 at 3:10 am |
      • Evert van Vliet

        'Race' doesn't exist…. the planet does however and there's plates that are adrift.
        Naming stuff like that as individual parts where (thus) 'different' folks have to live their lives is utterly nonsense.

        There's nothing but difference in ridiculous claims preventing all of us to make sense out of all.

        ;POLITICS!

        Koekje d'r bij?

        December 14, 2013 at 3:44 am |
  14. some sodomite

    Krishna is blue.

    and magic.

    Basically, Krishna is a smurf.

    That's a fact.

    December 14, 2013 at 2:34 am |
  15. Brian

    Leave it to Fox news to start controversy.

    December 14, 2013 at 2:34 am |
  16. tom

    Jon Stewart has no where to stand since he himself is embarrassed about his heritage and changed his name just to advance himself in Hollywood. I wonder what Jesus has to say about that Jon? Denouncing yourself as a Jew is not too smart.

    December 14, 2013 at 2:32 am |
    • Sandy

      Whatever Jon Stewart is doing...it seems to be working since he is mega-successful, as his ratings show. I doubt that he changed his name from a Jewish one to whatever 'non' Jewish one based on that...perhaps it just sound more 'celebrity'...many do that. There are tons of Jewish folks in the entertainment industry, so I think your argument (or at least what I took from it) is moot.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:56 am |
  17. Alan Villarreal

    Are Jewish people white? He was born in Jerusalem

    December 14, 2013 at 2:32 am |
    • tom

      Best to remember that at that time the Roman Empire extended throughout that area and had numerous Caucasian individuals that had been captured and used as slaves in their army.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:34 am |
    • Reality Check

      The European ones are white. The African ones, not so much. The Middle Eastern ones, guess that depends on who you call white. The Asian ones, also not so much. Judaism is a religion, not a race and race itself is dubious.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:37 am |
    • Kat

      Jesus was born in Bethlehem :/

      December 14, 2013 at 2:44 am |
      • Kat

        And Judaism is a religion, not a race...

        December 14, 2013 at 2:45 am |
        • TawdryD

          It is both.

          December 14, 2013 at 2:51 am |
        • Evert van Vliet

          Politics…as usual.

          December 14, 2013 at 3:05 am |
      • Evert van Vliet

        In an ever expanding universe Bethlehem is constantly on the move though.

        Besides that it still doesn't give us an answer to the question why Adam was created with a penis.
        After all Eve yet had to take the limelight while god as the original image must have one (a penis) too…why, oh god why (are we arguing the color of nonsense)?

        December 14, 2013 at 2:59 am |
        • redzoa

          The penis thing can be argued away by God's desire for man to be fruitful and multiply (better this than binary fission or budding, although the moms might disagree). IMHO, the more interesting question is whether Adam had a belly button? Close second behind this is how many angels really can dance on the head of a pin?

          December 14, 2013 at 3:14 am |
        • Evert van Vliet

          The belly button?

          We all carry each other's ansestors in it…now that's intriguing!

          December 14, 2013 at 3:51 am |
    • Bracus

      Jesus would have been born in 1st century Jerusalem. And born of Jewish parents, as the bible reads. The whites who would have had any access to that land at the time would not have been Jews. Jewish Joseph and Jewish Mary would not have produced a pale skinned boy. And you better not go to,'Well God was the white one, then". How far does your racism reach?

      December 14, 2013 at 2:50 am |
  18. hearties

    "Maybe this Christmas season, we can reflect not so much on whether or not Jesus was white and instead consider what it meant for him to be called the “light” of the world."

    Unless someone paints their face/body white, there are no white people. Onto the second half concerning Jesus: "consider what it meant for him to be called the “light” of the world."

    December 14, 2013 at 2:30 am |
  19. Nod

    Alright so the chromsome from Mary definetly not white but what about gods chromosome could be anything but probably white lol I mean all the pictures drawn by white people make god white so clearly god is white. Great call Megan Kelly 😉

    December 14, 2013 at 2:29 am |
  20. tom

    If people have an issue with Jesus being white and they also want Santa Claus portrayed by an African American then nobody should have an issue when Jim Carrey or Daniel Radcliffe portrays Nelson Mandela in a biopic.

    December 14, 2013 at 2:29 am |
    • Nod

      I think Jim Carrey could play an excellent role as Nelson Mandela of course he would have to be serious I mean the guy spent 27 years in prison and then held no grudge when released. On the other hand I think Bill Cosby would make a great Santa

      December 14, 2013 at 2:36 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.