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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. WhatDidYouSay

    only on CNN would such a senseless topic appear on front page. CNN always likes to run these types of articles as it generates much the same discussion as any other topic that mentions 'God'. Out come the Atheist with all their nonsensical arguments much like a 2nd grader trying to have intelligent discussion with a scientist. All for the web-traffic over the weekend to generate more ad revenue.

    December 14, 2013 at 5:17 am |
    • dlindie

      Nonsensical arguments? That is laughable to the extreme. Nonsensical is your sky fairy. If the face of your god is a lie then you lose your moral high ground and he turns into a myth like all other gods. There are over 1,000 gods worshiped on this earth yet Christians are so blinded by their faith that they proclaim all other gods mythical except theirs. Now who sounds like a petulant 2nd grader? I submit that theists are the lost – not the atheists. We have a personal relationship with reality.

      December 14, 2013 at 5:28 am |
      • Garry Todd

        You are a foolish babbler.

        December 14, 2013 at 6:07 am |
        • dlindie

          ad hominem attacks are the last bastion of the ignorant.

          December 14, 2013 at 6:40 am |
        • Evert van Vliet

          If the observation is so be it.

          December 14, 2013 at 7:19 am |
      • MHandl

        I agree with dlindie. theists need to truly listen to what they are implying. To me, it appears this so called God, and all religions, are destroying the world. All this drivel is a manifestation of the human mind and has no basis in REALITY. REligion is a crutch for weak minded people. GET EDUCATED.

        December 14, 2013 at 6:45 am |
        • Red

          Instead of insulting people and telling them to get educated, why don't you just educate them? Tell everyone how the human race got here and how that process came about since you know everything.

          December 14, 2013 at 6:58 am |
      • Jesus

        It's hard to educate, when so many schools are trying to push the story time know as creationism. And those same schools at best half heatedly teach evolution. To be fair to them, science can be hard. It is much easier to parrot a book made to control masses than to research, think objectively, and think for ones self.

        December 14, 2013 at 7:17 am |
  2. Elvis

    that was not even racist..plain ignorance!

    December 14, 2013 at 5:12 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      kelly seemed mad at the idea of other races dressing up as santa. she seemed really really angry. i wonder why?

      December 14, 2013 at 5:15 am |
      • Evert van Vliet

        You believe in race?..why?

        December 14, 2013 at 5:16 am |
        • Bootyfunk

          well according to the nat geo human genome project, there are different races. one species - but different races. all of it is subjective of course, grouping people by their physical features, but also by dna markers.

          what are your thought on 'race'?

          December 14, 2013 at 5:19 am |
        • Evert van Vliet

          Don't know why my reply didn't get through..trying again;

          Cross a lion with a tiger or a horse with a donkey and the off spring is sterile.

          Now that's race.

          December 14, 2013 at 5:50 am |
        • Evert van Vliet

          P.s.,

          They refer to indigenous cultures instead of race….the rights to live where you are, the rights to eat, drink, sing, dance, communicate etc. etc. as one is used to.

          And even that is quite questionable when taught to be the norm.

          December 14, 2013 at 6:02 am |
      • Emma Goldman

        A very fragile world view.

        December 14, 2013 at 5:16 am |
        • Bootyfunk

          how so?

          December 14, 2013 at 5:20 am |
  3. alakhtal

    Hallelujah Megyn Kelly "I couldn't agree with you more." I mean "I totally agree with you!" Jesus and Santa Claus ain’t Gods but White Biblical Characters. Black Jesus and Santa project entrepreneurs ain’t got chance to grab the biblical market. Everybody must watched Pope Francis presumably carrying a bible in his right-hand every time he’s preaching, would any black Christian prove it to me that it ain’t ‘Moby Dick’

    December 14, 2013 at 5:09 am |
    • Emma Goldman

      Can I be your manager? I will only charge 10% and will handle all booking, hotel reservations, and press briefings, etc.

      December 14, 2013 at 5:15 am |
  4. Bootyfunk

    how christianity really began:

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krb2OdQksMc&w=640&h=390]

    December 14, 2013 at 5:02 am |
  5. Randy

    Why would u worry about what color Jesus is instead you should be trying to get Jesus in your life you hypocrites

    December 14, 2013 at 5:01 am |
    • Emma Goldman

      Jesus tells me that the hypocrite is alive in you.

      December 14, 2013 at 5:06 am |
    • dlindie

      If the face of your god is a lie – then all things surrounding it are suspect at best. Astonishing that you can overlook such hypocrisy and still call it "truth".

      December 14, 2013 at 5:11 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      jesus had long hair, great tan, washboard abs, hung out with 12 dudes and never got with a woman...

      dunno if he was white, but i'm pretty sure he was pro-g.ay marriage.

      December 14, 2013 at 5:17 am |
  6. hanover fist

    ...and Santa Claus spied for the nazis during ww2...got a full pardon from the alies to help us fight the russkies...true story...

    December 14, 2013 at 4:55 am |
  7. Emma Goldman

    Jesus and Santa are both the exact shade that each and every racist doesn't want them to be. Amen.

    December 14, 2013 at 4:54 am |
  8. Bootyfunk

    did jesus really believe he was the son of a non-existent deity?

    December 14, 2013 at 4:53 am |
    • dlindie

      Did anyone ever notice that they never saw Jesus and Santa in the same room? Think about it!

      December 14, 2013 at 4:55 am |
      • Bootyfunk

        same goes for hercules and santa!

        December 14, 2013 at 4:57 am |
      • Emma Goldman

        I think I love you! 💝

        December 14, 2013 at 5:08 am |
        • Bootyfunk

          woohoo!!!

          December 14, 2013 at 5:12 am |
  9. Quiz

    Q. Why is there no account of Jesus's feature and looks in the Bible?

    A. Because nobody who wrote it ever actually saw him.

    December 14, 2013 at 4:49 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      tru dat

      December 14, 2013 at 4:50 am |
  10. Gerry Ellenson

    When I was a social work graduate school intern at a long term treatment center for hard-to-place kids, I was doing play therapy with a 9-year old black child. Christmas was approaching and he chose to work in a coloring book. He referred to Santa as "that nice white man". I questioned why Santa had to be white and suggested he color him as African American. He had the biggest smile as he worked.

    December 14, 2013 at 4:40 am |
    • Emma Goldman

      😊💝💝

      December 14, 2013 at 4:51 am |
    • Evert van Vliet

      An african american, I thought we had all the nonsense covered already?

      Why do you think there are kids that are less easy to manipulate? Maybe because they still are humans (on one and the same planet) and confused like hell about all of this grown up craziness?

      I wouldn't sit there listening to any of it if I where them….coloring between the lines is a start to wash them too you know, no matter which color pencil is chosen the bills will start arriving soon enough!

      December 14, 2013 at 4:51 am |
      • Emma Goldman

        Too late. You are one of us. Now what are you going to do?

        December 14, 2013 at 4:56 am |
        • Evert van Vliet

          Time doesn't exist, now what?

          I happen to be one with myself, tolerate all of you.

          Or is that too early?

          December 14, 2013 at 5:13 am |
  11. Tony

    Christ was a Chaldean Jew who spoke Aramaic and looked Arabic. He's depicted as "white" by the Europeans not out of narcissism nor ethnocentrism, but through the purity of his countenance. It's that simple. This is a very simpic and obtuse argument. NOBODY CARES what he looked like; in fact, we really know through the Bible what his life was like for about its last 10 years. That's about it.

    December 14, 2013 at 4:36 am |
    • Bootyfunk

      yep, he'd look like a bronze-skinned hook-nosed jew - some of which are my best friends... but c'mon, he was the "king of the jews" - really think he was white? lol. blonde hair and blue eyes? haha.

      December 14, 2013 at 4:55 am |
  12. dlindie

    Jesus was created in the image of Cesare Borgia – son of Pope Alexander VI. At the time, the church was trying to conquer the holy lands. Tough to convince everyone that the brown people were the enemy when your god is the same color, so the pope conveniently replaced all images of Jesus with that of his son. Quite honestly – at this point nobody knows what Jesus truly looked like, if he ever even existed (Romans kept detailed records, yet there was no record of him anywhere, ever). Your god's "true" form lies buried deep in the vaults of the Vatican. If you think they'll ever let it out, good luck with that.

    December 14, 2013 at 4:33 am |
  13. chicago7

    I'm sure this has been said already somewhere in here, but Jesus was middle-eastern. That made him caucasian, but hardly blond, blue-eyed and button-nosed. Who cares anyway? What was important about him was internal, not external. If his outer appearance is what one is fixed on, that person is missing the entire point.

    December 14, 2013 at 4:31 am |
    • dlindie

      If the image is a lie -then the message is suspect. What else would you lie about if you can't even get your god's image correct? It is important because "truth" is important.

      December 14, 2013 at 4:36 am |
  14. dlindie

    All imaginary so Santa and Jesus are both

    A: Dead (at best)
    B: Imaginary
    C: Irrelevant
    D: All of the above

    December 14, 2013 at 4:25 am |
  15. worldcares

    What is white? Ubless one does their Genealogly, they will find, the term white, is fallacy.

    December 14, 2013 at 4:18 am |
    • worldcares

      Correction:
      What is white? Unless one does their Geneology, they will find, the term white, is a fallacy.

      December 14, 2013 at 4:26 am |
      • General Drey

        White is basically European. You know, Jesus' hood.

        December 14, 2013 at 4:45 am |
  16. Josie

    Santa is based off of Northern European Traditions, then to the Greeks and then finally modernized, sorry but he is historically a white man. Now Jesus if he existed would be Middle Eastern, even then they could be "white" by skin color but not cultural. Does it really matter? Santa teacher giving, Christ teacher forgiveness (coming from a Pagan and not a Christian). If you need them to be another color then fine, but with Santa PLEASE look up his history and traditions before claiming he would not be white, blacks claim we took their culture years ago but for some reason they want to do that to our own culture. Not all whites are racist because we are proud of our heritage, but we expect respect and understanding even if certain things have been modernized.

    December 14, 2013 at 4:13 am |
    • Evert van Vliet

      Okay one more…

      American traditions are based on European claims without any merit what-so-ever.

      Santa was the bishop of Myra situated in Turkey (if we go by 'modern' paint by numbers).

      Timothy "I can never remember a time I didn't want to be a priest." (already pretending to 'celebrate' mass as a child) however 'is' a full blooded american, that you can count on.

      December 14, 2013 at 4:33 am |
  17. Evert van Vliet

    Thanks for the 'discussion' folks, have a nice reason for the season.

    December 14, 2013 at 4:10 am |
  18. Evert van Vliet

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

    As far as I know he claimed way more stuff proven to be nonsense.
    Which doesn't make all he ever said nonsense.

    Religions in themselves are the same, 'just' like politics.

    And we all know that if 'it' looks like it, smells like it and quacks like it..well, it 'just' might be the case.

    December 14, 2013 at 4:05 am |
  19. JESUS

    MAKING JESUS WHITE IS WHITE IN AMERICA, IS WHAT HAS KEPT THE SOUTH DEEP INTO HIM. MIDDLE EASTERNERS ARE LIGHT TO MEDIUM BROWN. HAVE YOU EVER BEEN TO ISRAEL OR THEREABOUTS? MOST AMERICANS HAVE NOT TRAVELED.

    December 14, 2013 at 4:04 am |
    • Evert van Vliet

      One doesn't have to travel to realize we're talking a family feud based on the 'rights' to inherit way before there were banks around to pin it.

      December 14, 2013 at 4:09 am |
  20. th56

    For crying out loud. Jesus was born in the Middle East, He was not white. how can this even be an argument? Also Santa Claus is not real, he 's can be any color you want.

    December 14, 2013 at 4:00 am |
    • Emma Goldman

      Santa is REAL!

      December 14, 2013 at 5:02 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.