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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. laststonecarver

    Personally, I'd like to thank Sam bo stoned for her contribution to the suicide of hunter's son. She should be applauded for all the work she does in the field of encouraging xtatds to kiss a 12 gauge.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:49 am |
  2. JESUS

    DOES IT MATER DOWN SOUTH? $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

    December 14, 2013 at 9:48 am |
  3. MrsFudd

    This really is easy. Just look at the facts. Jesus was born in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago. And where is Bethlehem? In Israel. And where is Israel? In the Middle East.

    So with these facts, we can come to the almost 100% conclusion that Jesus was Middle Eastern, which meant he had an olive skin complexion and dark hair and dark eyes. The Bible never describes His appearance, except that He was not extraordinary so that people would stop and point. He wasn't drop-dead gorgeous, a California surfer-dude with blonde hair and blue eyes, and He wasn't a body builder. He was just an average looking man, who changed the course of history. Being the Son of God does that.......................

    December 14, 2013 at 9:48 am |
  4. Juan

    This article is so stupid! What a waste of time CNN!

    December 14, 2013 at 9:47 am |
    • Charles

      Agreed.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:48 am |
  5. Lucky18

    Personally, I can't see Jesus as being "white"...I'm white, but my education doesn't allow for thinking with "blinders on".
    That area of the world is in North Africa, where men and women for centuries have been of color.
    Color, meaning, more olive toned towards brown in color.
    I'm sorry that the "white, blond, fair" woman making these remarks thinks otherwise. Maybe she's "color constipated"!!!
    JESUS, to my understanding, had to be a man of color, if he existed...and JEWISH!!!

    December 14, 2013 at 9:46 am |
  6. dreamhunk

    black Jesus debate

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=URnK6SNk47I&w=640&h=390]

    December 14, 2013 at 9:46 am |
  7. hamaca

    Sounds like we need another Council of Nicaea to vote on and decide the matter for everyone.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:45 am |
    • Georgetta

      Maybe they can call it the Council of Nivea this time and let Nivea sponsor it. Great for blending colors and making age spots miraculously disappear.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:51 am |
  8. dreamhunk

    ancient Hebrew dread locks
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NeLivTHoGag&w=640&h=390]

    December 14, 2013 at 9:45 am |
  9. Anthony Crispino

    Jesus coulda been black. But Satan is white. He's a real person like Judge Scalia said. My wife's groin doctor knows this guy who saw Satan toolin around over by a chemical plant in Elizabeth and says he looks just like any old white guy. He probably can shift shape himself tho.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:43 am |
  10. Matt Kruse

    Well its the status quo from CNN: Racial topics. All FoxNews wants to talk about is how Obama is the devil, and all CNN and MSNBC want to do is talk about how much of a perfect president he is and how racist Fox is. Think I'll check out BBC News for awhile.....

    December 14, 2013 at 9:41 am |
  11. dreamhunk

    ANCIENT hebrew HISTORY
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3aTGcv6eFyM&w=640&h=390]

    December 14, 2013 at 9:39 am |
  12. Roginn

    Isn't this the way Holy Wars are started. Hey I feel we should let everyone believe he looks just like them, as I do not believe what he looked like really matters I think it was his teaching and the Ten Commandments and the other teachings of God that really matters. And if I were God which I am not but if I was I would appear to each person in a familiar form to them.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:36 am |
    • Roginn

      I believe that if I was God which I am not but if I was, I would not only appear to particular persons in a form they are familiar with but also speak to them in a language they could understand and on a level and about subjects and particular things they could understand otherwise what we be the point of appearing to them and speaking to them at all.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:44 am |
  13. Graham

    Jesus was most likely not white, he was a mixture of Jewish and Arabic descent. The original St. Nick however was white, but that doesn't mean it's wrong to have a black Santa or a Santa of any race for that matter.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:36 am |
    • Whoops

      Actually Santa Clause was originally Saint Nicholas, born in what would probably be modern day Turkey. Most likely he'd look like a Middle Easterner too.

      December 14, 2013 at 10:09 am |
  14. Mike

    All this makes me think of the Buddha. From what I've read, he was a historical character, just as Mohammed was. I don't know about Jesus. Seems likely, but not certain.

    BUT, you see pictures of the Buddha looking like he was from India. When you see Chinese depictions of the Buddha, he looks Chinese in origin. It's like women referring to God as 'she', and men saying 'he' People want their leaders to look as they, the followers, do So, let people depict them as they choose.

    But, as people here are saying, if one needs to argue about this, one really is missing the whole point. I don't know of any teachings from any of the big three that talk about race.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:35 am |
    • almac64

      The truth in what you are saying, is indeed, that man created God in his own image.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:44 am |
  15. dreamhunk

    Black Jesus more proof
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TxWcqojtk2o&w=640&h=390]

    December 14, 2013 at 9:35 am |
  16. nautiusm

    United States of Indignant

    December 14, 2013 at 9:34 am |
  17. dreamhunk

    African Origins of Christianity by Rev. K. Price
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tMepcFS9Ofs&w=640&h=390]

    December 14, 2013 at 9:31 am |
  18. Jesus Claus

    Simply saying Jesus was Jewish doesn't disprove that he was white. You can be whatever skin color and be Jewish. I think Americans are the only people that actively argue that Jesus is white on the contemporary. Get your facts and history straight please. There are Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews: Ashkenazi are Central and Eastern European Jews I guess you can say they are mainly white Caucasians. On the other hand, Sephardi Jews are Middle Eastern descent. Jesus was a Sephardi THATS WHY HE IS NOT WHITE PERIOD

    December 14, 2013 at 9:30 am |
  19. dreamhunk

    African Jews may have the lost Ark
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d39-MdCL0IE&w=640&h=390]

    December 14, 2013 at 9:27 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.