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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. Paul A.Hughes

    For all of you Jesus looked exactly like any other JEWISH man of his time. He didn't walk around with a halo above His head. Jesus was a Jew. I have no idea why so many have a problem with this. He was dark skinned as was everyone else in that region. Good grief people.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
  2. Reasonable

    Jesus was neither white nor black. Maybe he had a darker skin color, olive skin, like the most of the dwellers of the region he was born in.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  3. adrienne saltus

    Just a very brief statement.

    Two men I admire and want to act like..
    St Nick, Charitable Contibutor~ gave food to the poor
    White

    Dr. Martin Luther King
    Should be cannonized, but stood up for his beliefs of righteousness, freedom, and liberty
    Black

    Regardless of the race, color, ethnicty~ we need more Role Models like the above to help all mankind!!!!
    Peace and Love ~lets make it a constant in 2014, not a life of death and destruction

    December 14, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • lol??

      Didn't King get shot?? I'm not sure it was a cannon, though. Probably a mob hit from a rogue Public Servant.

      December 14, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
  4. dr. wayne

    Jesus WHITE? ABSOLUTELY!! evil is and always will be black

    December 14, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  5. al thea

    Does it matter?

    December 14, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  6. David Finn

    White? There's practically no evidence that Jesus was an actual historical person at all. Outside the two non-scriptural references, Josephus and Tacitus, both suspected forgeries inserted hundreds of years later, there's every indication that Jesus is nothing more than an amalgamation of various myths and savior figures. The story isn't even original. It's would be like someone copied the superman story almost word for word and then just called him ultra-man instead. If Jesus did exist he would obviously have been of Mediterranean descent and certainly not a modern looking Caucasian, but that very existence is dubious at best. Santa Clause has more textual support for being based on a real person than Jesus. The whole debate is just silly.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • lol??

      Got any myths from 278K BC??

      December 14, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • Protinga

      David, can you direct me to sources that argue that the Josephus and Tacitus inserts are forgeries? I never that before, despite knowing this period of history well. Thanks.

      December 14, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
      • R.Williams

        Here's a link that argues both sides. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/testimonium.html

        Some of it can be pretty dense, but there are quite a few citations to follow as well

        December 14, 2013 at 9:45 pm |
  7. Mopery

    I'd like to take a moment to thank to the Founding Fathers for my ability to blaspheme without fear of reprisal from the delusional worshipers of these imaginary beings.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • dls2k2

      Amen!!

      December 14, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • lol??

      Got any proof??

      December 14, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • dr. wayne

      thanks for the info but I imagine your wife(if you have one) has a pu($$)y.... I have never seen your wife's ($)natch but I believe she has one. Don't try to understand something you don't have enough brainpower for....

      December 14, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
      • Mopery

        I think Megyn is probably right about Santa being white, all those Elf slaves are forced to make the toys after all...

        December 14, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  8. Stone

    The only "white" person I ever knew was Michael Jackson.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • lol??

      And he had Liz Taylor eating out of his hand, such a nice jewish princess. She knew how to call her men, Master!

      December 14, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  9. Stone

    I love Megyn Kelly. She is beautiful and smart. The exact opposite of the beef cake females on the left.. By the way, Santa does BRING presents...

    December 14, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  10. flcox

    C'mon CNN. Really? The color of Jesus' skin? Don't you people have enough editorial decision making sense to earn your compensation packages by focusing on your network's core value, real news and need-to-know information? I am white and could care less about whether someone expresses that the Lord was this or that race, color, or ethnicity. What matters is who He is. What's next media geniuses, speculation about the minimum effort required to pole vault over a mouse dropping?

    December 14, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • Thinker...

      I'd say they do have great editorial decision making. There are a ridiculous number of comments here (that all say pretty much the same couple of things) and I am sure that there are plenty of hits. CNN is making money on it and they are happy. Jounalism takes back seat to sensationalism since news orgs make more money on the latter than the former.

      December 16, 2013 at 9:54 am |
    • Thinker...

      I'd say they do have great editorial decision making. There are a ridiculous number of comments here (that all say pretty much the same couple of things) and I am sure that there are plenty of hits. CNN is making money on it and they are happy. Journalism takes back seat to sensationalism since news orgs make more money on the latter than the former.

      December 16, 2013 at 9:54 am |
      • Thinker...

        And double post. Gotta love my internet connection here.

        December 16, 2013 at 9:55 am |
  11. PeteZ

    The god is white and his son jesus was white. Actually the God is of Swedish descent and Jesus mom was Italian.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
  12. dls2k2

    Before worrying about the color of his skin, it needs to be established whether there was an historical Jesus, or if he was merely a product of the fevered imaginations of those who dreamed up the rest of the Christian mythology (Joseph/Mary, manger, son of god, resurrection, ad nauseum).

    December 14, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • John

      The 'fact' that there was a historical person named Jesus of Nazareth has been proven several times over in secular texts of the time (e.g. the Roman Josephus). His divinity is what may be debated.

      December 14, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
      • dls2k2

        "Proven" is a strong word. I suspect the "fact' is not quite as factual as you claim.

        December 14, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  13. djean

    satan is white

    December 14, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
  14. dwayne

    Santa is white. Fat Albert is black. Period.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
    • Akira

      That's what you got from this story?

      December 14, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Sarah

      Both are cartoon characters

      December 14, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
  15. Mopery

    Megyn Kelly knows, her burning bush told her so!

    December 14, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  16. Joe

    Jesus was a Nazarene. Jewish. He was the same color as all the muslims we're so terrified of. Only he had a different belief system. He wasn't white, and I don't pretend him to be.

    Santa Clause however, is a fictional character that has always been white. That's just how it is. Sorry to everyone that would rather him be black, yellow, or green.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  17. Gawd

    Stop perpetuating these myths! You are keeping people ignorant when you do this.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
  18. scy385

    Santa Claus does not exist and nobody speaking knows what Jesus was because none of us were there. Considering the area Jesus was said to have lived in is just about all we have to go on.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
  19. PeteZ

    What bond haired people at Fox do not know is Jesus was a staunch socialist.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
    • lol??

      Nope, He set up the patriarchal system.

      December 14, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
  20. Jib76

    Here is what Jesus looks like:
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49wut32Cguw&w=640&h=390]

    December 14, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
    • Akira

      What a lovely, talented young lady.

      December 14, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
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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.