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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. Ski

    Santa was a "white" Anglo-Saxon. That's a fact. Period. Jesus on the other hand, was not "white." He was middle-eastern, and quite possibly Iraqi. That's another fact. Everyone acts like marketing is a modern era thing. Garbage... Christianity had to be marketed, so Jesus became white. Old European leaders, kings, would not praise a middle-eastern figure.

    December 14, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • lol??

      Iraq did have a claim on Kuwait that should have been settled in a court.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • yalesouth

      well since the father usually acs as santa, santa is whatever race your family is

      December 14, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • aaron

      Iraqi? Fact? That is just plain wrong. Try Jewish. He was a Jewish rabbi, born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth. He looked like any other man born in Israel, probably olive skinned. More than likely had black hair. Not very attractive according to scriupture.
      But Iraqi? Not a fact.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
  2. yalesouth

    One believes in Jesus out of faith. He can assume whateve image you wish/

    December 14, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
  3. Balthazaar

    Go to Israel. You will find there is no specific color for Jewish. They range from Eastern European lily white to Ethiopian dark chocolate. Gowever, Jesus wqs a Jew from. Specific region of the world born of a long line of people from that specific region of the world. Jesus would look a whole lot more like a Palestinian Jew than like Brad Pitt.......

    December 14, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • Dr.Nova

      I am reading so many misinformed comments. As a cultural anthropologist from Israel, please allow me to explain it as I understand it:

      Jesus was from Nazareth, if you go back in history, Hebrews were a darker people, but the exodus to Europe, changed the make-up of what was considered Jewish. The ancient Hebrews look very much like the Arabs that reside in Nazareth today. Those that did not leave, they were not yet Arab, nor were they Muslim. Many became converts of Jesus, and some remained Christians until the Muslim conquest came through. Many converted, though others didn't, and Nazareth became a mix of Arab Muslims and Arab Christians. Many families have been in Nazareth since before the time of Jesus and those families remain there, all are considered Arabs today. The Arabs and the Jews who remained in the Arab world after the Exodus, and virtually indistinguishable, when dressed in similar clothing, you cannot tell them apart aside from their language and mannerisms.

      Jesus probably looked similar to a modern day Arab Christian resident of Nazareth – the idea of a Middle-Eastern looking God was just too devastating to European and early Americans that they made Jesus into their own image.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:24 pm |
  4. Colin

    I expect that future historians will see the survival of Greco-Roman Judean mythology into the 21st Century as one of the greatest paradoxes of 21st Century Western civilization.

    “As late as the 21st Century, large numbers of Europeans and North Americans still believed in the mythology of the Greco-Roman Jews, including a god that supervised them every second of their lives for the purposes of reward or punishment in an afterlife, the ability to influence future events by silently praying to this god and the notion that this god created not only the entire World, but the observable Universe. This is quite remarkable for a culture and a people who were, otherwise, quite advanced.”

    December 14, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
    • lol??

      Yeah and the national debt. They think they are FREE and, ahem clear.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Possibly those historians will be descendants of raccoons. They will go on to comment that though we had the technology and resources to do great things we did not have the will to do so. We dissipated ourselves on short-term prosperity believing that the world's end was imminent and eternal paradise was at hand. We went extinct while waiting.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
  5. Jerry MacLean

    I am laughing my ass off........ as i am an atheist............ and not worried skin color of fictional characters!!!.

    December 14, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
    • lol??

      If yer ass is grass, does that make you green??

      December 14, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • Balthazaar

      Jesus was not fictional. You can think whatever you like about his divinity or the tales pf miracles. But he clearly existed.

      Equally, there was a Saint Nikolaus. However, the Santa create by Coca Cola for marketing in the US is a fictional character.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
      • Matthew Grant

        Just because you say that Jesus exist does not make it true. There is no historical evidence that support your claim. Now, if you want to proof me wrong, then please do. Show me some historical record that support your claim. Many people have tried but not one person has been able to show this.

        December 14, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
    • bigcatdaddy76016

      Jerry MacLean...you better hope you're right.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
      • truthprevails1

        Pascals Wager-look it up!

        December 14, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
  6. lostsociety

    This whole argument is stupid.

    December 14, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
    • Balthazaar

      More accurately, fox news and their empty headed talking heads are stupid.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
      • Chris

        Nope, he's right – this whole argument is stupid. That fact that CNN and so many other people are focusing yet again on race rather than the deeds of Jesus and what he represents is, in fact, stupid. So, continue to blame FOXNEWS, CNN, MSNBC or whoever else you want. The whole thing is ridiculous and is brought up as needless mud-slinging this time of year, every year. Quite un-Jesus-like. He was Jewish, get over it and move on. Next topic, please.

        December 14, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  7. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    The important thing is not Jesus' appearance (Santa Claus is a tool of advertising and so is irrelevant) but how he thinks. Is he a white man in his head? How does he stand on the Second Amendment? We know how he stands on the First. Does he love Texas? What about fracking? Drilling on tree-hugger land in Alaska? American football? Laissez-faire health care? Personal prosperity? A really good truck? Paul Ryan? Or always being in the right? White skin does not make a white man.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  8. Norma Watkins

    .....and why would it be an issue if Jesus is white? This is a discriminatory question?

    December 14, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  9. TELLINGITLIKEISEEIT

    From creation of the world, and until one of the sons of Adam and Eve disgraced human race one was condemned to have his descendants be black skinned, which would mean Jesus and all the "do-gooders" were white skinned. St. Nick is a "do-gooder" so he's white.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  10. Raven

    Don't we have any other problems in this country? I really don't care what skin color your imaginary friend has.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • EDMUNDBURKESON

      You, my friend, are much closer to being imaginary than Jesus. When you pass, there will still be better evidence for Christ than for you.

      December 14, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
      • truthprevails1

        Oh and you know this how?????????

        December 14, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
      • Matthew Grant

        That is ridiculous. That person can easy show proof of his/her existences. But there is no evidence at all that God exist.

        December 14, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
    • cjacja

      I think he was a historical figure. Why would anyone think he looked different from everyone else who lived at that time and location?

      Yes some people think this guy had some magic super powers or whatever. That is a fantasy but he really did live and say things that upset a lot of people so they killed him.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:08 pm |
  11. Rainer Braendlein

    Certainly the historical Jesus had a certain color. Yet, the Church, Jesus Christ's mystical body today, is multi-colored. Therefore, don't discuss Jesus' color but seek the real Church, or restore her. Color back and forth, we need pastoral care for our toasted souls. This care can deliver the real Church of Jesus Christ.

    The incarnated God Jesus spent a period of time of about 30 years on earth. At the one side he was the ordinary carpenter Jesus, Joseph's son, from Nazareth living in Capernaum at Lake Tiberias, on the other side supernatural power came from him, he was sacral. When Jesus spoke with somebody that was more than human talk. When Jesus spoke with somebody, at the same time Christ or God spoke with the certain person. People which encountered Jesus in fact encountered God or the whole Godhead. That was the special thing and mystery of Jesus. Meeting Jesus meant to get into God's presence.

    However, today Jesus is beyond, and no longer in our world.

    How can we get into God's presence today?

    Is there a temple? The Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed 70 after Christ, therefore this possibility is cancelled. Is there another temple? Yes, thank God, there is the Christian Church. The Christian Church is the place of God's presence today. Through sacral acts of the whole Church we get into God's presence, and that conforms an encounter with the earthly Jesus former times.

    The Church, of course, consists of people of all nations, colours, status, ranks, etc.

    Conclusion: It plays no role if Jesus was red, black, white or yellow. The historical Jesus who certainly had a certain color is represented today through a multi-tude of people of different colour.

    Don't discuss about the colour of the historical Jesus but join his Church where you can still meet him today. The Church, Christ's mystical body.

    What is the Christian Church?

    The real Church preaches discipleship of Jesus on the basis of the releasing power of his sacrifice. This power is dedicated to us through sacramental baptism. Discipleship is kept through Lord's Supper and private confession of sins. I admit that it is hard or nearly impossible to find such a church today. Let us pray.

    If Jesus would return today, would he find the faith on earth? Hardly, or does anybody know better?

    December 14, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
    • Vic

      Good and level minded understanding. God saves us out of His Love and Grace through our Faith in Him, and not because of our own merits.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
      • Rainer Braendlein

        Of course, but the same grace forgiving us wants to change our lives, and that takes places by means of the church: pastoral care, privat confession, Lord's Supper, sermons, etc..

        Only when we follow Jesus, we can also believe that his sacrifice was an atonement for us.

        It would be outraeous when we go our own ways, and would still believe that Jesus sacrifice would be valid for us. That cannot be true.

        December 14, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
  12. snipdog88

    Interesting. Santa was white, but Jesus most likely was not. Santa is 'definitely' white, and there is no doubt about it. It was a fictional creation to celebrate quasi pagan rituals, with religious undertones. Jesus was safardic (sp?) and probably looked more like a middle easterner and/or black north african. The caucasian portrayal of him was done by europeans, needing him to look like them. One writer above says there is no evidence that Jesus actually existed. I disagree. There is writings and references by other non religious sources. I 'think' its more realistic that there was someone. The much "bigger" issue is, who was he really??? And did the catholic church label him serveral hundered years post history, as the son of god so it could say it was the one true religion? In other words, was it just a marketing ploy....'hey we've got the son of god' so we are the true religion. Thats the real question. He may have just been some exceptional person like Mother Teresa, that was artificially inflated to provide some other meaning for church purposes. Thats more likely. And he looked like the people from that area.....not like a northern european from a snow climate, as depicted in west civ...thats just silly.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • lol??

      Julie Julie Julie

      December 14, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • Dan

      Are Caucasians concerned Whites? If they are, both Santa and Jesus are white. Jesus is a Jew and they are Caucasians. Saint Nicolas is European and they are Caucasians. The modern day Santa is from the Dutch (Sinterklaas) and they are Caucasians. I'm Asian and I don't have a problem with that. Jesus is white, Santa Claus is fictional so he can be what you want him to be.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
  13. tony b

    i am jewish. jews are white. Jesus was a jew. He was white. Was Martin Luther King Jr white?

    December 14, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • lol??

      Was he too old for the draft??

      December 14, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • jack

      jews are not white

      December 14, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
      • Dan

        Jews are Caucasians/White.

        December 14, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • Eric

      Ashkenazis (the white-skinned jews who live in America) are 90% european, and are therefore more-or-less white. (Racist caucasians would disagree with this however). Ethnic jews (the ones who live in the middle east and have brown skin) are Semitic, not Caucasian.

      If you were actually a jew, you would know this already, and wouldn't need a goy to explain it to you.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
    • JonS

      As a fellow Jew, I'm a bit disappointed in your comment. Not all Jews are white – check Ethiopian Jews – but I did think we were all at least reasonably intelligent. Apparently I was wrong.

      December 14, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
  14. 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 |
  15. PeteZ

    Was Jesus white, black or Michael Jackson? We will ask him when he makes the second coming.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  16. blackendrose

    Okay.. every one is getting offended about the race of two made up Characters.. I have never seen a black person have pictures of a white Jesus hanging around their house... and thats not raciest..

    December 14, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • tessie may

      No it is an attempt to create their own God in their own image. It has no historical basis at all. A middle eastern Jew is black? Does it make you feel better to know he wasn't blond and blue eyed either? Santa, who cares? He is a commercial creation-a true myth. The connection with St Nicholas has been lost many, many years ago. I feel whenever I see a black Jesus that the people that display him don't really believe in him at all. They clearly aren't acquainted with the facts of history or geography, much less Christianity. They only believe in somebody who looks like them.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:18 pm |
  17. Rainer Braendlein

    Certainly the historical Jesus had a certain color. Yet, the Church, Jesus Christ's mystical body today, is multi-colored. Therefore, don't discuss Jesus' color but seek the real Church, or restore her.

    The incarnated God Jesus spent a period of time of about 30 years on earth. At the one side he was the ordinary carpenter Jesus, Joseph's son, from Nazareth living in Capernaum at Lake Tiberias, on the other side supernatural power came from him, he was sacral. When Jesus spoke with somebody that was more than human talk. When Jesus spoke with somebody, at the same time Christ or God spoke with the certain person. People which encountered Jesus in fact encountered God or the whole Godhead. That was the special thing and mystery of Jesus. Meeting Jesus meant to get into God's presence.

    However, today Jesus is beyond, and no longer in our world.

    How can we get into God's presence today?

    Is there a temple? The Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed 70 after Christ, therefore this possibility is cancelled. Is there another temple? Yes, thank God, there is the Christian Church. The Christian Church is the place of God's presence today. Through sacral acts of the whole Church we get into God's presence, and that conforms an encounter with the earthly Jesus former times.

    The Church, of course, consists of people of all nations, colours, status, ranks, etc.

    Conclusion: It plays no role if Jesus was red, black, white or yellow. The historical Jesus who certainly had a certain color is represented today through a multi-tude of people of different colour.

    Don't discuss about the colour of the historical Jesus but join his Church where you can still meet him today. The Church, Christ's mystical body.

    What is the Christian Church?

    The real Church preaches discipleship of Jesus on the basis of the releasing power of his sacrifice. This power is dedicated to us through sacramental baptism. Discipleship is kept through Lord's Supper and private confession of sins. I admit that it is hard or nearly impossible to find such a church today. Let us pray.

    If Jesus would return today, would he find the faith on earth? Hardly, or does anybody know better?

    December 14, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • Jill

      Rainer Braendlein, don't obfuscate the primary prenuptials with rasberries. Often, the pertinent cat presents fabled necessities in the parking chamfer. Realize your net precedent. Triangulate! Save the best for the alligators. Ever the bastille notches the orchestra but Wendy is not green and horses will capitulate. Filter out the log from the turnstile and cry prevalently.

      So there brown stare. Feed your inner walnut and resolve. Subject your lemon to the ingenious door in the presence of snow and animals. Aisle 7 is for the monetary cheese whiz. Faced with the kitchen, you may wish to prolong the sailboat in the cliff. Otherwise, rabbits may descend on your left nostril. Think about how you can stripe the sea.

      Regale the storm to those who (6) would thump the parrot with the armband. Corner the market on vestiges of the apparent closure but seek not the evidential circumstance. Therein you can find indignant mountains of pigs and apples. Descend eloquently as you debate the ceiling of your warning fulcrum. Vacate the corncob profusely and and don’t dote on the pancreas.

      Next up, control your wood. Have at the cat with your watch on the fore. Aft! Smarties (12)! Rome wasn’t kevetched in an autumn nightie. (42) See yourself for the turntable on the escalator. Really peruse the garage spider definitely again again with brown. Now we have an apparent congestion, so be it here. Just a moment is not a pod of beef for the ink well nor can it be (4) said that Karen was there in the millpond.

      Garbage out just like the candle in the kitty so. Go, go, go until the vacuum meets the upward vacation. Sell the yellow. Then trim the bus before the ten cheese please Louise. Segregate from the koan and stew the ship vigorously.

      And remember, never pass up an opportunity to watch an elephant paint Mozart.

      December 14, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
  18. a white jew

    Alicia Silverstone, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Seth Green, River and Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johanson, David Arquette, Mila Kunis, , Laura Preppon, Daniel Radcliffe, Michelle Trachtenberg, Mayim Bialik, Jennifer Connelly, Corey Feldman... all Jews like Jesus. Are they non-white too? Sammy Davis Jr. converted, guys.

    December 14, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • Akira

      Yes, their middle eastern roots show.

      December 14, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
  19. IReason

    Sorry, but only idiots care about the answer to this question

    December 14, 2013 at 1:42 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.