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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. Kevin Quail

    Who cares? jesus is as fictional as santa claus.

    http://www.jesusneverexisted.com/

    December 14, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
    • JimK57

      The website you refer to is laughable. I think a 13 year old made it.

      December 14, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
      • You fail

        Jim committed the fallacy of ad hominem.

        December 14, 2013 at 10:41 pm |
        • Mark

          More like ad websitum.

          December 14, 2013 at 11:41 pm |
  2. Rein Engel

    Arguing over the skin color of fictional characters? It amazes me that some American's have the balls to defend our media against so-called defilers.

    Jesus is one thing, but calling Santa white? Santa Claus is the person paying for and/or wrapping and/or caring enough to give presents to a child at Christmastime. If that person is white, then Santa is white. If that person is black, then Santa is black. If that person is purple, ten-feet tall, has two heads and spits fire than Santa is purple, ten-feet tall, has two heads and spits fire.

    THESE AREN'T REAL ISSUES. STOP REPORTING ON THIS TRIPE.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
  3. jd

    Well if we use SCIENCE and assume Jesus was a real human being then he was a hebrew of the time period which means he most probably had tan olive skin, dark brown eyes, a black beard and black curly hair. But then I dont think science means anything to any of the people discussing this even though they are using science to discuss in the form of television, computers and internet what irony or is it hypocrisy?

    December 14, 2013 at 10:36 pm |
    • dls2k2

      The hermetically sealed section of the brain where the goofy beliefs are housed isn't seen by the rational areas, nor does it see the rational areas. That's the only was to keep the goofy beliefs intact.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:23 pm |
      • dls2k2

        typo–'only way'

        December 14, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
  4. Steve

    Here is a question, why does anyone care? If you are Christian, you should be not caring, a spend those of us who are not Christian, just want you guys to shut up about the details of your fantasy world. It's like listening to Star Wars nerds discuss what Jedi were like 200 years before the events in episode 1. It doesn't matter because it's a fictional story, and episode 1 sucked anyway

    December 14, 2013 at 10:30 pm |
    • jarhead333

      It is kind of like how atheists are. You want to know how you can tell someone is an atheist? Wait 5 seconds, and they will tell you. I think the assumption is that Christians shove their religion down other peoples throats, but I think that may have been the way it used to be. Today, atheists will be the first ones to claim tolerance, yet still tell you that you are stupid for having a different belief.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:11 pm |
      • Santa Claws

        You say you are counting the number of Atheists to be those that have told you so. But how do know the number of Atheists who have not told you so? They never told you so how could you know? Or do you ask them all?

        December 14, 2013 at 11:38 pm |
      • JesusSuperHero

        > I think the assumption is that Christians shove their religion down other peoples throats.

        It's still true. Especially during this time of year. Carolers knocking on your door, and wishing to sing songs of mythology, most stores playing songs about round yon virgins. Stories of White Jesus on CNN... Even at work it's sometimes hard to escape the stuff. I have never had a non-religious person stop me in front of a store and try to hand propaganda. But with Christians, it happens a few times a year.

        Did you know that:

        "God Bless You", was originally a Roman expression: "Jupiter protect you"? The god changed from Jupiter to Yahweh.

        Jupiter was White too !

        December 14, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
        • jarhead333

          Like I said, you are the type of person that will walk into a room and make sure everyone knows that you are an atheist.

          December 20, 2013 at 11:53 pm |
  5. hubert39

    Whoa folks.. You have to understand.. Fox's Jesus is white, Christian, and born in Texas in 21th century. He was a oil man, a multimillionaire... and a Republican.
    We all know how Fox don't like the Jews, or people not born in the USA

    December 14, 2013 at 10:29 pm |
  6. phasevariance

    It's no wonder why CNN has no viewers or ratings.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
  7. Steve

    I don't know about this Jesus guy everyone is talking about, but my friend the tooth fairy is white... And a lesbian

    December 14, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
  8. The Creator

    My son was not white, he did not have light hair, he was not born on December 25th, and his name was not Jesus. You people are going farther and farther away.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:22 pm |
  9. Jib76

    Artist Akiane depicts Jesus in this YouTube video:
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49wut32Cguw&w=640&h=390]

    December 14, 2013 at 10:14 pm |
    • Klinger

      Na this came out on another blog: the whole time, Akiane was just painting Kenny Loggins who she had a thing for.

      Weirdness. Major.

      Disgusteen!!!

      December 14, 2013 at 11:27 pm |
  10. yo yo

    Every culture, race, or ethnic group in the world interprets God their own way and depicts him according to their own image. Christianity is no exception, it is one of the world's major religions; it has spread across the world and has many, MANY adherents. The global reach, extreme influence, and extreme importance of Christianity is largely due to the fact that the European races, largely Caucasoid, became the world's most dominant races as evidenced by their conquest and colonization of many parts of the world's major regions and because their religion invariably happened to be some form of Christianity, consequently, they gave the greater part of the world not only their languages, their customs, and their ideas, but also their religion including their version of what God looks like. Hence, a white Jesus, which in many places around the world, especially were Christianity is widely practiced, and were Europeans have had the most influence, remains the most recognizable depiction of the founder of Christianity. THAT is why Jesus has been depicted as white for over 2,000 years!

    December 14, 2013 at 10:12 pm |
    • Thinker

      We are made in the image of God as a spiritual being. Therefore, we all no mater of race or gender we all see ourselves reflections of God. God is an omnipotent being that transcends gender or race. Just as when we get to heaven we will transcend gender or race. We well are as one with God our master and our brother.

      December 14, 2013 at 10:41 pm |
      • Elaine

        If you are made in god's image, umm, no thanks. And get a more appropriate name.

        December 14, 2013 at 11:25 pm |
    • oo oo

      lol

      December 15, 2013 at 12:44 am |
  11. EdL

    Was Jesus white? Who should care? Jesus was Jesus. Jesus is Jesus.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
    • Steve

      Who is Jesus?

      December 14, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
  12. christine fridell

    It is not important if Jesus was black or white, although I believe he would be the colors of the people where He was born! The important MESSAGE is that HE is the ONLY SAVIOUR for our SOULS! Sign me the color of white. and yet I am every color. Christine

    December 14, 2013 at 10:10 pm |
  13. Jay David

    IIf Jesus came to Earth, the US Air Force would try to shoot Him down...because Jesus would look a lot like Osama bin Laden.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
    • Ooooooooookay . . .

      So Jesus would be flying, and the Air Force would shoot him down?

      December 15, 2013 at 12:24 am |
  14. oo oo

    Told u what Christ looked like.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:08 pm |
  15. oo oo

    Of course, they won't rebuke slimey son of Sam Bo, now will they?

    December 14, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
  16. oo oo

    I wish our athies would ask questions.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:05 pm |
  17. BuckRogere

    Jeezis hung around a lot.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:56 pm |
  18. sigturner

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=guCku3_pK7Q&w=640&h=390]

    December 14, 2013 at 9:54 pm |
  19. BuckRogere

    Michael Jackson was a poor Black boy who grew up to be a rich White woman – so I guess Jeezis could pull that trick also too.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:51 pm |
  20. Lana

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZeedE8vH1FQ&w=640&h=390]

    December 14, 2013 at 9:48 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.