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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. lol??

    Traditionally the mob can afford the best attorneys, judges and bagmen. However, they can't afford Jesus.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:46 pm |
  2. dencal26

    I have to laugh at all the loons who think a Northern European folklore character named Santa was anything but white. I guess Leprechauns were Chinese . Maybe Hercules was a Mohawk Indian and Thor was really an Aboriginal from Australia. When will this far left madness end? Its beyond the point of stupid.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
    • lol??

      How 'bout some myths from say,300K years ago??

      December 14, 2013 at 11:48 pm |
    • Lila

      Saint Nicholas was from a part of Greece that's currently Turkey. Take a look at your average Turkish dude – that's Saint Nicholas. He's not Nordic.

      Personally I'm more upset that we haven't retained Santa-adjacent characters like Krampus and Black Peter. You want Saint Nick, you should have to get his terrifying child-abducting helpers in the bargain.

      December 15, 2013 at 12:36 am |
  3. Tennesseean

    Jesus of Nazareth was from . . . Nazareth. Right in the middle of present day Israel, surrounded by Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. Judging from the folks living in those areas today, I can't imagine him being very white.

    On a side note, Fox News has won again by getting everyone to talk about them and increasing their public exposure and therefore ratings. Whether or not they are actually a news organization is yet another debate . . .

    December 14, 2013 at 11:40 pm |
    • dencal26

      Really? You don't think President Assad in Syria is white? He could easily pass for French or Italian. Most Lebanese I know are white.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
      • lol??

        Since when are the French white?? The payback for stiffin' em in the 1st war was the Trojan horse, lady liberty.

        December 14, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
      • Kate Johnson

        The significant problem with equating what folks in the Middle East look like today vs 2000 years ago, is that there's been a tremendous amount of inter marriage with Western Europeans. The idea that Jesus was white is moronic IMO, however in the end, completely irrelevant. IMO it always says more about the person insisting on it than anything else. Fox's News' profoundly repulsive and spiritually retarded Megyn is a great example of the phenomenon. The only thing scripture really says is that he was nothing special to look at, and there was nothing about him that would make him stand out. Seems like that make being white a sea of brown faces would stand out....just sayin'

        December 15, 2013 at 12:30 am |
    • dencal26

      I think you need some lessons. Fox New may do you some good

      I suggest you Google photo's of the past 5 Lebanese Presidents

      Michel Suleiman
      Michel Aoun
      Elias Hrawi
      Émile Lahoud
      Fouad Siniora

      They are all white.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:50 pm |
      • honeyindigo

        you are nuts if you think any of the men you listed are white. their skin tones are nowhere near white nor do they remotely look white!

        December 15, 2013 at 12:04 am |
        • Dan J

          My mom is Iraqi. She has red hair, green eyes, freckles and lily white skin. The middle east is more diverse than you think. If you think most middle eastern people look a certain way, well, that's ignorant and mildly racist.
          Guess what? The U.S. government classifies middle eastern people as white. From a legal standpoint, to call an arab anything but white is wrong.

          December 15, 2013 at 12:22 am |
  4. Ed

    I'm an atheist, so honestly I don't care one way or the other. But given Christian philosophy, I'm trying to understand why this point even matters.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
    • jarhead333

      Ed, I am a Christian. It does not matter. I think articles like this one are just points for people to argue. I am not sure that I have ever seen an article here that would change the mind of a single person.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:44 pm |
      • Paul

        "You" does not matter. And yet "you" is matter.

        December 14, 2013 at 11:47 pm |
        • Wendell

          I disagree. What are your bases for saying that?

          December 14, 2013 at 11:48 pm |
      • Ed

        An answer I can get along with. Flamers below

        December 14, 2013 at 11:54 pm |
        • Ed

          Sorry, I should have specified jarhead333 specifically. No else is making any sense

          December 14, 2013 at 11:56 pm |
        • jarhead333

          Just imagine if people actually cared about people. The division in our own country is what makes things so difficult. People seem to take the word Freedom as the freedom to hate and ridicule each other. Instead, it could be the freedom to respect and care for our own country. Instead, people argue about the color of Santa versus Jesus. LOL!

          December 15, 2013 at 12:02 am |
        • Ted

          Religion is a bigger cause of violence and conflict worldwide than race is. Religion is actually also more clearly defined, generally, whereas race is a nebulous, artificial concept not well-founded in genetic reality. Not that religion generally is founded in any reality either, but religions tends to be clearly demarked.

          December 15, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
      • Kate Johnson

        I agree jarhead333. It doesn't matter. It's just an opportunity for people who, instead of being useful in the world, want to run around arguing over completely irrelevant crud. It so much easier to give into our fallen us vs them nature, than actually apply the principles that Jesus advocated. Natural vs Supernatural. Too bad some of the loudest voices are from the poorest examples.

        December 15, 2013 at 12:35 am |
        • jarhead333

          In all honesty, I get sucked into it too. It is a huge problem. At times, I can have ill will towards those who attack my personal faith. I think the most important thing is to remember that we are all PEOPLE, regardless of our faith.

          December 15, 2013 at 12:53 am |
        • Evert van Vliet

          I'd call 'it' one's perceived 'reality' though, there's nothing personal about what 'others' claim to be real.

          And yes, we are all people, that is the bottom line any 'faith' (other than our very own by observing and reasoning) systematically undermines….(including national and monetary rules which provide the 'rights' to inherit what-ever comes in handy).

          Let's face it, non would be possible if little kids wouldn't be taught it to 'be' the norm.

          It's ALL FAKE though!

          December 15, 2013 at 1:17 am |
    • dencal26

      It would only matter if a white guy bought an Afro Wig and called himself Shaft. Then the chit would hit the fan

      December 14, 2013 at 11:52 pm |
      • Kyte

        White men hardly have shafts.

        December 14, 2013 at 11:56 pm |
        • Evert van Vliet

          If you say so, but then again we do know how to switch the fan to 'high'….duck!

          December 15, 2013 at 1:18 am |
  5. mike

    How about proving the existence of this specific person before discussing what color his skin is.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:33 pm |
  6. g baker

    Jesus was a Jew born in the middle east. He was neither black or white! There is no argument about this so move on.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
    • dencal26

      Jews in the Middle East were white. They had darker complexions like Southern Italians do but they are still white. I have Sephardic friends who would slap you if you called them anything than white. Lets not confuse complexion within a race .

      December 14, 2013 at 11:40 pm |
      • Wendell

        Your Sephardic friends look pretty negroid to me.

        I don't think your homies gonna come get me now. Just sayin...

        December 14, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
      • Lila

        You're conflating the Sephardic Jewish practices with the group of people who refer to themselves as "Sephardic Jews". Besides, Sephardic Jews are a group who spent a long period of time in the Iberian peninsula (until getting kicked out 1500-ish), so it's hard to say that modern Sephardic Jews can be used as a baseline when trying to determine the "whiteness" of a Jew who lived 2000 years ago in a totally different place. As insular as communities get, the modern-day Sephardic Jew will have a lot of non-Sephardic, European ancestors in their family tree, just based on geography.

        According to modern populations, Jesus was likely Mizrahi in appearance.

        December 15, 2013 at 12:46 am |
  7. lol??

    Who needs the Nephilim to return when the Beaties sponsor university and corporate research in genetics?? DIY suicide.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
  8. Jeebusss

    Let's argue over the race of pretend people more. Yeah.......this country is made primarily of f***ing mørøns.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
    • lol??

      Socially, genetically, and mentally engineered.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:33 pm |
  9. Jeff6187

    I either laugh or cry when people interpret the Bible so literally as to cut out their own dogma and blame it on God. To these people especially, how about this: God made man in his own image. So God is necessarily white ... and black ... and middle eastern ... and old ... and young .... and healthy .... and sick ... And since Jesus is God incarnate, this debate is over. Jesus is simply ALL OF THE ABOVE!

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

      Now that's hilarious. How is it that this word of god is open to my interpretation? Where is god's website or even an FB page to sort it out modern time -like? Lame lame lame god ya made there. Sheeeeeesh!

      And if god made you in his image, uhhh, no thanx.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
  10. Shee

    Superb commentary. Personally I (a Caucasian woman) believe Jesus, as a Jewish man in the Middle East, would likely have been dark. Frankly, I don't care, but I'm a bit flummoxed by folks who believe a Middle-Eastern Jew would have been WHITE. .

    December 14, 2013 at 11:21 pm |
    • Shaunie

      Shee, you lookin a bit on the dark side. Ever ask yo mamma about the woodlot dayzzz? y'all remember now tshh tshh.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
      • Joe R.

        English please.

        December 14, 2013 at 11:51 pm |
        • Joe R.

          Mo Ingleesh yo!

          December 14, 2013 at 11:53 pm |
    • dencal26

      There is a difference between white complexion and white race. Mediterranean Europeans tend to have darker skin too. But they are white. Someone from Southern Italy is far darker than someone from Tuscany in general. Jews around the world tend to be very light with the exception of Israeli's and Sephardics.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:55 pm |
      • Ed

        No their isn't.

        December 14, 2013 at 11:58 pm |
  11. oO Oo

    when the one who left us here returns 4 us at last
    We are but a moments sunlight
    Fading in the grass
    C'mon people now,
    Smile on your brother
    Ev'rybody get together
    Try and love one another right now
    If you hear the song I sing,
    You must understand
    You hold the key to love and fear
    All in your trembling hand
    Just one key unlocks them both
    It's there at your command
    C'mon people now,
    Smile on your brother
    Ev'rybody get together
    Try and love one another right now
    come on people try to love one another right now

    the youngbloods

    December 14, 2013 at 11:21 pm |
  12. Visara

    Jesus was not white. How can someone who never existed be white?

    December 14, 2013 at 11:18 pm |
  13. Brian

    Not only are Jesus and Santa white, but they both live in Texas, are republicans, own a stockpile of guns, attend baptist church and hate anyone who doesn't believe as they do.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
  14. jarhead333

    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 11:16 pm |
    • Henrik

      Dar ist Jar! Hein! What is that have to do with nothing yo? Stupid stupid stupid.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:20 pm |
    • Elaine

      jarhead, don't conflate stupidity and tolerance. Yes, the Christian beliefs are stupid, but whether or not one tolerates them is separate.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:23 pm |
      • jarhead333

        Most atheists claim to be tolerant, unless it is a Christian.

        December 14, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
        • Elaine

          Umm, how many atheists do you know who are Christian? Uh mebbe ya wanna try that one again, hunny.

          December 14, 2013 at 11:31 pm |
        • jarhead333

          Try again sweetheart. I meant that most atheists claim to be tolerant of everyone, unless they are a Christian.

          December 14, 2013 at 11:32 pm |
        • jarhead333

          Meaning atheist claim to be tolerant of people UNLESS the person is a Christian. Seems hypocritical is all.

          December 14, 2013 at 11:34 pm |
        • Elaine

          Don't think I'm gonna be referencing you for philosophical questions like the existence of a god, hun. Now give mommy her keyboard back, K, sweets?

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

          That's cute. As if you had philosophical questions. Didn't you know? Atheist already know everything.

          December 14, 2013 at 11:41 pm |
        • Mark

          Physical ad hominems for people you can't see...must be freak night out at the No K corral.

          December 14, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
        • jarhead333

          Physical ad hominem is new. Did you make that up?

          December 15, 2013 at 12:03 am |
    • Lila

      Ha. In social situations with friends an atheist might come out with their non-belief system, but I can tell you right now that we don't generally bring it up in any situation that could have career or education implications. It happened just this week – a client assumed I'm Christian, and I very carefully did NOT correct the perception because of the way atheists are perceived by certain religious people.

      It's more of an impact than you think.

      December 15, 2013 at 12:33 am |
      • jarhead333

        Do you think that only happens for atheists? I have also had instances where I wonder whether or not if I reveal my beliefs will effect a situation.

        December 15, 2013 at 12:43 am |
        • Lila

          You kicked this off with "You want to know how you can tell someone is an atheist? Wait 5 seconds, and they will tell you." I'm telling you that's incredibly unlikely.

          Most atheists are quite happy for you to believe whatever you want – we get tetchy when you start insisting that we ALSO believe what you believe, or at least that we shut up and not put up any sort of fight. I totally don't care if you believe in Christ, I just don't want to making my kid dress as an angel and sing Christian songs. I'd also prefer you not use my tax money to buy a new nativity scene for the town square. Basically, believe what you like, just don't pretend it's fact rather than belief.

          Whole thing's ridiculous anyway. Christmas is only Christmas because some canny politicos realized their new religion would never be more important than the pagan midwinter festivals, and so they just imposed their belief set on top of the existing holiday and then said "mine! All of it, mine!". Jesus was born in the Middle East in the spring, and yet somehow Christians appropriated a midwinter holiday and now get irritated when people want to make that Christ/midwinter distinction clear.

          And as I've mentioned elsewhere, I'm very disappointed that American Christians are so gung-ho about Santa and tradition, and yet they don't include Krampus in their holiday cheer. No cherry-picking! You want Saint Nick, you get the terrifying child-beating horned god who comes with him!

          December 15, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
        • Lila

          Also, I should point out that saying you're Christian has a far different social impact than saying you're an atheist. Look, science: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=in-atheists-we-distrust

          That's right – people polled trust atheists less than RAPISTS. I generally put this down to very religious people (who have been raised with the concept that God is personally invested in them and is a central force in their life) experiencing the thought of a person without a religious belief system as being close to someone soul-less: without morals and without any fear of punishment (hell), so obviously less trustworthy than religious people who have a spiritual Big Brother and religious community watching their every move.

          Obviously it's ridiculous – atheists have very good morals because of an emphasis on empathy, and a lot of our philosophy is based on the knowledge that this is our one and only life so you'd better live it right, but I can understand why it's incredibly disturbing to someone who literally cannot imagine life without religious belief. Circling back to my original point, I'm sure you can see how "I'm a Christian" in a business context might at worst translate to "I'm a member of a privileged and occasionally arrogant religious group", but atheists get the whole "Surprise! I am a moral-less, soulless, unpredictable individual who cannot be trusted because no one's watching me!" possibility as a worst-case interpretation.

          December 15, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  15. lol??

    Watch out for "The Attack of the Killer Veggie Farmers". Goes all the way back to Cain, kept alive by Mithra worshipers, and embraced by modern science with GMO's. Who needs weapons when the food ITSELF is made a weapon by the "too many people crowd".

    December 14, 2013 at 11:15 pm |
  16. Reba

    Watched this with my 13 year old daughter who laughed hysterically at the thought that anyone, ANYONE, could be as stupid as this news anchor!

    December 14, 2013 at 11:12 pm |
  17. sigturner

    Of course, the bigger mystery is the race of Muhammad. I've only seen one representation of him, and that was by some Danish chap who seemed to suggest that he was "White."

    December 14, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
  18. Reality

    Some here apparently are having problems saying "Happy Mythmas". Hmmm, how about "Happy Mythmess" or "Happy Messy Myths" or "Happy Your Myths Not Mine" or "Happy "Who are You Kidding"? The suggestion box is open

    December 14, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
  19. Peter Metz

    Was Jesus left handed? This is as relevant as asking if Jesus is white. Shame on CNN for partaking in this discussion.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
  20. cobalt100

    I had no idea that God was a Jew. Thanks for clearing that up.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
    • TJ

      God was a Jew? We are talking about God's only begotten Son.....Jesus Christ. I am the way, the truth, and the life. NO one comes to the Father except through me.....

      December 14, 2013 at 10:49 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.