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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. Glenn

    We have more pressing issues/problems to resolve in society than give trying to figure out what ethnic groups certain historical figures were. It only gives certain groups more reason to promote their racist agenda.

    December 15, 2013 at 9:34 am |
    • kvinson

      I Have posted the quotes from the bible so i am done with this conversation ,and as for santa .i could care less he is a made up .prop .that is just used to make folks shop and for parents to use to make kids act right ,.i never did like that folks would lie to the kids about some fat man bringing them gift .yet they spend the next 6 months trying to pay off all the gift they buy .yet some fake man get all the credit ,.heck send santa your credit card bill and see if he will pay .being he getting all the glory .for your hard work

      December 15, 2013 at 10:30 am |
      • Booze and Schmooze

        So you don't want to do something nice without getting credit for it... how very christian of you.

        December 15, 2013 at 11:20 am |
  2. RWH

    If the center of discussion is the color of Jesus' skin, we are missing the point entirely.

    December 15, 2013 at 9:33 am |
  3. csg

    Jesus was a Jew from what is now Israel. Just look around and that should tell you basically what he looked like - like the Jewish Mediterranean people from which he came.

    December 15, 2013 at 9:25 am |
  4. NYOMD

    Jesus wasn't white, but Fox News anchors are stupid.

    December 15, 2013 at 9:22 am |
  5. Serge Storms

    Next thing you know they're going to say that Jesus didn't have shredded abs.

    December 15, 2013 at 9:10 am |
  6. Dave

    This is what Saint Nick look like.

    http://kungfugripzine.blogspot.com/2012/12/the-secret-santa-how-black-bishop-from.html?m=1

    December 15, 2013 at 9:09 am |
    • Dave

      Christ Black! How crazy is that?

      http://www.krakow-info.com/krucyfix.htm

      http://www.unexplainedstuff.com/Religious-Phenomena/Christian-Mystery-Schools-Cults-Heresies-Black-madonna.html

      December 15, 2013 at 9:18 am |
  7. aspblom

    Aside from "St. Nicholas", the Santa Claus who flies with reindeer derives from Finno-Ugric/ Uralic beliefs about the shaman who communes with and travels with deer to the other world to help out humans. This figure can be seen in the ancient Finnish oral poetry called the Kalevala. So, this is a Caucasian or Eurasian figure.

    December 15, 2013 at 9:04 am |
    • Dave

      This is what Saint Nick look like.

      http://kungfugripzine.blogspot.com/2012/12/the-secret-santa-how-black-bishop-from.html?m=1

      December 15, 2013 at 9:08 am |
  8. bchovan

    First off, why does it matter what color he was? Second off, there is no proof that he was white, black, brown, yellow or whatever, because I do not believe he was ever photographed. The technology did not exist back in the day. And please do not point to the painting that hangs in every church. That is proof of nothing. My guess, based on where he was born and where he lived, he was a 'middle eastern' looking individual.

    December 15, 2013 at 8:59 am |
  9. SpaceAlien

    Yes Jesus character is white. Christianity was a European invention created in part to establish white supremacy. What we see today is a more romantacised mellowed down version of Christianity. Blacks following Christianity is like Blacks voting for KKK.

    December 15, 2013 at 8:56 am |
    • FeedLimbaughtoAlligators

      A blonde Jesus? Love it. His skin could very well have been a nice coffee brown.

      December 15, 2013 at 9:04 am |
      • joe d.

        and trevon martin was a good kid too ?

        December 15, 2013 at 9:40 am |
    • aspblom

      Bhuddism was partly invented to establish Asian dominance

      December 15, 2013 at 9:06 am |
    • Me

      You need to go reread the history of the early church. The European's didn't take over until after the Romans accepted Christ.

      December 15, 2013 at 10:00 am |
  10. Buck

    It does not matter what color any one person is. We are all people from only one God. We are all really brothers and sisters. Color does not matter.

    December 15, 2013 at 8:56 am |
    • igaftr

      Yes, Nogomain created everything and isn't it lovely.

      December 15, 2013 at 9:02 am |
  11. 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"? Added details have been previously presented.

    December 15, 2013 at 8:32 am |
  12. FKafka

    "As for Jesus, Stewart’s answer to Kelly was, “"You do know that Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, right?""

    Gotta love Jon Stewart.

    December 15, 2013 at 8:11 am |
    • sarge325

      And what is your point? You do know that Jesus was a Jew from the Middle East, right? You know, a white guy. The US census defines white as people from North Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Don't you know any Jewish people? They're white. Not the color white, of course, no one is. Call it beige if you want, but the official term for this racial group according to the US government is white.

      December 15, 2013 at 8:26 am |
      • Fine have it your way

        Jesus was a white racist from Mississippi .

        December 15, 2013 at 8:58 am |
        • sarge325

          The racism clearly on display is from people who deny that Jesus was white. I don't care what race he was. It isn't important to his message, and I'm not even a Christian. But if someone were to say "Nelson Mandela was a white guy with a tan," wouldn't you expect a news anchor to say,"That's ridiculous. You're even uninformed or racist, as Mandela was obviously black."

          December 15, 2013 at 9:23 am |
        • Fine have it your way

          Ok. I got it. Mohammad Atta was your average white guy. Thanks for clearing that up.

          December 15, 2013 at 9:38 am |
  13. trinnica

    The word virgin in the time of Jesus meant young woman, not what it means today....

    December 15, 2013 at 8:02 am |
    • JJ

      And the word "resurrection" meant only awakening from a nap, not what it means today.

      December 15, 2013 at 8:48 am |
    • Just me

      I think what you meant to say is that he virgin birth is just a myth. The old texts mention nothing about a virgin birth but the birth of a child to a young woman. It's debatable the reason but the translation was incorrect most likely due to the copying from other religious beliefs other than Judaism. There are many instances in which the Christian faith fails to adhere to the principles of the Jewish faith. Not to mention the fact that Jesus did not fulfill all the prophecies of the messiah.

      December 15, 2013 at 9:02 am |
  14. Ha

    Just imagine if someone were to say that Jesus was g@y.....he WAS surrounded by men!....just saying.

    December 15, 2013 at 7:55 am |
  15. John Doe

    I have to laugh at the insanity this has stirred up. Everyone is so quick to jump all over Megyn Kelly for her remarks, yet refuse to acknowledge or hold Salon to task, who started the whole thing with their hatred and racist vitriol. What a bunch of two-faced, racist hatemongering hypocrites you all are.

    December 15, 2013 at 7:53 am |
    • John Doe

      And maybe I should add s ex ist in there too.

      December 15, 2013 at 7:57 am |
    • igaftr

      Megyn Kelly is an idiot. Just listen to her sometime, and you can see for yourself.

      December 15, 2013 at 9:32 am |
      • John Doe

        Actually, she's very sharp and intelligent. She's a trial lawyer by trade, so she's very good at manipulation. And that sort of manipulation is why I don't like watching her myself.

        Still, she's better than the airhead bimbo Brooke Baldwin on this network, and esp better than any of the "women" on MSNBC.

        December 15, 2013 at 10:10 am |
        • marsilius

          Why have you placed the word "women" in quotation marks?

          December 15, 2013 at 10:26 am |
  16. Ha

    Imagine if someone would say Jesus was Gay? .... He WAS surrounded by men....just saying.

    December 15, 2013 at 7:53 am |
  17. Bnode

    Who cares what color Jesus skin was.
    I thought it was his ideas that mattered.

    December 15, 2013 at 7:53 am |
    • a

      White people care

      December 15, 2013 at 8:01 am |
    • igaftr

      Most of what Jesus allegedly taught, is actually paraphrased from the Buddha...who was clearly not white.

      December 15, 2013 at 9:20 am |
  18. ronvan

    TRULY the NEVER ending battle over religion! And NOW we are going nuts over Santa Claus, a FICTIONAL person? YES, I know about the "real" Santa, which was not even his name. BUT, WHY do WE get hung up over color? Comments that point out some "reasonalble" assumptions, but that is just opinions! For me, this is just a RACIAL thing and someone's opinion that Jesus or Santa should be black is a TOOL for them to use! IF I am at a black families house, or any other culture, I would RESPECT their traditions & beleifs! COLOR has NO impact!

    December 15, 2013 at 7:50 am |
    • John Doe

      We get hung up over color because some magazine editor in Salon decided to make it an issue with their bigoted article.

      December 15, 2013 at 7:55 am |
      • Jane

        We got hung up on color because a white, blonde 'journalist' insisted that Jesus is white and called it a verifiable fact.

        December 15, 2013 at 8:54 am |
        • John Doe

          That white, blond journalist" was responding to a black "journalist" who made the bigoted racist remark that – Santa needs a makeover from fat, old white guy to something less "melanin-deficient." So who's the racist here. That would be you, and would also make you a se xist pig too.

          December 15, 2013 at 9:08 am |
  19. Realist

    --------------
    ...................................................

    Christianity is built upon a LIE ...

    ................ because ....................

    ..... http://www.GodIsImaginary.com ...

    ... and thank goodness because he ...

    ............. emanates from the .............

    ...................... http://www.EvilBible.com

    -----------------
    .............................................................

    December 15, 2013 at 7:33 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.