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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. dreamhunk

    Iam going to stick this right her
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HlaJgbLueEY&w=640&h=390]

    December 18, 2013 at 6:00 am |
  2. concerned

    "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."

    You forgot the part where he rose again! The way he lived and the way he died was not near as important as the end result: His victory over death and the fulfilling of the scriptures.

    Another thing, Jesus was a Jew. His skin was most likely olive colored with dark brown curly hair... I agree wholeheartedly with Dr.Kings assessment of the color of Jesus' skin.

    December 18, 2013 at 5:00 am |
  3. lauden kirk

    he was middle eastern. come on its so simple. tanned. and seriously does ot matter?

    December 18, 2013 at 1:31 am |
  4. nuclear mike

    Santa has always been the white man's man...Jesus was white too...no doubts there either...

    December 17, 2013 at 10:40 pm |
    • Wendy Croom

      Hmmm. Either sarcasm or didn't read the article. I'm going to go with sarcasm.

      December 18, 2013 at 12:07 am |
    • yalesouth

      hes whatver color you want him to be. obviously a kkk member like you would impute whiteness.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:47 am |
    • JoeBoxing

      You do know that the Santa Claus tradition comes from the Turks, right? I guess Fox didn't get the memo either. But I don't watch Fox News

      December 18, 2013 at 5:05 am |
  5. Groan

    I suppose it's a bad time, or perhaps a good time to remind everyone that the amount of melanin present or absent in the epidermis is not of any real consequence.

    December 17, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
  6. Jesse Christ

    A blinding white light appeared in my room. All of the sudden, I was facing bin Laden! I said, Osama, you M-F..., why are you appearing to me? He said, I'm not Osama, I'm Jesus! I said, Lord, you sure gave me a scare. He laughed and gave me a hug and said, Yeah, we all look alike to you white people! Amen.

    December 17, 2013 at 10:18 pm |
    • Opposing View

      You should leave the Lord out of your filthy jokes...

      Exodus 20:7 – Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain...

      December 17, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
      • Tom, Tom, the Other One

        You must look forward to your God's vengeance and punishment toward, well, most everyone it seems.

        December 17, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
    • Wendy Croom

      Yes.

      December 18, 2013 at 12:11 am |
  7. Abigail

    Why isn't anyone talking about the fact that Santa was fashioned after Kris Kringle who was a German based person. The idea behind Santa/Kringle was to do good for others...give gifts, do good deeds. Who cares about the color of his skin. Adults are ruining Christmas for all kids...stop it, and let kids enjoy the holiday.

    December 17, 2013 at 10:09 pm |

    • You sound white.

      December 17, 2013 at 10:10 pm |
      • Groan

        face palm

        December 17, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
    • doobzz

      Probably because at least fifty people have already said the same thing.

      December 17, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
  8. Rasheed Johnson

    Jesus and Santa both be black! If do think otherwise then you all racists! Only white supremacists think they white.

    December 17, 2013 at 9:54 pm |

    • You sound white.

      December 17, 2013 at 9:55 pm |
  9. Youtube - Teresa MacBain "Shift Happens"

    John Compere, PhD

    I was a fifth-generation Baptist minister, ordained at age 18, while in college. I served until age 32 when I left the ministry and the church to get a PhD in Clinical Psychology. I had already completed a three-year seminary degree following college, which only increased my doubts about the authenticity of the theology I had learned from childhood. Leaving the ministry was not an easy decision to make since all my friends and family were in the church. But it was a decision I ultimately HAD to make if I didn't want to risk being publicly phony and privately cynical. I became an agnostic, then an atheist, NOT because I hadn't read the Bible, but because I had! An atheist, by the way, is simply someone who does not believe in a supernatural being. I am convinced that the evidence supports that view. All religion suffers from being bound by unchanging myth.

    As a psychologist, I continued to try to help people find meaning in their lives. I taught at the university and medical school, had a private clinical practice, and then became a professional speaker on "Psychology You Can USE!" I seriously doubt that life has any ultimate meaning, but I'm convinced that we can make our own meaning, and I have spent the last 45 years since I left the ministry trying to help people do just that. Success is not the goal - all therapists have dealt with many a successful person who was miserable - life satisfaction is the goal.

    When I made my career change, I was essentially on my own. I wish something like The Clergy Project had been around then. I could surely have used it. The goal of this project is not to try to convince believing clergy to give up their faith. Rather, it is to help those in the clergy who, for their own individual reasons, are no longer able to believe, to try to figure out how to make a huge sea-change in their lives. It may well be the absolutely most challenging career change anyone can make. We simply want to help make it easier.

    December 17, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
    • Opposing View

      Newsflash: Did you know the Baptist faith is not saved and that every Baptist preacher is a worker of iniquity? (meaning, they're working for Lucifer)… Well, now you do…

      Furthermore, if a man spends his life focusing on anything other than the salvation of his soul, then he's a fool...

      Mark 8:36 – For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?...

      December 17, 2013 at 9:35 pm |

      • You sound white.

        December 17, 2013 at 9:38 pm |
  10. missrepresentedusa

    jJesus was a brown-skinned, black-haired guy who many of you would think was some kind of islamofascist terrorist (or whatever boogeyman FOX news is feeding you these days about the Middle East).

    he was also a socialist and he would be very ashamed of what's been said and done in his name.

    Jesus and Santa are both very disappointed in you, you're not acting very Christiany!!!

    December 17, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
  11. Gloria in Excelsis Deo

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAMzAIH12yc&w=640&h=390]

    December 17, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
  12. nike

    Jesus is whit I mean really the U.S has been rascict for a while would people back then really accept a black Jesus? It doesn't even matter anyway. Santa is real and he is white because he lives in the north pole in little sun so he has to be pale.

    December 17, 2013 at 7:15 pm |
  13. anon

    Jesus and St Nicholas were both Mediterranean Caucasiods, as best we are able to determine. There's just no history or evidence whatsoever, in support of the idea that they were anything else. They weren't Nordic blonds, but they were certainly white enough to be targets of the knockout game.

    Would it be racist to deny Martin Luther King's blackness? Of course. Therefore, those who seek to retroactively "blackwash" historic Caucasian figures, must also be guilty of racism.

    December 17, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
    • ?

      The knockout game?! W t hell? If you want to go off on a tangent, guns kill many more people that the knockout game, and neither have nothing to do with with this topic.
      Want to hold on tightly to your white fright ? Go ahead.

      December 17, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
  14. 7

    Hello Folks.

    Everyone is invited to visit...

    http://www.thetreasureofzion.com

    December 17, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
  15. It's a fact Jack

    Charles Darwin converted to Christianity on his deathbed.

    December 17, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
    • The answer is 42

      Do do death row inmates. Big deal.

      December 17, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      It's not a fact, Jack. Lady Hope is the only "witness" (and surprise suprise, she played on your team); his family deny that.

      December 17, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
    • Opposing View

      Charles Darwin is in hell. As is anyone else who has alleged to have been converted at the last minute. God is no fool. You cannot serve the devil all of your life and then switch over and be on God's side at the last minute. It doesn't work that way. Instead God will have the last laugh, and you will continue on to hell right where you belong…

      December 17, 2013 at 9:52 pm |
  16. Child of God

    Actually no. About a year ago I started reading the Bible and it changed my life. I study everyday and see prophecies fulfilled in the news everyday. After starting as a sceptic, I have found truth and peace in Jesus and have done much research from even non biblical sources. Did you know that the non believers during the time of Jesus actually made up lies to explain away the obvious power He had? They claimed when he went to Egypt he practiced sorcery and magic and that's how he was able to heal so many. They couldn't deny his miracles they witnessed so they had to explain it away! Back then they didn't have a leg to stand on when it came to Jesus because they had all the proof in front of them whereas you all claim the writers just copied everything from the Old Testament.

    December 17, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
    • Philip

      " They claimed when he went to Egypt he practiced sorcery and magic and that's how he was able to heal so many."

      For that to have been a plausible explanation, people would have to accept that Egyptians had those powers, too.

      December 17, 2013 at 6:34 pm |
      • Adam

        Right. It seems performing miracles was pretty commonplace during those times, at least if you were an Egyptian.

        December 18, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
    • 8

      Televangelists have "healed" many. So what?

      December 18, 2013 at 1:45 am |
  17. Reality # 2

    Christmas is historically a non-event. Ditto for the Feast of the Magi and the solemnity of Mary aka New Years day. See the details on p. 137 of the commentaries.

    December 17, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • CG

      Dittos

      December 17, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
  18. Child of God

    Mormons need to read the last page of the Bible. It says not to add anything. God was finished in Revelation. Anything added is from a false prophet.

    December 17, 2013 at 11:52 am |
    • Christopher

      The person who wrote Revelation did not know it was going to be included in a Bible and placed at its end. All the writer was talking about was not adding to his writing.

      December 17, 2013 at 11:58 am |
    • Roger that

      Why didn't the Jews think of that?

      December 17, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
      • Charles

        Ha! That's a good one!

        December 17, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
    • Reality # 2

      Only for the new members:

      "Nineteenth-century agnostic Robert G. Ingersoll branded Revelation "the insanest of all books".[30] Thomas Jefferson omitted it along with most of the Biblical canon, from the Jefferson Bible, and wrote that at one time, he "considered it as merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams." [31]

      Martin Luther once "found it an offensive piece of work" and John Calvin "had grave doubts about its value."[32]

      December 17, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
  19. Adam

    If you want a laugh after reading this article, click on the Mormon ad on this page and see their Nordic version of Jesus!

    December 17, 2013 at 11:37 am |
    • Christopher

      Ha! You're right! Also check out those white looking South Americans.

      December 17, 2013 at 12:01 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.