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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. ElectricLion

    This alleged controversy reminds me of the betting scene from "A Knight's Tale" where French bettors taunt Will's squires with the line that ends "... and the Pope himself is French." To which, Roland replies before accepting the bet, "Well, the Pope may be French, but Jesus was English!"

    December 31, 2013 at 8:11 am |
    • Jen

      Jesus was from Palestine

      December 31, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
      • starintheuni

        @Jen – you fell right into the same "Pope is French" trap. Jesus was from ISRAEL. His biography clearly says that his parents were instructed to "... take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel: for they are dead who sought the young child’s life. And [they] came into the land of Israel. (Matt. 2:20-21)" Palestine is the politically correct term now used by those who want to deny the legitimate existence of Israel as a nation that existed as early as the 9th century BCE.

        January 1, 2014 at 2:47 pm |
        • Jen

          Ok then Jesus was from the tribes of the middle east., and as far as knowing my ancestry why not?What's wrong with that?

          January 1, 2014 at 3:28 pm |
        • Jen

          i was wrong. you were right. i'm so dumb

          January 2, 2014 at 1:25 am |
  2. dreamhunk

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7wKrbPsAJDc&w=640&h=390]

    December 30, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
  3. dreamhunk

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5TVd8ovSPl4&w=640&h=390]

    December 30, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
  4. dreamhunk

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2oW63XkBhw&w=640&h=390]

    December 30, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
  5. dreamhunk

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1F870vi8VKU&w=640&h=390]

    December 30, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
  6. dreamhunk

    lets talk about Khazars my favor it topic

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZn8rq9_xD0&w=640&h=390]

    iam going to start with this link

    December 30, 2013 at 10:29 pm |
  7. Santa Claus

    Enough is enough, please stop this nonsense!! You all are going to make me loose the job!!

    December 30, 2013 at 11:15 am |
  8. His panic

    Ok people; how many time do I have to tell you that she was suffering from seasonal anxiety and hysteria. Maybe she had a Panic attack! Those who really, really Trust in God and in Jesus Christ God's Only Son WILL NOT Panic. The reason she is in a State of Panic is because she is Faking it.

    December 30, 2013 at 11:11 am |
  9. dreamhunk

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

    December 30, 2013 at 11:04 am |
  10. dreamhunk

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YXLD9nOHH8&w=640&h=390]

    December 30, 2013 at 11:03 am |
  11. dreamhunk

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

    December 30, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  12. dreamhunk

    i have yet to get into arab racism and how they treat other people.

    December 30, 2013 at 10:54 am |
  13. dreamhunk

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UL85v0hdbHk&w=640&h=390]

    December 30, 2013 at 10:53 am |
  14. dreamhunk

    Funny last time I checked there is lack of surviving Arab historians' accounts of that era. When there is a lack of historians it means they were NOT educated did not know how to write. This also means that Arabs civilizations did not mean the criteria for great civilizations of the time.

    The Greeks knew how to read and write. The romans knew how to read and write. the Nubains( kingdom of cush) knew how to read and write. Ethiopians knew how to read and write. The Egyptains knew how to read and write. Where are the Arabs historians?

    December 30, 2013 at 10:51 am |
  15. dreamhunk

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r4eOu0mcA5w&w=640&h=390]

    December 30, 2013 at 10:47 am |
  16. Reality # 2

    Putting Mythmas into proper perspective in less than one minute:

    "And the day will come,
    when the mystical generation of Jesus,
    by the Supreme Being as His Father,
    in the womb of a virgin,
    will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva
    in the brain of Jupiter.

    - Th-omas Jefferson (1743-1826)
    Letter to John Adams, from Monticello, April 11, 1823.

    And with no Christmas, we have no Santa C, white, red, brown or black.

    December 28, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
  17. dreamhunk

    my last link here on this topic!

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FgDles4xq8&w=640&h=390]

    December 28, 2013 at 12:53 am |
  18. dreamhunk

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8zM_MzkLKPY&w=640&h=390]

    December 27, 2013 at 11:21 pm |
    • Jen

      This is the work of the muslims against the christian sudanese, and they are the muslim sudanese that are doing it, i have nothing at all against the nubians they can be very good people, knowing i have a touch of sudanese, because my father was from upper egypt, i get angry when i get reminded of this

      December 28, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
      • dreamhunk

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

        December 29, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
      • dreamhunk

        I have not even gotten into how Arabs steal other peoples history and how Arabs treat other people.

        December 29, 2013 at 1:17 pm |
        • Jen

          Jesus was from a semetic arab tribe remember that, and the arabs have stolen no ones history, but they have been slave trading since the year dot, that includes the white people they took as slaves from Europe

          December 29, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
        • Jen

          I'm probably one of the most racist people you'll ever meet. i'm completely biased and hate most people

          January 2, 2014 at 1:28 am |
      • dreamhunk

        [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ymfAxe_XcH8&w=640&h=390]

        December 29, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
      • dreamhunk

        Ok so lest deal with Arabs

        [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yaVcKAWccU&w=640&h=390]

        December 30, 2013 at 10:06 am |
      • dreamhunk

        Blacks who convert to Islam from Christianity as a sign of rebellion against the white man's religion don't realize is that Islam is the biggest culprit in the enslavement of the Black people. Centuries before the European settlers in the Americas began to buy African slaves to work in their plantations, the Arab-Muslims were already buying and selling slaves. The Arabs who came to Africa with Islam are estimated to have killed 80-120 million indigenous Africans.

        December 30, 2013 at 10:11 am |
      • dreamhunk

        [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1vhx5OHfekk&w=640&h=390]

        December 30, 2013 at 10:14 am |
      • dreamhunk

        [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1dk7s1glhc&w=640&h=390]

        December 30, 2013 at 10:20 am |
        • Jen

          There are christian and jewish arabs also, Jesus, Moses and Abraham were, so do not condemn all arabs

          December 30, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
      • dreamhunk

        [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=op3qQ2z3h9k&w=640&h=390]

        December 30, 2013 at 10:40 am |
      • dreamhunk

        [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4Bz9Cl4zgI&w=640&h=390]

        December 30, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • dreamhunk

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFIaja1JRf8&w=640&h=390]

      December 29, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
  19. dreamhunk

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89_sfUko55E&w=640&h=390]

    December 27, 2013 at 11:18 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.