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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. Davin

    Then why did CNN insist on calling Zimmerman white?

    January 23, 2014 at 12:36 pm |
  2. ea

    It says in the Bible that Jesus, (Yeshua) did not stand out from the Jews of His day. In other words He looked like any other Semite of His day.
    And since B.O. has taken the place of "Santa" for many, you could say he (Santa) is mulatto or bi-racial.

    January 22, 2014 at 12:26 pm |
  3. JC Deville

    SURE Santa is White. He's A Republican from Texas too. That's probably why I haven't gotten squat from him in decades.

    January 21, 2014 at 1:16 am |
  4. Jack

    It good historical information! But so what! It seems the WASP's are so insecure that no one can be different than them!

    And by the way I am a WASP!

    January 20, 2014 at 2:36 pm |
  5. dreamhunk

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=464YD5o7SRY&w=640&h=390]

    January 20, 2014 at 9:31 am |
  6. eyeswideopen

    Jesus was at least tanned, given the area, where He grew up. His hands were also heavily calloused from working with wood, sawing, swinging a mallet ,and for so many years since He was 12. His arms were defined, along with His shoulders and biceps. He was in shape. Carpentry can be quite the workout. I remember framing for this builder the whole summer. By September I was in real good shape. Jesus had been working in the shop, I would imagine, since a young age with Joseph teaching Him the craft.

    January 18, 2014 at 9:00 pm |
  7. jarhead333

    Is anyone, regardless of faith, hung up on what Jesus actually looked like?

    January 18, 2014 at 1:14 am |
    • Liz

      There is of course an answer to both-But if anyone cares-doesn't that mean that they have completely lost the point of the message? Yes it does.And so that makes them beneath consideration.An argument about the ethnicity of "Santa Claus" certainly diminishes the "spirit" of Santa Claus which we know has no color.Anyone concentrating on the color of Jesus of Nazareth's skin so mistakes His message they should be pitied for their waste of time in being a "Christian".If anyone truly cares about the message of love & caring both these subjects represent,they would not make this an issue & embrace the honor of having different races include them and make them their own.

      January 18, 2014 at 9:43 am |
  8. GeoG

    History and geography have the answers that you seek. The overall only true fact is that when Jesus (black or white) does return.....as sinners will burn in hell (drop the mic and exit stage left)

    January 17, 2014 at 11:11 am |
  9. ronvan

    I put this, worthless argument in the same catagory as the re make of Godzilla! The original, a fat looking, beast vs the American re make, of a slim & trim beast! The roadrunner cartoon, that is labeled as extremely violent! Elmer Fudd & Buggs, where Fudd is constantly trying to kill Buggs! OUR "modern" times are interesting and sometimes very funny! Jesus has ALWAYS been referred to, and painted, as white! YET, there are valid points that indicate he was not! Santa Clause, while based on the old St. Nicholas story, is really a made up individual! Our kids anxiously await his arrival to get their presents, NOT realizing that to do so would require WARP speed with a body that could change sizes to get down that old chimney! And NOW WE want to argue over his color? When are we going to start agruing over his weight or the color of his outfit? OUR kids don't see color, they see & think, good times & presents! Only we, the adults, get into these types of worthless things!

    January 17, 2014 at 10:16 am |
  10. dreamhunk

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

    January 17, 2014 at 8:17 am |
  11. dreamhunk

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=75OSO3DB1bU&w=640&h=390]

    January 16, 2014 at 5:13 pm |
  12. Bendertheoffender

    Jesus is not and was not black. Jesus is any color we say, as the Savior he was able to appears to us as we all individually see him. White, tan, black, Asian. It doesn't really matter so long as we pray to him and praise him for dying for our sins.
    Remember the message people not what color he is.

    NOW SANTA, that dude is totally White end of story!!!!

    January 16, 2014 at 5:09 pm |
    • FSMpriestess

      All gods or other imaginary beings are whatever color the imaginer dreams them to be

      January 16, 2014 at 6:49 pm |
  13. dreamhunk

    I want to add this with you last video
    Black Israelite Images, Hebrew Exodus: Egypt to Babylon, Rastafari Sabbath Artifacts, Vaera #14
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S6rAra_cFEI&w=640&h=390]

    January 16, 2014 at 4:47 pm |
  14. Josh

    Angus I apologize I confused your last comment as Abalone's.

    January 14, 2014 at 7:30 pm |
  15. Josh

    I apologize Angus, I directed that towards Abalone, mistakenly confusing your last comment with his.

    January 14, 2014 at 7:29 pm |
  16. Josh

    Jesus did in fact exist, one can simply look to Tacitus, or to the other Roman records of the executions, very thorough. Christ was depicted in murals painted during the 1st century, {Thank carbon-dating,} and above that, most Biblical scholars admit that Jesus did exist.The only controversy is His Divinity, but Jesus surely did exist.

    January 14, 2014 at 7:05 pm |
  17. Morten

    He wasn't white, he wasn't black (or african black). He was from the middle east, so he was brown skinned or olive skinned, with dark, properly black or dark brown hair, and brown or black eyes. Not black not white and who in the name of the lord would even care about his color. Why can't people just focus on the important and good things in the bible, instead of something so insignificant as the skin color of Jesus. That no wear near as important as the things he tried to teach us..

    January 14, 2014 at 4:51 pm |
  18. Nathan Cambelli

    The religious portraits that were moved during the spiritual awakening period of Europe were altered to accommodate Europeans into the religion. Europeans were not comfortable with believing in a god like figure that was not similar in appearance to themselves. The real portraits were destroyed and/some were restored to the original likeness in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. If you venture into the middle east where some of the original portraits exist you will find that Jesus was of a tan or dark brown hue. That being said, JESUS WAS NOT WHITE! The very idea that the bible mentions no false idols is contradicting to the religion itself as the body seen on the crucifix and many paintings are of no resemblance to the man Jesus. And even if you did know his exact color you still do not know his facial makeup so to mass produce an image of a man whom you do not know what he looks like is bearing false idols. I call this Contradiction 101

    January 14, 2014 at 4:35 pm |
  19. Barcs

    The reason the nose of the sphinx was shot of by Alexander the great's army was because it was a black one. The ancient Egyptians were black, but that was before another group invaded and took over the sites.

    January 14, 2014 at 1:22 pm |
  20. E before I

    Jesus was High Yellow.

    January 13, 2014 at 11:01 pm |
    • Barcs

      Does that mean he looks yellow when you're high?

      January 14, 2014 at 1:24 pm |
      • FSMpriestess

        More research into this assertion is required. I'll get right back to you on this!

        January 14, 2014 at 2:03 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.