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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. joeknockz

    Are black people going to get offended if I say I'm white? Are they going to say "No he's not!"...Santa is white...and Jesus was bronze.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • gary

      what color are leprechauns? Unicorns? Trolls? Fairies?

      December 13, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
      • crakkka

        Angels are white, aren't they??

        December 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
  2. Punchmaster

    The difference is black Santa goes UP the chimney with a full sack.

    I keed, I keed 😉

    December 13, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
  3. Jose

    I could care less about it. In our house Santa is Brown and good looking and don't leave cookie crumBS, so what?

    December 13, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
  4. Fred Phelps

    Jesus was a gay man. Now if he was white, I doubt it.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
  5. sly

    Wow – Fox news folks believe in Santa Claus?
    Wow – my 6 year old already knows it's a fable.

    Do they believe in Jack and Jill over there in white-land, er, Fox News?

    December 13, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
  6. Robert thomas

    LOL.... As an atheist I find all of this ridiculous controversy quite humorous. People into theism can be so obnoxious.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
  7. Doris

    A speech by Bart Ehrman at Stanford University about the story behind who changed the bible and why and the history of the bible and how they got tainted. He is a former Christian bible scholar who studied the bible and found the mistakes and became an agnostic.

    This speech is a must see for christians who ask questions like:
    Who wrote the gospels?
    Is the bible the word of God?
    Are there contradictions?
    Does the bible contain errors?
    Is there evidence or proof?
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0zWbL8Uqfw&w=640&h=390]

    Dr. Ehrman, author of over 25 books including three college text books, received his PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary (magna cum laude). He is currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

    Dr. Erhman just concluded an all-day seminar entitled "The Other Gospels: Accounts of Jesus Outside the New Testament" which was held Dec. 7 at Smithsonian Institution's S. Dillon Ripley Center on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
    • Madtown

      "Well, Mr. Ehrman obviously has no clue what he's talking about."

      – Topher

      December 13, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
      • Doris

        lol – that sounds like Topher

        December 13, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
  8. Julie

    Jesus was born and lived in the middle east. Popular culture may depict him as white, but whatever else he may have been, he was not caucasian.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
  9. myrtlemaylee

    One of the ways I know it's the holiday season is when Faux begins their Christmas tradition of arguing with as many people as possible for as many days as possible over ridiculous, irrelevant topics. Fa La La La La.

    I think next year I'll email them with my theory of why Jesus was not recognized initially by His own disciples after the Resurrection. That should be a real holiday spitstorm they can use for a few years.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  10. joeknockz

    Uh....I've met Santa..I sat on his lap when I was like 5...he's white.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  11. Donny

    So stupid you people really are.
    Santa was created as a white man by his creator, it's like saying spongebob isn't yellow he's blue.
    Jesus on the other hand was a regular Jewish Rabbi, and looked like the Israelis today!

    December 13, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  12. AC

    Santa Claus is the modern day Jesus. No doubt about it.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  13. XanJester

    Santa or Saint Nicholas was greek so his skin would have actually been olive. While Jesus was a Jew from Judea so his skin would have been a brown color. They are only white because of the influence of western societies.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  14. Volntyr

    The person attributed to be Jesus Christ was not the White skinned Blond hair savior portrayed by European artists for centuries. That was to appease the Christian Crusaders during those bloodlust times. He was more likely to be darker skinned like the Palestinian people that were born at the time period in that region of the world.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  15. mjd

    When I heard this last night on CNN my mouth dropped open!!! How dump is Megyn Kelly! Santa Claus is a concept, a magic concept of hope, love, sharing NOT an actual person. Santa might be BASED on an actual person but NOT a person. Therefore "Santa" can be any color, race, SIZE!! Now, can we talk about the spelling of MEGYN? BTW Jesus wasn't a blue-eyed blond either.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • myrtlemaylee

      Bravo. I wanted to make the same point about Santa, but Faux wears me out. IMO, it would be quite appropriate for the character of Santa to be portrayed in the greatest variety of ways. But that would disrupt the Faux Christmas traditions.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • whothe

      can we talk about the spelling of "dumb"?

      December 13, 2013 at 12:36 pm |
  16. JD

    another dividing article from CNN. I swear they want a race war

    December 13, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
  17. ivekyl

    Using science to prove the skin color of a symbolic figure: If Santa had his workshop in a predominately hot region, he would have darker skin. If his workshop is closer to the poles, he would then have a lighter skin tone. We have placed his imaginary workshop in the arctic region, therefore, and I'm no scientist, his skin color should be white simply because of his body reacting to the region in which he has been located for 1000s of years.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • Joey

      It is clear that Santa's offspring would be white, but is Santa originally from the North Pole, or did he move there from somewhere else?

      December 13, 2013 at 12:26 pm |
      • ivekyl

        My God, I'm not sure. But if we thought sciency, his skin color would adapt to his environment and over the course of 1000s of years become more pale.

        December 13, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
    • Aaron

      Actually considering there's a hole in the ozone layer over the North Pole we would expect him to be black.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  18. Sopiha Thomas Owen

    Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly is a fool. He is our god and saviour and lots of people have given up their life for him.
    this is not topic for discussion. Period.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
  19. boger

    What a load of BULLSHlT!!!

    December 13, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
  20. Gia

    Jesus was Palestinian so he was NOT white. Ignorant blonde.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:24 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.