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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. BrickellPrincess

    Expect a fight? Huh? No! Expect to be educated by historical facts such as in the case of Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus) who was born in Turkey. Therefore an Arab. Also expect to be educated by religious fiction such as in the case of Jesus who was born in Bethlehem. Therefore a Jew. Neither one is white!

    December 13, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • Greg

      The argument is ridiculous but Turkey is not Arabic and at the time it was overwhemlingly Greek.
      Thanks to multiple Turkish massacres and expulsions, there are almost no Greeks left.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
  2. Allan

    There should be a white version of Mohammad as well. Seems discriminatory for us to believe he was middle eastern.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  3. Brian Cunningham

    fighting over the skin colour of fictional characters. That's rich.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • BrickellPrincess

      Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus) who was born in Turkey is an Arab. Jesus who was born in Bethlehem is a Jew. Neither one is white! Neither one is fictional. However, Christians have twisted their history to suit their own false religion. But neither one is fictional.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • cchuck19131

      Jesus was NOT a fictional character Brian.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • Emma Goldman

      That would be every bit as valid as fighting over the skin color of non-fictional characters! Hummph!

      December 13, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
  4. the one true god

    Jesus was white and Santa is white. They certainly were/are not, however, Nordic.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
    • Dave

      Jesus was a middle-eastern Jew, most likely with an olive complexion. Santa is fiction and it matters not (not that Jesus' color matters either at this point.).

      December 13, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
      • EaglesQuestions

        Santa is based upon Saint Bishop Nicholas, a wealthy man from 4th Century Greece who had a reputation for secret gift giving.

        December 13, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
    • Emma Goldman

      You are delusional.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  5. Name*Laura

    Wow! Really? Lmao

    December 13, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
  6. jody

    Jesus is middle eastern…

    December 13, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
    • thetruthshallsetyoufree

      Jesus isn't real.......nor is Santa Clause.......when will you people grow the hell up and realize it? You are all insane for believing in myths and stories. Get on with your life.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
      • reldra

        Jesus is a historical figure who actually lived. There are written histories. It is up to you to believe if he was supernatural or not, but he is not imaginary.

        December 13, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
    • MartyLK

      True, but Jesus is actually Jewish on his mother's side.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
      • thetruthshallsetyoufree

        Funny.......lol

        December 13, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
      • Emma Goldman

        ...and right now he is thinking: "Oy vey".

        December 13, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
  7. StormySyndrome

    Tell me more about this jesus and god myth 🙂 I find it interesting even if the Christians don't. 🙂

    December 13, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • Emma Goldman

      That sense of superiority- so,..... Um....... Egalitarian among people it consumes.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  8. Nick

    CNN once again stirring hatreds and rancor for ratings. (Ooo the DrAMA!)

    Tomorrow the article might be 'why his race doesn't matter but that Jesus' message to humanity is what it's all about'. In the meantime, though, fight amongst yourselves the way CNN likes you to.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • c

      CNN didn't bring up race -Kelly did

      December 13, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  9. gopersarestupid

    Are all blondes as stupid as megyn kelly? I would find that hard to believe. Where does fox find all these dolts?

    December 13, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
    • StormySyndrome

      Blonde jokes were created for reasons. Many of them had some very real merit.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
      • otis t

        Just like jokes about black U.S. presidents.

        December 13, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
        • Emma Goldman

          Um, no.

          December 13, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
        • otis t

          Oh, sorry if I offended anyone, I meant half black.

          December 13, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
    • Emma Goldman

      That is ridiculous! How could ANYONE be as stupid as "Megyn" Kelly?

      December 13, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
      • Emma Goldman

        Um, I take that back. There are lots of people vying for that position.

        December 13, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  10. Bill Fat

    IF, and that's a big if, Jesus actually existed, he was born and lived in the Middle East. He would have looked like a typical Middle Eastern man, with dark hair and brown skin. To claim he was Caucasian is beyond ridiculous.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
  11. Wrong again

    Jesus was from the Middle East to probably olive skinned. Santa is a myth and can be applied to any culture as required. It doesn't matter.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • EaglesQuestions

      Santa is based upon Saint Bishop Nicholas, a wealthy man from 4th Century Greece who had a reputation for secret gift giving.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
  12. Louis Scott Brenes, JD

    You're missing the most important point! Not only did Jesus Christ die. . . BUT HE ROSE AGAIN. . . Proven – through evidential facts. . . Thereby showing that Jesus's words point the way freedom , direction, and entry into a real physical realm of eternal life after death. . .

    December 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • sly

      ... there is even a U-Tube video of Jesus risin'.

      Kinda dull though ... I prefer reality

      December 13, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • webman6

      There is no proof that anyone has ever died and been "resurrected". This would imply a supernatural deity exists. And we know that is not the case. We know it instinctively. There is no God. There may have been a guy named Jesus but he most certainly was not the son of God. Preposterous.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
      • c

        We'll see

        December 13, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • MoveForward

      Proven? What a farcical statement. There is no proof even that a god exists.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
  13. Quotes

    Since His work is to destroy the wicked. He must remain hidden from the eyes of the world until the time is ripe (the end), for the two (God and devil) cannot rule together.  The Son of man (Allah) must wait until His time, after the works of the devil. (II Thessalonians 2:8-9; Holy Our-an 7:14-18). And another place in the Holy Qur'an describes them as the people with the blue eyes.  Holy Qur'an 20:102).

    HOLY QURAN

    20:102 The day when the trumpet is blown; and We shall gather the guilty, blue-eyed, on that day,

    If God Was Your Father You Would Love Me.   Read and study the above chapter of John 8:42, all of you, who are Christians, believers in the Bible and Jesus, as you say.  If you understand it right, you will agree with me that the whole Caucasian race is a race of devils.  They have proved to be devils in the garden of Paradise and were condemned 4,000 years later by Jesus.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • Emma Goldman

      Oh, please! Racists like yourself are SO exhausting. All of the races have their angels and their devils.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
      • MoveForward

        Creating gods is a human pastime. And enforced by the dominant religions at the time.

        December 13, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
    • thetruthshallsetyoufree

      blah blah holy freakin jihad, blah blah blah. so lame.......

      December 13, 2013 at 12:52 pm |
    • ashaw1

      I am Muslim and I read the Qur'an. The verses are made up and obviously you have not read it. Islam does not discriminate just like any other religion.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
      • Emma Goldman

        THANK you!

        December 13, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  14. Ted

    if jesus existed he sure as heck was not likely white, and as far as santa, well i am white, and see all kinds of different santas, colour, race, never gave it a thought, and it sure as heck never dawned on me to think he should be only white, where do they find these people

    December 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
    • Emma Goldman

      Reasonable people don't belong here!

      December 13, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
  15. otis t

    Well my Martin Luther King was white. So what.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:44 pm |
  16. sly

    Barry Bonds is God, and if you ever watched Him play, you can tell he is not white.

    Y'all can believe in your own opinions – paint your God white if it helps you sleep, but don't ever try to foist your opinions on others, cause we have our own.

    Mine? Barry Barry Barry! (and the good thing is ... ain't no one out there that can prove me wrong ...)

    December 13, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
    • Billy

      that's silly – there a lots of gods: Carlos Santana is one of them

      December 13, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
      • sly

        ... ah, "there you go again!", pushing your false prophets!

        But I do like Santana's "White Magic Woman" – that was a classic.

        December 13, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
  17. Ralph_in_FL

    Decades ago, I took an art history course, where a lot of the early Christian art was depictions of Jesus. As the art moved from southeast to northwest, the models became progressively lighter in color.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
    • rmmorejo

      Yes, as he moved north, the pigmentation of his skin changed! It is based on the Evolution theory 🙂 Wait.... Opppss

      December 13, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  18. jim

    Well it doesn't matter since neither of them are real.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
    • JoeS

      Jesus is real not Santa.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
      • MoveForward

        Equally unreal.

        December 13, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
  19. StormySyndrome

    ROFLMAO She just trolled the show!

    December 13, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
  20. Allan

    This should really be about Santa Claus. He is a reflection of St Nicholas who was a real person in Holland and was in fact white. I don't really know how kids are going to believe in a creature who changes colour and shape on occasion other than to make that person increasingly divine. Next thing you know people are going to start saying that Christmas is about god like figures walking the earth in a human form. It just seems like the whole point of Christmas will be lost 😉

    December 13, 2013 at 12:42 pm |
    • StormySyndrome

      @Allan....Saint Nicholas. Patron Saint of thieves.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
    • Allan is wrong

      St. Nicholas was from Holland? Did you read that in the book of fables? He was Greek but was from what is now modern day Turkey.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
    • EJC

      I totally agree.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
    • reldra

      No, Greek. And your reading comprehension is poor.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • cf

      Actually St Nicholas was from what is now known as Turkey. He was middle eastern.
      That being said, "Santa Claus" isn't based exclusively on St Nicholas but is actually a combination of folklore, ancient religious icons, and legends from a variety of places.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
      • Joey

        St Nicholas but is actually a combination of folklore, ancient religious icons, and legends from a variety of places.

        Just like Jesus.

        December 13, 2013 at 1:09 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.