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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. ClovisEd

    Let me get this right
    St. Nick is white
    Jesus is white
    the good old devil is white too. Where do they get this wacko birds from?

    December 13, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
    • Al Sanchez

      BECAUSE THE FACTS ARE CLEAR ABOUT THE NATIONALITY OF THESE FOLKS, YOU THINK THEY ARE WACKO? LOOK IN THE MIRROR . . . AND GET SCARED!

      December 13, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
  2. Mark

    Why are we debating the race of two fictional characters? Aren't there better things to do?

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

      Wow are you just not educated or do you just have an anti-Christian agenda?

      1. Santa Claus is a fictional character based off a real living man from Turkey.

      2. Jesus has more historical mention and proof for living than any other ancient person. To say Jesus was fictional means you now have to discount all of the ancient people from Hannibal to Alexander to Caesar since there is less proof for them ever living than Jesus. The real debate is whether or not Jesus fulfilled the many Messianic prophecies and was indeed the Son of God which is what he was accused of and executed for by the High Priest (ironically fulfilling prophecy.)

      December 13, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
  3. Anonymous

    Here's the facts. Jesus was Jewish. Black and white are just colors, not races. Many of the ancient Jews were a range of colors from pale to dark. It is entirely plausible that Jesus could have been snow white or well bronzed. Either way for one, you're not suppose to make an image of Jesus. For two Jesus is still Jewish either way. For three, does it really matter what color of Jew Jesus was? Finally Jesus promises you all will find out the answer on the day of Ressurection.

    As for Santa, the actual saint whom the Santa Claus character is based off of was probably more olive-skin toned because he was supposedly born in Turkey. However since pop culture has pretty much created a fake Santa idol to detract from the Bible I guess it really doesn't matter what skin color you give him.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
  4. Penny

    Am I to assume Kelly had nothing better to do with her time or nothing news worthy to add that she had to make a fool out of herself. NO ONE CARES!

    December 13, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
  5. Kyle

    Yes, and the Greeks and Romans were all black. And Leonardo Da Vinci was black. And the founding fathers, they were all black, too! We are told they are white by the evil white racist devils.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
  6. John

    Perhaps Jesus was Caucasian. Evidently the people in his lineage were. According to the Dead Sea Scrolls, Sara, the wife of Abraham, was fair in complexion. According to the Bible, Solomon was white, and his son David was "ruddy," a trait of people with light complexions.

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

      David was Solomon's father, not his son. Claiming someone had a fair complexion without an accurate reference to the norm of the region leaves plenty of room for non-white skin colors. Jesus was semitic, just like the Jews who stayed in the Middle East and the Arabs. If we want to say that Arabs are white, then we can say Jesus was white. If we want to claim that Arabs are not white, then Jesus was not white either.

      Frankly this is the about the dumbest thing on CNN in the last week.. well last day... okay, maybe last hour....

      December 13, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
  7. Jack 2

    I've always wondered, Christmas is sometimes called x-mas, is that to leave Christ out? Also I notice that if you change the letters arount just a little you get the name satan. Is this all coinsidence or something else?

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

      The X-mas thing is indeed what pagans use to deny the Christ part of Christmas. Christmas etymology is literally to mean Christ-mass.

      However as for the Santa thing, Santa is latin for Saint. So it being an anagram of Satan is merely coincidence in my opinion. You could call him Saint Claus or Saint Nick if you prefer that instead of Santa and it still means the same thing.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
      • Lokari

        With regard to Xmas, you are wholly incorrect. You are intelligent enough to know and use the word 'etymology'. I strongly encourage you to look up the etymology of Xmas as shorthand for Christmas. You will find that it has nothing whatsoever with pagans denying the 'christ' aspect of the word.

        December 13, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
  8. None of the above

    In all reality, everyone is wrong. He was most likely tanned, specially, from all the walking under the sun he did considering they don't talk of anyone following him with an umbrella. Jesus was a nicely tanned man, not to be confused with a pale ghost walking.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  9. Heather Bergen

    Jesus was not a 'white' man. Jesus was jewish and likely would have had a swarthy complexion, in fact, I think somewhere in the bible it mentions that he wasn't all that attractive either. But then, all those likenesses of Mary show a mature woman – not at all the perahps14 year old girl that she would have historically been. As for Santa – I believe that tradition started out of norway/sweden/finland – so ya – he was white.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  10. Ttom

    Come on now, we all know a black Santa would be taking gifts, not giving them!

    December 13, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
    • Kyle

      Opinion by Edward Blum– a Jew. Jewish White hatred is going into overdrive.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
  11. Teddy T

    Even though my views differ greatly with FOX NEWS, I have to agree with this anchor for the simple reason that Santa has been traditionally an old white man, nothing is wrong with that because no matter what color he is, to kids he travels to every kid in the WORLD. Kids aren't dumb, they know not every kid looks like them. So in "tradition" Santa doesn't discriminate. If the youth don't have a problem with it, why do adults?

    December 13, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
  12. Mary Ann

    Jesus doesn't care and neither does saint nick.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • Teddy T

      Agreed....I even would say they kids don't care, so why do we?

      December 13, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  13. Stefonte

    as it was explained to me as a child. If you discovered greatness and no one else knew about it yet, before you presented it to them you would change it and make it in your image so that when it was presented, sub consciencely or not, others would exhault you as great as well. White makes right...why? because Jesus was white...well..I dont follow religion...ok, then all the politians and law makers are white and anyone of color aren't even counted as being human...dang...I guess your right...white makes right...WELL NOT ANY MORE...lol

    December 13, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  14. Bill Owens

    Megyn Kelly is very pretty. Don't care if she's white, black or purple. Now as to the 'substance' of this article: there isn't any. The fact that Cable newsies need to fill the time slot with something is the reason I mistakenly wasted 4 minutes of my life on this inane drivel. St Nick and Christ were historical figures but does our national obsession with race really have to devolve into this? Ugh...Shame on me for thinking this was a serious piece.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  15. Mandor

    Mythical beings are mythical and can be whatever color you want them to be.

    As well argue over whether Gandalf was black, or whether Captain Ahab had a swarthy hue.

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

      mandork, Jesus is NOT a myth.

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

        Jesus MAY have existed...but he was just an ordinary man...

        December 13, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
    • NickZadick

      I find it interesting they paired santa claus and Jesus together...are they finaly agreeing they are both fairy tales? about time!!!

      December 13, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • Allan

      Let's make Santa mixed race – Tiger Woods would be a good image. Let's also make him non-denominational. We should celebrate him on Yom Kippur, Ramadan, and on Lincoln's birthday for those who are not religious. Anyone should be able to dress up like him all the time except white people who shouldn't be allowed to do 'black face' so children's plays in schools where there aren't dark skinned children should not be condoned.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  16. Allan

    Perhaps with massive federal tax breaks this year we would all believe that Obama is Santa Claus

    December 13, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  17. Monk

    Jesus would have looked for one thing very good, being that he was in a perfect body.. as far as skin color?been just as middleeasteners are..then and today

    Iknow you all love to Lump the Son of God paganism together, and satan clause doesn't deserve a mention but sicne you seem to revere such things pagan and unholy this time of year..trees wreathes plants..birthdays..heres back ground on Santa

    Apostate Christians and Pagan Winter Festivals
    Early Christians resisted the temptation to join in the pagan festivities of their neighbors. But the Bible foretold that, in time, a great apostasy would develop among Christians (Acts 20:29, 30; 2 Thessalonians 2:3; 1 Timothy 4:1-3; 2 Peter 2:1, 2) Toward the end of the second century, the writer Tertullian had to censure “Christians” for taking part in “the feasts of Saturn, and of January, and of the Winter solstice.” He mentions the “dispensing of gifts” and expresses surprise that many were decorating their homes with “lamps and laurels.”
    Despite such admonition the original pure Christian congregation was corrupted. Going from bad to worse, apostate Christians justified their course by giving the pagan celebrations a “Christian” name. As the book Christmas admits: “The Christian Church . . . in the 4th century found it convenient to take over the sacred pagan day of December 25, the winter solstice . . . The birthday of the sun became the birthday of the Son of God.”

    December 13, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  18. Eddie

    This is beyond ridiculous. First of all, Santa isn't real. Picture him however you want and whatever race you want. Second of all, if you believe in the Christian religion, the whole dying to forgive your sins thing should probably supersede what race he was. This argument is pointless on so many levels.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  19. Rob

    If the truth were to be told, Jesus looked more like Sammy Davis Jr. than like Robert Redford.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
  20. Hyptiotes

    This is all common knowledge. For example, Yetis and unicorns are also white. However, did you know that unicorns are also Albino while Yetis are only amelanistic? Angel wings, although often depicted as white are actually off-beige when ground to a fine powder, suspended in a liquid, and passed through a spectrophotometer. By the way, unicorn horns are actually composed of a laminate of keratin. Their true horns are reabsorbed while they are still embryos. If you've been purchasing unicorn horn on the blackmarket, you may be getting ripped off buying worthless keratin. Only buy FDA approved unicorn products, not that stuff you get at GNC stores. Now what were we talking about?

    December 13, 2013 at 12:53 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.