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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. Wade

    Jesus could be argued but Santa? Come on what mor** would think that Santa was not white? How may blacks live on the North poll? LOL...

    December 13, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
  2. I am a Greek man too

    How does someone not wonder about themselves and their IQ if they listen to Fox news. I mean, seriously. When you find yourself gravitating over to that station, dont you sort of get that "i'm a fat person about to eat an entire Sarah Lee Cake" feeling??????? honestly????

    December 13, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
  3. srcactus

    With the ever increasing number of angry self centered experts demanding that only their version of life, history and relationships be played out just where do you suppose we are headed? The agitating and aggravating by the news media is certainly helpful.NOT!

    It is not necessary to take a side in an argument to see the futility those that under use the two ears and abuse the single mouth.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
  4. Evan

    Just like saying, "Popeye is white" the 2 fictional characters known as Jesus Christ and Santa Clause are whatever color the animator decides.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
  5. Alan Dean Foster

    Megyn: you better watch out, you better not pout....

    December 13, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
  6. KlintzCNN

    Love Jon Stewart's comments:

    “And who are you actually talking to? 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?”

    December 13, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
  7. lolwut

    CNN Mission Objective: Make dumb people mad with troll article about race in order to generate outrage clicks

    Status: Accomplished

    December 13, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
  8. Glenn

    Considering Jesus was Semitic then saying he was Caucasian is not incorrect. Why all the confusion about color of skin?

    December 13, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
    • White Santa

      And considering the myth of Santa Claus came from the Dutch figure Sinterklaus, how is he not white?

      December 13, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
  9. Bernhard

    I should've just stopped reading as soon as I read Megyn Kelly.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:07 pm |
  10. justin strong

    Whether Jesus had light or dark skin is irrelevant. His ancestor Abraham was the father of several races. His ancestor Adam was the father of all races. Those acknowledging Jesus as Christ, recognize that his God is the Father of all things. Jesus Christ’s biographers wrote that he advocated his Father’s sovereignty over all humankind and love of neighbor.

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

    There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  12. Aloha

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEvGKUXW0iI&w=640&h=390]

    December 13, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  13. I am a Greek man too

    If Santa was greek, and he was, he had dark black , probably curly, hair, very thick eye brows, and brown eyes. fact. Jesus was a Palestinian Jew. Look at Jews, ok? Again, he had brown eyes, very dark, probaby curly hair, and olive complexion at best, very dark brown as someone who has lived their whole life in the sun of the middle east would have had. Either way.....neither was 'white', neither was blue eyed, certainly neither was blond.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  14. RPB

    Saint Nicholas is Greek and Jesus is middle Easten/Jewish. It doesn't matter how a preson wants to perceve either, it just matters that you believe. Jesus means hope, peace and love for humanity. Santa stands for love, family and hope. We are so darn worried about being politically correct that we all have lost the trues meaning of Christmas and of the love of God and his son Jesus Christ. Really, get over it already and let each other live our own lives!!

    December 13, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
  15. Greg

    I thought Semites were considered "white" but not north european nordic white. There are ranges to skin tones for blacks, for oriental asians, natives to the americas, and for whites as well. applying litmus tests on skin tones (are you black enough, are you white enough) is silly. Jesus was Jewish and the Jews of Israel at that time were reflective of the region whereas the Jews of Israel today have much more European blood because of the Diaspora that occurred after the Romans sacked the Solomon's Temple. Honest representations of Jesus' look is best; if you feel the need to "whiten" or "blacken" him, then do a search of your heart and see why that should matter to you.

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

    Anyone who debates or argues over their skin color are idiots. Who cares what color they were and who cares what everyone's opinion is. If I want to say they are white, it's my right, if someone wants to say they are black, it's their right. End of discussion. I don't even think of these things. My question is who are these mentally imbalanced people that are?

    December 13, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
    • dennis

      Its not debating. People LIE! People have spread lies about the LORD JESUS, and the TRUTH has to be shared. Many African Americans turned to Islam back in the days, because white "Christians" supported slavery, and everything else that went along with slavery, even by remaining silent. So THE TRUTH MUST BE SHARED.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
  17. Steve

    I don't know what all the flak is about. Neither ever existed so there is no need to debate the color issue.
    But of course the blacks use any reason to bring up the race/color issue,so this one is as good as any,I guess.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
    • dennis

      Steve, you either did not take history in your entire education, or you are deceiving yourself.
      The man St Nicolas did exist. Look it up on the internet. The man JESUS, did exist.
      WHATS WRONG WITH YOU?????? to say neither existed???
      Have you never studied any kind of world history????

      December 13, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  18. lolwut

    CNN is just blatantly trolling for clicks at this point, aren't they

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

      Race bait...don't take the bait. wow CNN low

      December 13, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
  19. dajowi

    A white Jesus allows users the opportunity to apply their tint of choice to color Jesus. Brown, yellow, purple, polka dot, whatever color you prefer your Jesus to be. Now everyone is happy.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
  20. John Mann

    Megyn is further proof that good looks do not = intelligence. What a buffoon.

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

      then you must be really "beautiful"

      December 13, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
      • John Mann

        So you're married to her?

        December 13, 2013 at 1:34 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.