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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. Hex

    Why is this even a topic of conversation. Santa isn't real, we all know he is just made up right? So at that point couldn't he be whatever the heck you want him to be? That and the Jesus thing...really? This is why you can't take Christians in America seriously. They've created their own world that they live in. Anyone different is treated as such.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
  2. The Real World

    As Christians endlessly prove, Jesus is whatever you want him to be. If you think Jesus hates gays, then he does, even though in the book it says nothing. If you think he doesn't mind your wealth, he does, even though he said something very different. If you think he listens to you and is your personal buddy but sows misfortune on the people you don't like, then he does. If you think he causes disasters because he is mad about something, then he does.

    That's how imaginary friends work. Everyone has their own version, and everyone thinks their version is right.

    There isn't one Jesus; there are 2.2 billion different Jesus'.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  3. Nogods

    If god heals Christians in response to prayer, why do Christians have the same life expectancy as everyone else?

    December 13, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • Hex

      Or why has prayer been shown not to work in science studies? Why does god not heal an amputee? There's hundreds of questions that point out the lack of validity...but they ignore them because it doesn't fit their world view. They are a sad lot that refuses to accept reality for what it is.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
      • dennis

        WOW !!!!!
        you need to first stop questioning THE LORD GOD !!!!
        Faith is what the LORD gave to heal people.
        YOU HAVE NO FAITH IN YOU !!!!
        My FAITH healed me of heart disease.
        My Faith in JESUS CHRIST / YESHUA MESHIACH

        December 13, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
    • Theodore Hyczko

      Genesis 6 3Then the LORD said, "My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years."

      Moses lived 120 years

      December 13, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • dennis

      THE LORD IS A MERCIFUL GOD. HE LOVES ALL PEOPLE, SO
      he gave intelligence to doctors, knowing people would not have faith in him
      HOWEVER, TRUE HEALING, is from the disease of sin.
      TRUE HEALING, is everlasting life, VS ETERNAL TORMENT
      TRUE HEALING, is peace in this world, knowing life is about to get real good.
      The earth will be made new, we as Christians will inherit the earth, and immortality.
      ITS ALL GOOD
      NOW DO NOT QUESTION MY EXPERIENCE WITH THE LORD GOD
      I am healed of heart disease, and have seen the power of the LORD with my own eyes
      HE IS REAL
      WATCH THE NEWS

      December 13, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
    • dennis

      IF YOU ONLY KNEW WHAT I KNEW, AND SEEN WHAT I HAVE SEEN.
      THE BIBLE IS AMAZING. I was ignorant of the bible just like you, until I dug into it.
      you can only see it, when you continue in the WORD.
      i have been blessed for above you, because THE LORD has opened my understanding.
      IT IS AMAZING HOW THE BIBLE CONFIRMS ITSELF, IF YOU KNOW WHAT TO LOOK FOR.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
  4. Rahul

    Y'all need Buddhism!

    December 13, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
    • dennis

      WHY WOULD I WANT DEATH!!!
      CHRISTIANITY HAS POWER TO HEAL SICKNESS AND DISEASE. I WAS HEALED ON HEART DISEASE
      PREDICT THE FUTURE. ITS COMING TRUE
      WHAT POWER DOES BUDDHISM???????
      NONE, OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

      December 13, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
  5. JIM286099

    To actually think Jesus was white is laughable, I think of his skin color being the same or darker than the Arabic prople of today, while I consider myself to be white I am dark complected and my ancestors were Moors(the name given to people of dark skin of European decent). Faith has no color.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  6. John P. Tarver

    Fourteen is the holy number and Manasseh and Ephraim made the number 14, but you will not see that in a white church.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
  7. Thomas Henley

    Santa Claus originated in Germany and I believe the first black man there was Jessie Owens in the 1936 Olympics. The Israelites almost certainly originated from Europe most likely from Anatolia.

    Yes White Romans, Germans, Franks and Anglo Saxons made all these myths popular and forced them to be accepted by people who weren't. Time to get over that.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • Tandy

      Yeah, but the real St. Nick was a swarthy middle – eastern guy who definitely looked it. This whole argument is stupid.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  8. NSL

    Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly has clearly shown by her statement that she's an idiot. I say that regardless of whether she's right or wrong. I say that because to bring it up is absurd. There is no reasonable proof in writings or in some kind of graphic either way, so to be emphatic about the question of Jesus' color, or Santa's color is ridiculously stupid. Not just that, but to bring it up as she did, and thinking she wouldn't hit the button of many, and thinking it doesn't have a racist connotation is just plain stupid.

    Moreover, Santa is a figment of imagination, and therefore my best guess is Santa is a rainbow of colors, based on the imagination of youngsters all over the word. As for Jesus, he was a Jew from Judea, then a part of the Roman Empire. He lived from somewhere around 7BCE until about 33CE. That means the Jesus was a Semite, and therefore more than likely, a man of color, not caucasian. It shouldn't really matter anyway, unless you're a racist.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Actually Hosea, Ezekiel and Luke explicitly place Christ in the line of Ephraim. You must not have ever read the bible NSL.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  9. Jamie

    For one, Santa was Greek, not Arab. During the Byzantine period that part of the world was ruled by very affluent Greeks. He would not be Arabic because 1) he was Orthodox Christian and 2) because the Arabs were not in that region at that time. At least in the way that they were not the majority or in control. That being said he would have had a dark complection because Greek people are darker complected. Look up some pictures of well know rulers of the Byzantine Empire to get an idea. Sadly, due to the iconoclasm, they are not very detailed due to the fear of worship of man rather than God. You could also just look at Greek people today, they are still darker toned. As for Jesus, I would say he looked Middle Eastren as well because that is where he is from. I did see the Daily Show episode on this and the best point he made was that Megyn stated that you can't change the facts. Yet it is fine that Santa rides a flying slay, lives in the North Pole rather than Constantinople, and has elves. Christians have changed the facts a million times over. I could go on forever about dogma vs. the Bible but that would take too long. Point is, there is nothing wrong with a black Santa. As for the war on Christmas, what about the fact that all Christmas is now is a chance to spend money you don't have on things people don't want. How many kids even understand the conection between Jesus and Christmas? I don't even think of Christmas as being a religous holliday. Never really did. It was always, 'Wow it is present opening day, and coincidentally the day that very white arab guy was born, which is also coincidentally not really the day he was born but a day from a pegan holliday that they used to make Christianity more appealing to the pegans so they could keep their beloved holiday and just name it something else.' In fact I think FOX is right about one thing. We should all just say Merry Christmas, because it is not about religion anymore, it is simply a day to spend money and justify it to ourselves in the morning. Thank you big buisness, black Friday, and credit card companies, I am really in the Christmas spirit of extreme stress, debt and high suicide rates, on this day that Christ was born.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • Spoochie

      Thank you, well said, finally a person who has spoken the truth. Thank you again.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
      • Jamie

        No thank you, normally the only feedback I get from the internet is negative. You made my day!

        December 13, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  10. surfdog11

    Simple truth here people: there were no anglo europeans in the middle east 2,000 years ago and if there had been, do you think the locals would have followed somebody who wasn't indiginous to the local population and territory?

    December 13, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
    • Jamie

      There were too. Where do you think all the slaves were from? They would get their slaves by going north through the Black Sea and bring back white Eastren Europeans. If you kid came out with red or blond hair, someone was having too much fun. Anyway I agree with you. There is a small chance that Jesus could have been white and that would be if he was from slave decent. You could make that argument based off the fact that he was greatly loved by slaves and the poor were the first supporters of Christianity. Also Jesus seemed to dislike the rich. But that chance is very small. Jesus most likely looked Middle Eastren. We went away from that image for many reasons. 1) Because everyone would mix religion with the local culture, Alexander did, Cesar did, everyone. It is a smart thing to do. 2) Middle Eastren became Islamic which the Church was at war with due to the rapid spread of Islam. Can't have your God look like one of them. 3) Now we don't correct it becaue we still are at war with the Middle East and we can't have our god looking like a terrorist. The reasons why Jesus looks like he does today was for very smart reasons. Smart is not always right but I can't blame the Church for what they did. Christianity almost died out in the face of Islam.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  11. WhiteChristmas

    George Soros is white.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  12. Flavius Josephus

    When I wrote what is today called the New Testament, I tried to make people think Jesus was white just like Caesar. Why you may ask? I wrote about Jesus and his acceptance of Roman Rule to help quell what was then a very powerful uprising of Jews. Now, some of you may not know, but I wrote the bible for Rome as propaganda. We still see it today. I have all you followers of Jesus waiting on him to come take you to heaven while the Rome of today massacres the third world and profits off of your ignorance and docile nature. You still think that Jesus is the original son of God. That is far from accurate. I stole bits and pieces of other religions to create the NT. So, while you are waiting on the return of a ressurected white guy, my relatives and rome are setting up a world govt to enslave humanity. Keep waiting and buying my book!

    December 13, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  13. Glenn Paul

    We are a sad little creature. The human being will be the cause of his and her demise. We are at the point race has become a sickness and most of us has been infected with it...Americans, I am one, are such hypocrites, we are fools and so painfully ignorant. Who would make the argument Santa and Jesus are white on a national broadcast news channel...no one respects FOX News as a legitimate source of news and information, any one wonder why need to read over the comments by the Fox News commentator written above once more. Lets say this once more for the people who apparently did not get the memo, no race is superior to others, only blind fools believe anything to the contrary.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  14. claudius1964

    eh.... I don't think anyone knows for sure.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  15. Are you serious

    Jesus was from the Middle East. People from the Middle East are defined to be Caucasian. Although they would be darker than north europeans and definitely not blond.
    If you trace Santas roots to Saint Nicholas, he would be from a region that today is Turkey. So again, caucasian (but on the darker side).
    If you are referring to an imaginary person, he could be anything you want.
    People just need to get over discussing skin color all the time and complaining about ridiculous things.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:19 pm |
    • RBEAR

      Caucasian?
      Whites should see Jesus as white, Blacks should see Jesus as Black, etc.!

      December 13, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • Rey

      Great responce! i was about to almost write the same, although i was going to say, Jesus was a Jew born in Israel, how do Jews look like? then that is your answer!

      December 13, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  16. ThomasR

    Why not white? He has to be some color.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  17. Brad

    I like Santa as a white guy. But if you want to make Santa some other kind of guy go for it. I have no idea nor do I care what color you portray Jesus as.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  18. John P. Tarver

    The two tribes of Israel that are black came from Jacob's adoption of Joseph's Egyptian sons, Manasseh and Ephraim; two tribes who received three shares of inheritance from Israel.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  19. hitman

    Get over it dweebs!

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

    Maybe Jesus looked like Khrishna, or Mythra, or Horus, or every other random god that the story of Jesus that was derived from....maybe jesus was just a really good plagiarist?

    December 13, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
    • BrownGuy

      Dude, don't bring other religions to this crazy discussions.
      BTW, why is everyone clinging to the fact that since he was bron in ME, he must be light skinned.
      Person's skin color depends on his ancestory – what race was JC's father and mother???

      December 13, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
      • RBEAR

        His mother was white, but his father being God was black, like Obama's!

        December 13, 2013 at 1:30 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.