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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. teddy

    If the Jesus described in the Bible actually existed, he was a Palestinian Jew - very doubtful he had blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  2. The_truth_WillTurbofy_You

    Of corse he wasn't right,you doofus'. Jesus was a Middle-Eastern guy.He probably looked like Osama Bin Laden.Dirty,hairy and lived in the dessert with no cleaning tools.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  3. Bob

    She's blond. Give her a break.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  4. Rick

    More of the so called "fair and Balanced " people

    December 13, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
  5. franco

    I love how liberals always try to take statements from conservatives out of context to prove their platform which is garbage to begin with (It was Joe Biden that said "they gonna put you back in chains").
    Of course the main intellectual point was missed by liberals because well ....they are not that intellectual.
    News Flash: Jesus was Jewish and white, nothing racist there. Funny how liberals though now discuss his color..I thought he didn't exist!
    Saint Nicholas(The saint that santa claius was named after) was also white...learn history rather than drinking kool aid

    December 13, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • Emma Goldman

      Um...... Oh, never mind.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • Jake

      Uh, you realize that Jewish people in the middle-east are not white, right? Learn your history. If Jesus existed and was white, then he was an albino.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      Jesus was born in the middle east and St Nick in Turkey, but you knew that right?

      December 13, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  6. Matt

    Why does it matter what color skin He had? Why do you care? Even if you do not believe in His divinity, do you also not believe His word heals?

    December 13, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
  7. Jake

    This is absolutely hilarious. A Fox News idiot arguing about the skin color of Santa Claus. Does she really still believe in Santa Claus? She must if she thinks she knows the true color of his skin.

    Given she's that stupid, it doesn't surprise me that she's religious.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
  8. Jeffision

    Gayd, that Kelly is stupid as a stone. Does she think "Jeses" was born in Norway or Britain?

    December 13, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • Matt

      No he was born a jew.....jews have white skin.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  9. Alvin M. Fitzgerald

    Correction to last sentence.

    Let's hate all that does not allow us to love one another my man Les Mccann. Thanks

    December 13, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
  10. Brandon

    Just think for a minute how the world would respond if Christ was black, do you really think that wouldn't matter? Despite whether or not you believe in Jesus Christ you must admit that the whole Idea of a Christ being an important figure if not "Thee" important figure of the last 2000 yrs non-debatable. For this host to come out and say that Christ is White and Santa Claus are white and try to pass those ideas off a fact is flat out wrong. Even more importantly her argument is completely and utterly devoid of facts. Historically there is more than enough evidence to suggest that Christ was infact a man of color. Hello Colored people are the MAJORITY not the MINORITY, we just also happened to be margenalized in most of the countries that we hold a clear advantage in population. In actuality to be real I dont think most White people want to live in a world where their God is a different color than them, SO you should understand why a person of Color doesnt want to live in a world where the image of their God is White. By the way WHITE AND BLACK are not COLORS but RATHER they are spectrums of Light!!

    December 13, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • Matt

      How do you define people of color? Why do you use generalizing terms like "white people".

      December 13, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  11. stanknasty

    Jesus was Italian, we call him Gesu.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • Matt

      viva la Roma!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      December 13, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  12. manicdrummer

    Before I'll even meditate on what race Jesus supposedly was, I'd like to see proof that Jesus ever existed. I refuse to believe in a messiah who may not have already been alive on this Earth. OK, I'm Jewish, but after nearly 2,000 years of persecution for an alleged act of deicide, I demand a fair trial by an impartial jury. But I doubt the Gentiles will agree to one.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
  13. bostontola

    It is amazing how easily people can be drawn into obsessing about things that don't matter at all.

    Santa's skin color is off the scale irrelevant. Even if Santa is based on a historical person, the current Santa is a fully imaginary character.

    Jesus, well that gets discussed quite a bit. Did he actually exist? If so, was he God? While those questions matter to many, the question of his skin color shouldn't.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
  14. Vusani

    If Christians really believe that they were made in God's image, this obsession with race seems kind of silly. To worry about the shade of Jesus' skin seems like they're missing the message.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
  15. Kelly

    The fact that the anchors at Fox News are arguing over the color of the skin of the savior just goes to show they have missed out on his message! And they dare to call themselves Christians !

    December 13, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • Scott

      What's worse is a very long CNN opinion piece that details the who discussion? Not news – Eddie Blum needs to find a more challenging topic.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  16. sam

    Hasbro, Mattel, and toy builders...
    Make santa dolls or action figure, with paintable face. Enclose 4 crayons, yellow, brown, black, and white.
    There'll be no stupid racist.. what ever happened to America I once remembered? Shame.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'what ever happened to America I once remembered?'

      it was called out and held accountable

      December 13, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  17. something for formality

    "But as for Jesus, people have been arguing about his skin color since the earliest days of American history".

    Omg.. as if the USA had anything to do with it. It is almost as far from the origins of both of those as you can get.

    Quite ridiculous to believe that Jesus was anything but white, since he was just a man, who was from Roman Empire. In addition, there are drawings of jesus, aren't there? – i.e. if colour has not been preserved on the drawings, it is extremely easy to recognise what race he was by looking at the face features.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • My moron detector is going off on this one

      Drawings of Jesus? Oh that is freaking hilarious!

      And they have his iPod too!

      December 13, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      nice sarcasm, but im afraid people may think you are being serious

      December 13, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  18. jimcolyer

    I love being white!

    December 13, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  19. PaminIA

    Considering where Jesus was born and grew up, odds are he looked more like Bin Laden than a white guy (choke on that for a few). As for Santa, he's mythical who cares what color he is. If you believe a fat man is coming into your home and leaving gifts make him whatever color doesn't make you want to 'stand your ground' against him.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • something for formality

      You mean for people from Roman Empire, they had more chance to be caucasian or something?

      December 13, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
  20. Meandyou

    Jesus was from the middle east and by definition that makes him Caucasian. So, he was not black!

    December 13, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • My moron detector is going off on this one

      By definition, you are a total moron if you think people in the Middle East are caucasian.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
      • melchior37

        Of of course they are. Look it up. How many bonafide races do you think there are? The first people to bring agriculture to Europe were from the Middle East. There genes still survive there.

        December 13, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
        • My moron detector is going off on this one

          By that idiotic theory, we are all blacks from Africa.

          December 13, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • PaminIA

      Umm... have you not ever seen anyone from the Middle East? I'll help you out go to goole images and look up Middle Eastern men and you will see what I'm talking about.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • Melissa

      Ummm...no. That would make him Asian. Please learn geography before you spout off on comment boards.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • Just the Facts Ma'am...

      Just curious as to why that matters so much to you. Is it so important for him to be closer to your color that you use exclamation mark to emphasise it?

      December 13, 2013 at 1:39 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.