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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. Autismmom

    Is this fox news??? Oh it's CNN Wow!

    December 13, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  2. Trufflehunter

    Actually,Jesus wasn't white,nor black.He wasnt golden-yellow.And he looked like a big Lion.And his name was Aslan!

    December 13, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  3. Wondering Wally

    Where does FOX find all these stupid rage-filled psycho-dingbats for their programs?

    December 13, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  4. Charles

    who cares. Santa doesnt exist, and Christ was from the middle east. period. Morons

    December 13, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  5. Lori

    Grrrr....Why do Santa and Jesus have to be assigned a color at all? Aren't we celebrating their character, beliefs, and spirit – their very essences – at Christmas time? We aren't celebrating their skin or their race – we're celebrating the very heart of them. Leave the assigning of color to the racists, and let's focus on what's important...being giving and caring humans channeling those who were better humans than most of us.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • Later

      Thor is the only god I need, all others are just coming up short.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
  6. johnfwd

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but what are the odds that a person being born in the Middle East 2000 years ago is of the black race? More likely, of course, if he was born in Africa.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Jesus was born in Bethlehem Ephraim from Mary, a remnant of a black Jewish tribe called Ephraim.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
      • Later

        The bibles jesus did not invent compassion. Love You and All.

        December 13, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  7. Josh

    Why does Jesus or Santa even need to have a defined skin color? For different reasons, but both mean far more than what their skin color would detail.

    What's next? Arguing just how "hung" either of them where?

    December 13, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  8. Jennifer Boyd

    This is quite possibly one of the stupidest articles CNN has published. There are WAY more important and newsworthy issues than what color of skin Santa Claus has. This just goes to show how messed up America really is.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • Later

      Megyn Kelly is one hot mess.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  9. 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 desert with no cleaning tools.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • rich

      This is probably more like what it really was.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • cray820

      where do you get off assuming nobody was clean in the middle east. You're no different than the person saying Jesus is white.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  10. Mary

    I can't attest to what the Messiah's skin color was because I have not seen. However, the fact that these folks are saying He had Nordic features... it's a throw off. The nordic region is located in northern europe(not africa). As the Word says He had skin of bronze tells of melanin. After those facts, it's all debatable. The question would then be, why engage in the foolishness?

    December 13, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • Acegirlshusband

      Because the Devil is in the details.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
  11. Francesco

    America has officially jumped the shark. We are now arguing whether a mythical gift giving fat man with a white beard is a European with fair skin; and if the Christian religion was founded by a middle aged man with a tan. A memo to my liberal friends. Santa is not real; and if you are a Christian like me; the ethnicity of Jesus is irrelevant. Yet this has now become a cause celeb for our new hip hop black activists; determined to make Santa and Jesus part of their very own cultural posse.

    Meanwhile, back in the real world; black kids die on the streets from violence, drug addiction, and debilitating forms of poverty. More young black men are behind bars than in college, and inner city Chicago has become Syria without the poison gas. However, that’s not important. Lets instead focus our national attention on that guy who hangs out at the North Pole with his rambunctious little elf's; and the man who founded a great religion without sitting down for an official portrait to prove it. We need a national lobotomy.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'A memo to my liberal friends. Santa is not real; and if you are a Christian like me; the ethnicity of Jesus is irrelevant.'

      A memo to you.....its was conservative fox news that were getting all upset of the skin color of jesus and santa.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Saint Nicolas debates always set off the Catholics and there are already 1600 comments here. CNN has trolled us again.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • Drano

      ....and just why would that memo be to your "liberal" friends there Sparky?

      December 13, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
    • Later

      I heard jesus was born in Salt Lake City Utah.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  12. Acegirlshusband

    I'm more interested in the color of Jesus' Dad. And as far as I can determine, he/she/it is a large, amorphous cloud of plasma and gas with superior intelligence and technical abilities, and for whom space-time has no boundaries. And I'm sure, on occasion, he/she/it makes appearances to impart moral lessons, lives as an organic, human life-form, and then pretends to die so he/she/it can then reappear without too much confusion. I think the last few visits have been in the form of Lincoln, Rasputin and then Mandela. Perhaps there were more, too, since he/she/it could be in more than one place at a time. I think the child of this phenomenon could be any color it so chose – depending on the situation. Hence, Jesus' color at any given time is probably a moot point.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • Later

      Moot point; the color of all that empathy can offer. Because the color is indicative of ones status to exist. “If you can judge a wise man by the color of his skin you're a better man than I” credit to Aerosmith.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
  13. MissionMom

    1st amendment comes to mind. We have not lost this one yet have we? Megan can say what she wants and so can you. Its ok to disagree.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • rlj

      Isn't that just what people are doing?

      December 13, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  14. Someone Else

    Did anyone else catch that CNN just compared Megyn Kelly with Martin Luther King, Jr?

    December 13, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  15. James Cecil

    Make no mistake about it; when it's all said and done the truth will definity come out. Namely: Megyn Kelly, is in fact white, as defined on Fox News (genetically, give or take 20%).

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

    Jesus's mother was white, but his father being God was black, like Obama's!
    So Jesus must have been black!

    December 13, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  17. rlj

    Why all the confusion – Jesus is a real historical person, and considering where he was born we should have a good idea of his skin color – it's very unlikely he was white. It's more important, however, that we don't have much confusion about what he stands for, even though many Christains don't follow it.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  18. Logic hurts

    Jesus likely never existed and Santa is a childrens story, like Jesus!

    December 13, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • Shirley You Got To Be Kidding

      It's better to prepare for Jesus second coming and find out there is no Jesus. Than to not prepare and find out there is a Jesus.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
      • Later

        Lets see spend eternity with a white hippy or with 72 virgins. If I had to choose one to believe just in case its real????

        December 13, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
  19. chrism

    God took human form but He transcends race and gender, and in fact, Christians are also called to. As St. Paul said, there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, you are one in Christ Jesus. That said, how sad is it that people are jumping all over and attacking Megyn Kelly. Her belief is understood. St. Nicholas was born Greek, and Jesus was born among the Jewish people. Both groups are thought of as Mediterranean – adjectives sometimes used include olive-skinned or even swarthy. Most would agree though Jews born ethnically in the regions Jesus was born are not considered "black." It is what it is. Everyone understands what was meant. Why persecute Megyn Kelly for her remarks?

    December 13, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • rlj

      Not considered white, either. Insisting that he was white is a little childish.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
      • chrism

        Yeah, you know what, I guess I do get why people object. It's better to not even label it at all. As Creator and a devout follower of our Creator, clearly Jesus and Santa transcend these appearances and lead us to.

        December 13, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  20. Balls of Steel

    God is a shape shifter and takes many forms. I can't believe people fight for what they perceived him to be. Who cares? you want him to be black, he is black, you want him to be Asian, you want him to be a cow, he is a cow. People must not have any worries but to argue irrelevant things.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • Balls of Steel

      Didn't address Santa. He is white.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:46 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.