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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. Kisha

    First of all his has shown there is no way on this earth Jesus was white. The fact that it was white people (The Romans) who crucified Jesus in the first place because he said he was the King (that along will make a white person kill a black person to this day). Also, white people are too inherently evil to possess the gentle, kind, compassionate and unconditional character traits that Jesus possess. White people don't forgive at all or as easy as black people have had to forgive for Centuries. Even looking at South Africa and the Apartheid which shows how white people can kill without remorse take over your land and keep you as slaves in your own land. Or they can go by the way of the good old USA and exterminate the native people then bring slaves over to work for free. There isn't a race, nationality on this earth that white people haven't played a hand in destroying...Africans, Arabs, Asians, Jews, Aboriginals (Australian), Spanish(South America & Spain), and you are telling me that Jesus was the same color as white people. That what white people have to tell themselves because if they found out Jesus was black they will join the church of Satan, unlike people of color who has always accepted Jesus as the way he was no matter the skin color.

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

      Sorry, History has shown is what I meant to say....

      December 13, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
      • andrew

        What a weird person you are.

        December 13, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
    • Bill

      Kosha
      Jesus was neither "white" nor "black" ... Jesus was semitic, just as Jews and Arabs are.
      The rest of your post was a hate-filled rant. I hop you do not call yourself Christian ... because your heart is not the heart of Jesus.
      Jesus is love.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
      • Charles

        Bill, I agree with you, Kesha was upset about something. Yes, Jesus was Semitic. He was neither White or Black as those terms are used today. Specifically he was the son of Abraham, meaning an offspring of Abraham. Abraham was Semite. He was not White as we use the term. Semites were and are a brown often nappy headed people. Some are offended by the term nappy headed, but I am not using it to offend just to describe. Jesus hair in the Bible is described as like wool. I for one am glad the God chose the Semite population group in which to send his vehicle for salvation. The Arabs and the Jews are the sons of Abraham, and I have no beef with either group.

        December 13, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
  2. Emma Goldman

    Pope Francis? Put down your crack pipe. He said Jesus was brown skinned.

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

      YOUR AN IDIOT WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?

      December 13, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
  3. R. DiBerto

    Jesus was Olive colored. Like most from Egypt and India.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
  4. Chris

    Jesus was born and raised in the middle east from a middle eastern bloodline.

    I don't think that qualifies as white.

    As for Santa if you are white – make santa white. If you are oriental, make him oriental. If you are talking about the actual St. Nick, he was white (russian).

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

      Greek. St. Nicholas was Greek living in what is now modern day Turkey.

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

      Asian* not Oriental.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
  5. Sam

    Revelations 1:14-16 describes his hair as like white wool and his skin as bronze, which probably matches up pretty well to a Jewish man from Nazareth.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
  6. glindathegood5

    Jesus was Palestinian/Arabic ethnically living in the Middle East. So he was brown skinned, neither white or black. Santa is fictional so he can be made any race you want.

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

      Glinda your point about Santa is well taken... but given that he was based on the real life Saint Nicholas, you'd have to say he is olive skinned. As Nicholas was born in the area of Greece and Turkey

      December 13, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
  7. Whites Only

    Calling people by race is getting old. How about not labeling people by skin color and maybe, just maybe, our children will grow up not being as racist as we are.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
  8. Tom

    I am a life long GOP'r but I have to say that clearly you have to take and pass a "stupidity test" to work at FOX!

    December 13, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  9. Mark

    This shows the power of a painting. Since we've all seen Renaissance-era paintings showing Jesus as white, as well as Currier and Ives paintings showing Santa as white, we assume that both really were white: But a painting is only an illustration, not a photograph, and it can be used to mislead.

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

    Like, Jesus was this dude with long blond hair and sandals who looked like everyone else back at the first Woodstock.

    I always thought it was groovy that the image of god was a hippy.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Hippies are the dead and in hell.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
      • Whoa Dude

        Thanks for sharing your Christian love, man.

        December 13, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
      • sly

        I'm firin' up a fat No-Cal Sensi to that one John!

        And a little Jimi ....

        December 13, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
  11. jj

    A few issues. This is a serious article. That people ARGUE over skin color is very telling. People like to believe that Jesus and God look just like them...
    Yes, Jesus and St Nick were real people. But they were NEVER what we celebrate them for. They were just people who did some good deeds. Society filled in the rest of the myth. So it can be said – they were both real and not real.
    It is the message (of both men) that we should celebrate. I have no issue of a white, black, Asian Santa. Today, it's a fairy tale for children of all races.
    Christians seem to ignore all Christ's teachings, yet have the time to argue about his racial purity. In this era of cutting funds for poor, hungry families, LOWERING the taxes on the rich, and allowing laws to be passed by millionaires, funded by billionaires? The returned Christ, Mohammed, or even Buddha wouldn't survive a week!
    We've all read this lately – 'put the Christ back in Christmas? They should try to put the Christ back in Christianity!'

    December 13, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  12. KdK

    Just ignorant! Get off the air!

    December 13, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
  13. seafoodwatch

    Who cares, the oldest human remains were found in Spain. Does anybody remember what color they were? Biologically, humans are about the least important thing on this planet. I like Santa no matter what!!

    December 13, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
  14. Gene

    CNN sure loves to mix the pot of faith...what an irrelevant article and it brought the trolls... just as expected.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
  15. Benjamin

    You missed the entire point of why anyone felt any outrage, which essentially: "It's not what you say, it's how you say it."

    December 13, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
  16. BM

    Aisha Harris is a racist. Her reference to white people as "melanin-deficient" is like referring to blacks as "bloated lipped". Her desire to change the racial makeup of the heros of European culture is equivalent to pretending that Nelson Mandel was white. Saint Nicholas was a historical figure and was European. I don't see how this is different than KKK members pretending that Jesus was not Jewish because they despise them. Apparently Harris thinks being caucasian is a genetic deficiency.

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

      He was a Greek who lived in What is now modern day Turkey. Get a grip. Apparently you like to rewrite history to fit you WASP view.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  17. fidel

    jesus never existed, solved

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

      Jesus have more historical proof and mention than any ancient. So for you to say Jesus was fictional means that everyone from Leonidas to Hannibal to Caesar was fictional since there is far less mention of them. The real debate is whether or not Jesus fulfilled the Messianic prophecies. Even Jesus enemies back in the day acknowledged he existed.

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

        When you can prove that Jesus existed without mentioning the bible we will talk.

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

          Ya the ancient Jews who crucified their own savior accuse him of being a sorcerer and the Ancient Romans though they deny his divinity acknowledge him as beign the founder of the "worshippers of Chrestus." Also the Bible isn't one solid book, it is a collection of many books written variably throughout history.

          December 13, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
        • watergirl

          pretty much. He actually may have been made up to compete with a real life popular rabbi. It was an advertising race, the fictional guy won.

          December 13, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
      • watergirl

        Have you ever seen these books? I haven't.

        December 13, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
  18. t-bird

    Neither exists, so why does it matter?

    December 13, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • Anonymous

      Even Jesus enemies acknowledged he existed. The real debate is whether or not he fulfilled Messianic Prophecy.

      If you want to be ignorant and say Jesus never existed you now have to say none of the ancient roman or greeks or any ancient person from Plato to Caesar ever existed since they are mentioned far less than Jesus in history.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
      • cedar rapids

        'any ancient person from Plato to Caesar ever existed since they are mentioned far less than Jesus in history.'

        you sure you want to make that claim?

        December 13, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
        • Anonymous

          I make that claim and it stands. Supporters and enemies of Jesus from the time of the Ancients mention Jesus more than they do Caesar or Plato. So if you want to say Jesus did not walk Earth you have to say neither did Plato or Caesar.

          Or you could be logical, accept that all three of these men walked Earth at one point in time thanks to historical proofs and then begin a more intellectual debate of whether or not Jesus fulfilled Prophecy or whether he was just a good man that was murdered for no reason.

          December 13, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
    • Paul

      HAHAHA This guy's so clever. Do you have any explanation for this? Did 12 individuals simply make him up to gain some kind of political/religious power? Are you aware that thousands of Christians died in the Roman Colisseum? What would YOU give your life for? WHy would you suppose someone else would from pure myth? By 300 A.D. the entire mighty Roman Empire had adopted Christianity as a more or less State religion. How could all of this influence come for a non-existent person? I have no absolute proof he existed either but saying he didn't just to be a troll isn't particularly scientific.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
  19. Mr. Butters

    Well we can go by what the bible claims. That he was born in Bethlehem. Which would be in the Middle East. So sure, you can call him white. But you have to call everyone else from the area white also.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  20. whocares

    They are both made up fictional characters.

    Who cares what color people say they are. I'm voting for purple

    Yeah, I know CNN go ahead and #$^#$&% moderate my comments – again

    December 13, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • Mrs. Claus

      Well I can tell you for a fact, some parts of my hubby are deffinately purple...

      December 13, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • Anonymous

      1. Santa Claus is a fictional character but he is based off a real person that was from Turkey.

      2. Jesus has more historical mention than any other Ancient, mentioned both by his enemies and supporters more than any other person in Ancient History. So to say Jesus didn't even exist is ignorance beyond comprehension. The real debate and question is whether or not Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of being the Messiah, for which there is a lot of weight supporting the fact that he indeed was.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
      • Peter

        Please provide us with all of the accounts of Jesus that were produced while he was alive.

        December 13, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
        • Anonymous

          Well CNN edit out my much lengthier reply, so I'll just say this.

          Do a search on wikipedia for Historical Jesus. Take a look at that basic info, then start digging deeper. Also don't throw the Bible aside too fast, the Bible is merely a collection of books with many different authors and perspective. So I would say read the many books and letters of the New Testament, delve into the complete roman histories that survived the Dark Ages (many of these people are enemies of Jesus, but still accept he existed), check out the Jewish sources like the Talmud (these guys accept Jesus lived but they were enemies of him), and finally if you want to just be well-rounded even delve into some of the writings of the Ancients which are only fragmentary (ie: Thallus) which either record Jesus as a historical person or events from around his time (going back to Thallus he was a pagan that never knew Jesus, but he records the darkness of the World at the time of Jesus crucifixion.) There are even more sources both complete and incomplete, for and against Jesus, but they all point to the fact he walked Earth. All this is just the tip of the iceburg, but it's a good place to start.

          Again the real scholarly debate should be whether or not he fulfill the Prophecies that provably came before him (provable thanks to Dead Sea Scrolls.)

          December 13, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
        • Joey

          How hard would it have been to make up a story about a guy who fulfills all of the prophecies that you had read? The bible is proof of nothing. and there are no contemporary accounts of Jesus, hell even the gospels were written by people who never had any contact with Jesus.

          December 13, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
        • Peter

          As far as Thallus goes, Some people believe that Thallus refers to the darkness, reported in the Synoptic gospels as falling over the world at the time of Jesus' death, explaining it as an eclipse. However, this is impossible as only a lunar eclipse can occur at Passover, and lunar eclipses are not visible at mid day (the 6th hour as reported in the gospels) due to the moon being directly opposite the sun, and therefore below the horizon. An eclipse can therefore not be used to establish a pre-Markan origin for the story spoken of in the Gospel of Mark as some people claim.

          December 13, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
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