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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. bob

    Darwin was white and that's what matters. Jesus was just a dumb Palestinian.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
    • ivantsubasa

      I will be praying for you Bob. God Bless you.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • don

      and yet Darwin will still bow his knees before Jesus.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  2. Wolf Blitzer

    This is another example of the new bigots – Haters that think that the white race owes them something. We owe them nothing, in fact, WE INVENTED Santa Claus, his modern persona was designed by COCA COLA. If you don't know those facts you have nothing to say in this matter. BTW – Santa Claus is based entirely on Saint Nicholas, who was TURKISH.
    As far as Jesus (IF he was real), was from the middle east – he probably looked arabic, spoke aramaic. Neither "white" nor "black". Seriously people, eat a cheeseburger, enjoy life, and shut the F up.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      'We owe them nothing, in fact, WE INVENTED Santa Claus, his modern persona was designed by COCA COLA. If you don't know those facts you have nothing to say in this matter. '

      The irony of your statement is that his modern persona wasn't designed by coca cola at all. Images of a fat jolly santa in red robes appeared decades before coca cola used him in their ads. Heck they weren't even the first drinks company to use him in their ads, that place goes to White Rock beverages.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
  3. tamara

    Next thing you know they'll be telling us that the flying spagetti monster isn't white

    December 13, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
    • Butch McSnutch

      Well-played

      December 13, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
  4. richard

    Santa was white and you can say anything you want but he is still white and he was real just read about St Nick, it shows me that people cant read and will just say anything online. Jesus was white as his brothers were, you cant change that , and if you look at people the from the area he was from? they all say they are white

    December 13, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
  5. Skeptimist

    Meg knows for sure because she's got photos of Jesus and Santa... with autographs!

    December 13, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
  6. Butch McSnutch

    If Santa came down the chimney and took things instead of leaving them, her critics might have a point.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
  7. Here we go with the Race game again.

    Here we go again with the Black or White crap..Why can't we just get over the damn race thing already.If the Blacks want a black santa let em have one if they want a black jesus l
    et em have one. As long as we can have a White one also. No problem.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
  8. dsangiovanni

    Do not know why this started as an issue...Why this country is so focus on color.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
  9. del

    Who fkn cares what blacks think anymore. In the last twenty years I've become a racist just because we are forced to listen to a bunch of race card playing whiney, hypothetical, pos. F off darky. I'm sick and tired of your sht

    December 13, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
    • cedar rapids

      so you whine about people whining?
      of course you do, thats the sort of person you are.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
    • Danielle

      The funny part is that 90% of the people whining are white

      December 13, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
  10. Badump Bump...

    What's Megyn Kellys favorite pick up line at parties?

    "I'm so drunk..."

    What's Megyn Kellys second favorite pick up line if the first doesn't work?

    "I said i'm soo drunk!"

    December 13, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
  11. White Latino

    Americans are the only ones that make a big issue on race!! "I'm white, so I'm better than you"! I hate that crap!!! White means anybody that is a descendant of people from Europe. That is the ACTUAL definition of white. It actually includes people from the Middle East. Have you seen how some Israelites look like? Blonde and Red hair, Blue and green eyes. I'm latino (which also includes Italians, Romanians, Portuguese and every that speaks a language that came from Latin), and my family came from Spain, and here where I live I'm not considered white because I also speak Spanish, even though I have white skin, light brown hair and blue eyes. They say I "look" white!

    It's all about a fight of who is better than who, and that sickens me! And in the end guess what? Everybody in America is a mutt!! Irish, Italians, Spanish, Mexicans, Africans, Asians, whatever it is! America was made of so many coutries and skin colors that nobody here has the right to call himself better than anyone just beacuse his skin color is lighter, and less involve Jesus in this stupid fight... And Santa doesn't even exist!!!

    December 13, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  12. w

    You know if her "beliefs" were not so pathetic the whole situation would be humorous! But, they are and it is not. And BTW Saint Nicholas was Greek (possibly of Turkish ancestry) and so Mediterranean. Meaning that yes, he was "Caucasian", but hardly a pale-skinned, blue/light eyed, white-haired man with rosy cheeks! He would have looked MUCH more like the historical Jewish Jesus with darker/olive skin, dark eyes, and dark hair (most likely curly). And THEREBY NOTHING like the modern western depictions of EITHER of them. The modern depiction of "Santa" is actually only about 100 hears old and was mostly brought about by advertising for Coca-Cola!

    December 13, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
    • Lisa

      In Kelly's view, 100 years is "forever" and meets the criteria for "throughout history". The Coca Cola version is all she's ever known so don't be messing with her mind. LOL.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • Cosmo

      Yeah, I think you've got it right. Jesus was a 1st century Jew, who were a Semitic people. Most likely, Jesus looked fairly similar to a modern day Levantine Arab. So although it would be correct to call him Caucasian, probably not as correct to call him "white". Most people use the term white to refer to someone of European ancestry.

      It's kind of equally silly to portray Jesus as black. Although not impossible, especially since there is no physical description of him in the bible, the likelihood of Jesus being from sub-Saharan Africa is very, very low. I'm not a scholar, butI consider myself to be a bit of an amateur historian, and I know of no evidence that shows any portion of the Jewish population in Judea in the 1st century was sub-Saharan in origin. Can't rule it out completely, but it's probably good to apply Occam razor to this one...

      December 13, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • Tacitus Talks`

      Turkish ancestry – 400 AD – are you that stupid. The Turks were in Central Asia booby. He was probably a Gaul, since that is part of Galatia - known as 'the land of the Gauls – ie WHITE. Even IF GREEK. Greeks in 400 AD look NOTHING like they do today – after 500-600 years of Turkish inbreeding. You want to see what a Greek looks like from 400 AD, look at the Hunza – they are descended from Alexanders troops. All of these public school rejects that think they are smart because they have an internet connection.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
    • Vlad

      The disheartening thing is that grown-up people pretend these fairy tales are real. They were stories created to entertain children, just use them to learn about different cultures. It's ridiculous to put so much effort in order to get inserted into a piece of fiction. I fear the day they will look for racism in Snowhite.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
  13. Selase

    Even if he were, would white people accept it? Plus this talk about Jesus being middle eastern and not possibly being black is invalid. Learn your history people. There are so many black African ethnicities who claim to have migrated from west Asia (middle east) according to their oral history. Did Arabs occupy north Africa 2000 years ago, no they did not, but today majority of it is occupied by Arabs. Why then could blacks not have occupied Western Asia at one time?

    December 13, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  14. Dr. PhilMeInOnCommonSense

    Satan is red. So is Santa.

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

      Thank you, Church Lady.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
    • Dr. PhilMeInOnCommonSense

      Jesus was a Jewish man. So he was dark skinned and dark haired, just like the Jews and cousins Arabs are today.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
      • .

        Yes, I know. You need to tell Megyn. She us the one who's confused.

        December 13, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
  15. bostontola

    Why is it surprising that people who believe a God created the universe in 6 days, believe skin color matters?

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

      Or that your comments matter.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        oh bostontola matters! he is like Mr. Miyagi! so much wisdom! wax on, wax off.

        December 13, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
  16. Emma Goldman

    I vote that they are both any color that the racists don't want them to be. Forever, Amen.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
    • claudius1964

      lol.... right on!!!

      December 13, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
  17. bobby blevins

    People will never advance until they stop thinking think race, act like a race and believe entirely as a specific race. People need think, act and believe as one race which is HUMAN RACE. So Eeveryone should stop thinking as a color and start thinking as though you are the Human Race. Then an only then can we start solving some of the worlds problems.

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

      Exactly and the government and media are the biggest promoters of racism.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
  18. Chris

    There are sources for a description of the Christ beyond the bible – which never does describe his physical appearance. He is described however by a contemporary Roman historian who was also Jewish named Josephus. While not flattering, his description of a fellow Jew is probably accurate. Regarding St. Christopher, he was most certainly a Greek Orthodox Bishop from Ephasis in modern Turkey. There are many Icons (paintings) of him from that culture (Byzantium), and that faith, The Greek Orthodix Church. A lot of debate can be solved with a little effort and actual scholarship. In none of these is he blond or brunet, tall, caucasian or handsome.

    December 13, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
  19. Steve

    "You can safely assume that you've created God (or Jesus) in your own image when he hates all the same people you do" ~ Ann Lamont

    December 13, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
  20. Badump Bump...

    What did Megyn Kelly say when she found out she was pregnant?

    "I hope it's mine!"

    December 13, 2013 at 1:57 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.