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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. crakkka

    Its about time people stand up for what's white...

    December 13, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
  2. Paul

    Simple,

    Jesus = Jewish = Middle Easterner. Not Caucasian, Not Asian, Not African, BUT Middle Easterner.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
  3. YaRight

    And Aliens are green...

    December 13, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
  4. Bob Penn

    Jesus was a Jew and probably looked like someone from the area where he lived. Jesus is God of all. Jesus is a real historical person and is in the historical records.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
  5. Shirley You Got To Be Kidding

    All I know is that Jesus is my Savior and Santa better bring me my Rock-Em-Sock-em Robot. And the Robots are distinctively Red and Blue. Ha!

    December 13, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
  6. Me

    Why is it people forget, Jesus wasn't white, or black, or red, or yellow? He was Jewish, which is Semitic, which is olive skinned. Also, although a Jew, he was beyond that, he was every race, the human race, the Adamic race, buried with Him and raised to the Christic race, where there is no Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, black nor white, yellow nor red, for all are One in Christ Jesus.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • Rett

      ...all who received Him are one in Christ....

      December 13, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
      • Shirley You Got To Be Kidding

        I love you Rett!

        December 13, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
    • julian Stacey

      right! if he was real he would have probably had olive skin. Just like how if mickey mouse was real he would have been an inch tall and had whiskers.

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

      You were doing fine up to "Also, although a Jew, he was beyond that, ... ". No he wasn't beyond that. He was born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem (that myth was inserted later by winners (Catholics) of the early church prefabricators, revising history to fit their theological agenda). Yeshua bin Joseph was a human being born like you and me. He had four brothers and at least two sisters, all born from Mary. Jesus was a Jew through and through and never changed. He was a Semite and was probably around 5' 6" tall, brown complexion, black, probably curly hair, and brown eyes; a large nose and heavy lips, more than likely. He was nothing like the Western church depicts him. What a travesty – and started and perpetuated by the Roman Catholic Church, and all Protestant churches.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
      • Me

        No actually I was fine the whole way. As a Jew, a Semite, he was olive skinned, not the African features you describe. He was human, fully human, as us, and God, fully God. He was God, become man, that man, may become God. Learn the truth of Christianity. If you deny his deity, you know nothing.

        December 13, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
      • Me

        Also, I never said he was blond and blue eyed as you seem to think the West depicts Him. But He is the Son of God, born of Mary, born naturally the way we all are. That's what makes Him fully human. His supernatural conception is what makes Him deity. The marrying of human and divine in Him, being buried in His death and raised to Life, as we are to be with Him, is what gives us the potential, to become God – to the degree that God became man, man may become God. That, is the Christian truth.

        December 13, 2013 at 3:08 pm |
  7. Don

    It is only because Obama has to dictate everything. Ever sense I was a kid Jesus was white and now to be politically correct he has to be black. The Shroud of Turin does not show a black man. Now for Santa Clause He is a man of many nationalities for the few that don't believe in him. The money hungry Scrooge's out there are the one's pushing him to be white. He is what you want him to be.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
    • .

      Are you dim? The Shroud has been debunked, and Obama has nothing to do with this conversation

      December 13, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
    • Sokesky

      Shhhh...the adults are talking now. Take a nap, like a good boy.

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

      Jesus was not black. Politics has nothing to do with this. Megyn Kelly and most Christian are just totally ignorant of Biblical history. They are like sheep in the pews (pens) listening and believing what comes from the pulpit and what they see around them – the pictures of a white European Jesus.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  8. K-switch

    I know right! It's just like when they cast a black guy to play the kingpin in Daredevil. Everyone knows the kingpin was Russian.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  9. Andy

    Robot Santa in Futurama is grey.
    Jesus in Family Guy was white.

    The two this article is talking about and my example are both as valid because they are both as real.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
  10. Bob Penn

    Jesus was a Jew and probably looked like someone from that area where he lived. J

    December 13, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
  11. asdfg

    This is pointless since there is no Jesus.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • DaGuest

      Oh, there was a Jesus but he was a man not a savior or son of god.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
  12. Lilybean58

    Megyn Kelly proves once again that FOX news hires empty-headed, stupid bigots who have no real journalistic experience, but look great on camera. She has the IQ of a dead flashlight battery and is only window dressing for an otherwise idiocy-ridden false news channel. I do not understand how anyone can watch these people. The do no research, report false news stories and they work for Rupert Murdoch (the paragon of ethics) – which by itself, should be enough for anyone to hit another channel number on the remote.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • DrWu

      It's good to see posters who are keeping their own politically driven emotions out of their arguments. lol

      December 13, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
  13. Brady

    Its simple. Jesus was born in Bethlehem so he is Palestinian and we'll assume he and Mary are light skinned Arabs. Now God created man in Africa so I'm going to say God is black. So when God knocked up Mary, she had a half black/half Arab son named Jesus. So Jesus is not white. It's science.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
  14. A E

    Assuming you believe in Jesus, it is absolutely certain he was not white. That is simple geography.

    Santa Claus, being an undeniably fictional character and an invention of the Dutch, is most certainly white as that is what he has been depicted as since he was invented hundreds of years ago.

    You are making the choice to follow a religion whose traditions and followers are mostly European. If you don't like that then why not worship whoever your ancestors did? Obviously you liked something about christianity, so don't try to make it change to fit your view of the world.

    Full disclosure, this is the opinion of an atheist.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • Ryan

      There a lot of black people in Finland. The birth place of Santa

      December 13, 2013 at 2:19 pm |
      • DrWu

        Santa Claus is a historical fictional character of American culture. White the fictional character in the culture originated with the legend of St. Nicholas...the fictional character of Santa Claus was popularized in advertising images by the Coca Cola company as a rotund, bearded elderly white man in a red and white suit in the early 20th century.

        December 13, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
  15. Hindenburg

    The ignorance of Fox's reporters is just astounding. We should require a test on pertinent knowledge areas before letting anyone presume to broadcast "news."

    December 13, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
  16. Jerod Kiger

    I think the outrage has more to do with the fact that this is, supposedly, a news channel. When they put out information that is simply not true and treat it as fact they are losing what little credibility they have left. How can anyone seriously watch Fox "News"

    December 13, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
  17. Carl

    Pointless arguments, since the genetic demographics of the Middle East have never been "White," in the definition of "Caucasian." One must rely on historical mosaics, wall paintings and other archaeological scientific finding of the age to find that their where no fair skin people in the Middle East, not even in the Roman Army, which was a mixture of many races. Thus, the argument of a "White" Jesus with so much historical facts contradicting this notion, shows total ignorance and disregards to knowledge. We should not have this argument, what matters is the words and principles of this faith. There are no descriptions that have ever survived time by any disciples, thus in the interest of politics, control, wealth and power! Some seem to take the liberties of creating convenient truths to justify their failure in accepting factual knowledge in the interest of arguments, which is ludicrous violating all the teachings of the faith, which is all inclusive. Only ignorance can drive falsehoods and assumptions, which is the tools of hate, discrimination, wars and intolerance. Have a wonderful holiday season! Take time to become knowledgeable of what is real and not what is created for the purpose of division of the human species! You will be a better person!

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

      Nicely said. This whole argument, like using skin color to define people, is pretty stupid. The Nazis didn't consider Jews white, but said Navajo were "Aryan" (a language group, but never mind) because one of their big supporters had some Native American ancestry. And technically the dark skinned people of India are "Caucasian" because of other features...this all gets pretty silly, but then consider the source. 19th Century European anthropologists trying to invent their field, outright racists, the ignorant, and modern right wing extremists. But maybe I'm repeating myself with the last group.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
  18. George

    Based on the region, they had to be more olive complected.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
  19. OldSchool

    There is no actual verifiable evidence of the existence of this Jesus figure that would be accepted as proof by contemporary historians. Curious for someone who allegedly had such sweeping influence...

    December 13, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
  20. Ed F.

    There is no proof Jesus ever existed and Santa is a character.

    But Jesus would have been a darker skinned Middle Eastern Jew.

    St. Nick was a Greek in what is today Turkey, also dark skinned,

    December 13, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • Shirley You Got To Be Kidding

      RedBone?

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

      Yeah, and all whites are African-Americans who lost their pigments.
      What a bunch of crapola !

      December 13, 2013 at 2:22 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.