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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. mojonaamdi

    JESUS was AMERICAN, WHITE and REPUBLICAN

    December 13, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
    • sly

      Wow – harsh – you calling Jesus a 3-time loser?

      Cut the dude some slack. Allah is God, but Jesus deserves just a bit more respect now, don't you think?

      December 13, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
  2. Valentina

    I thought that Archie Bunker and George Jefferson settled the question of Jesus' race years ago.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
  3. JC

    First, I'm convinced Kelly is a progressive. Nobody is that stupid accidentally. Second, Jesus was middle eastern, and Santa was white. Jesus was Jewish. And Santa was an Italian. Third, you can make them whatever you want because both are fictional characters.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
    • .

      She's on Fox, ninny. She's not a Progressive.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
    • Sokesky

      Yes, people really are that stupid. And St. Nicholas (who is generally believed to be the inspiration for Santa) was, I believe, Dutch.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
      • Sokesky

        But you're correct; they can be any color anyone wants. 🙂

        December 13, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
  4. Sam

    How soon will be loaded onto freight cars?

    December 13, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
  5. David

    It's funny, in the days of Jesus, the average Jew looked "black" enough that if you saw him today you'd think he was either biracial or or some ethinic looking black guy, like Shemar Moore, or the Rock.

    You wouldnt confuse the Jews back then of being like the ROMANS for example who oppressed them, or the Germanic people further north of Rome.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
  6. rs1201

    Jesus was white and Jewish...deal with it!

    December 13, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
    • David

      The two don't go hand in hand. Modern Jews are obviously mixed with the German and European... they look like them.

      They do no look like the Jews that stayed in the Levant, and do not look like the Jews of 2000 years ago.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
      • Pat0

        Once again Jewish (Jew) is a religion not a race, nationality or a color!!!!

        December 13, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
        • Sokesky

          Originally, Jewish people intermarried only other Jewish people, so it was an ethnicity...and definitely not Anglo Saxon, Nordic, Germanic or Caucasian. They were a Middle Eastern people.

          December 13, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
  7. Evan

    Jesus was not black or white. He was an olive color. Similar to what we see in pure Jewish blood from Israel. But I like Megan Kelley and I don't see the big issue. If people would just love Jesus for what he is and not what he may

    December 13, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
    • David

      Becuse she did make an issue of someone else's point of view that Jesus could be black.

      So you dont have an issue with her having an issue and bringing it up on TV.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
    • rs1201

      I'm a Jew born in Egypt...not too far from Israel...they share a border. My family on both sides has been Jewish for generations. My grandfather was a rabbi...a highly respected orthodox rabbi. Now let's get to the part that will contradict most of what was said in these comments. All of us are blonde with either blue eyes or green eyes and we're all very fair skinned.
      Deal with it!!!!

      December 13, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
      • Pat0

        Yes, very true

        December 13, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
  8. juan jose

    why do they argue about the color of a fictional character as fake as a 3 dollar bill

    December 13, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
    • adibese

      Almost half of America believes in Noah and the Ark. Why not say the Jesus character was white with blue eyes?

      December 13, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
    • Victor Levy

      In truth Jesus did exist and did preach in Galilee. Up for debate is his status as the son of god borne of a virgin...in my opinion anyways..

      December 13, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
  9. happyelf

    Megyn needs to sit on black Santas lap

    December 13, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
    • Emma Goldman

      Might give her a new perspective.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
      • skarphace

        "Is that your present or are you just happy to see me?"

        December 13, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
  10. edpeters101

    She's Blonde and works for FAUX News: You expected something different? Of course, Blonde doesn’t have anything to do with it..

    December 13, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
    • .

      The dye soaking into her brain had obviously affected her thinking.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
  11. Damien B.

    IF Jesus existed ( Jesus is not a confirmed historical figure. There are scholars who debate his existance ) IF he existed he was most certainly NOT white. The statement from Megan Kelly ( who ever she is) is ignorant and foolish. Talking about Santa's race is ridiculous, who cares.

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

      Jesus existed. No scholars debate this,

      December 13, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
  12. Celtic Druid

    The myth and tradition of Santa Claus has its creation rooted in European Pagan traditions. As any halfway intelligent human should know, the European inhabitants who initiated this tradition were white. It is a fact that at the time the tradition began, these Europeans knew of no other "races" or people with skin of any other color than their own. To make Santa a racial issue is absurd and ignorant. By the way people...we are supposed to be evolved , as a global civilization, beyond the race issue. I find it disgusting that those who most despise racism are the very people who perpetuate the issue.

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

      Santa has gotten so far away from his roots that now he can be any color, including green, as long as he's got the the red suit and a white beard.

      The Grinch certainly got this point across via Dr. Seuss.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
  13. mrerry christmas

    oh boy

    December 13, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  14. Erin

    This is exactly what happens when non-Christians debate who Jesus is.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  15. Maria Delaluz

    Jesus was Jewish. He MAY have been a light skin Jew, but MOST likely a dark skin Jew as he spent most of his time outdoors. But really, what difference does it make?????

    December 13, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  16. Derp

    John Stewart doesn't realize you can record shows and play at different times. I am shocked

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

      What?

      December 13, 2013 at 2:26 pm |
  17. SgtRock101

    The article topic is a another foot-in-mouth statement by a FOX entertainment shock jocktress statement. FOX rating must be slipping and another stab into racial disagreement always bring out the worst in the nation to support FOX advertisers. Megan is the best thing FOX has going for increased revenue. If only she'd have a wardrobe malfunction on air. WOWWW you'd see that ad revenue go thru the roof.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
  18. duh!!

    Jesus and Santa are really albino midgets

    December 13, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
  19. logan5

    Being that Jesus was from the Middle East, he more than likely was dark skinned. So much for "Fair and Balanced..."

    December 13, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
  20. BurnNotice

    Shame on the Fox network!

    Shame, shame, shame on you!

    Fox has glorified, publicized, and helped to perpetuate a vile stereotype: "The Dumb Blond".

    December 13, 2013 at 2:25 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.