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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. sO saD..

    (Revelation 1: 12-17)
    " I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone "like a son of man,"dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance."

    December 13, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      look out, it's voldemort!!!

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

      So a glowing yellow then, possibly oriental?

      December 13, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
    • sO saD..

      It doesnt matter what color is WAS..the point is that he was a jew, with dark skinned and hair like WOOL!
      BUT THE REAL POINT IS..that is was GOD's SON and thats all that matters. The meaning of what he stood for. This country is DAMAGED by sterotypes, and race. AND UNTIL everyone gets a DNA test..Which I strongly recommend it..you'll see that you all have a little mixed blood,,and dont cry or hate yourself when you find out the truth

      December 13, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
  2. Teo

    Why all the fuss? According to the New Testament, Jesus was 100% Jewish, born in the Kingdom of Judea to a completely Jewish family. If we take his existence as a fact based on the New Testament, then we must believe the description that the New Testament gives of him. No amount of political correctness or post-modern mentality can change the ancient texts upon which his existence is based. But obviously, his origins are mostly irrelevant now since the religion that was based upon him doesn't consider his race or national origin an essential part of his message.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
  3. JFS3

    The whole 'Belief Blog' is meant to be divisive. CNN has been reduced to pathetic opinion stories just to get you riled up.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • Not All Docs Play Golf

      Unlike the uniters over at Fox, huh?

      December 13, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      it's so pathetic that you are here commenting ...

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

    The historical Jesus wasn't white. He was a Palestinian Jew. Not racist. Historical fact.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
    • Jericha

      Exactly what I said while reading article. But nobody wants to point and figure out where Bethlehem is on a map.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
    • Just another Atheist

      I would imagine the Messiah would appear to anybody as whatever they needed him to appear as: looking different to anybody that viewed him. His job on Earth was to bring people together in the worship of God. As societies then were just as divided and distrustful of each other as they are today, to choose to appear as any one of them would only serve to alienate the others.

      Genetically speaking, the Semitic peoples are far closer to Caucasians than either Arabs or North Africans. So it would be doubtful that he would have dark skin.

      Historically, there is a lot of overlap between all the people in the area. The Caucasus region was often enough in the same Empire or Kingdom as the Semitic areas due to various conquering forces. It is why they have such close genetic ties.

      Was Jesus white? Probably not Julian Assange white, but he most likely did have fair skin.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
  5. BrownNotBlack

    Seriously....Megyn Kelly for the record your an "idiot"!!! Like Kanye West... And "idiots" should not be on television for all to hear and see. Clearly another example of how sinister her up bring must have been in reflection to other races. @Megyn Kelly....you sound ignorant and foolish with your idealist views. If your making comments like this about something so obvious; I could only imagine what your brain thinks about other races, the truth about American history and the human race and its history. Its time to wake up lady because the "whites only" dream is dead!

    December 13, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
  6. Jackie Whitt

    Jesus was not white. You, see how ignorant the Fox News people are. ITs, a lack of real history education. They have a real hard time accepting the true at Fox. Christ was a Hebrew, not white skin. More olive. Now, Santa can be a lot of colors and has a lot of differnet names. St. Nick, Father Christmas, many different countries and people see Santa in their color and makeup. He is a icon for the season in many different places, with many skin colors and faces. Megan Kelly needs to read more on the history of Jesus before stating something. Just, like Christmas is really not his birthday at all. Read Megan Kelly,read before you open your mouth.

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

      Al Sharpton and the New York Times call him a white hebrew....kinda of like a white hispanic.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
  7. Vic

    I believe the most realistic way to look at it is that Jesus Christ in the flesh was white in the sense that he was not black, but not necessarily European white.

    Like it has been noted in the article and some comments, what matters is the "Message Of Jesus Christ" and NOT what He looked like.

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

      He wasn't blonde and blue eyed. That's for sure.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
      • Vic

        Most certainly.

        December 13, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Vic,

      in the pictures in your illustrated bible that you had as a child, did Jesus look Semitic, or like a European?

      December 13, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
  8. Jennifer

    If there is a God, I don't think God would give a flip about skin color or gender. Those are petty obsessions of the physical realm.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
  9. Beaver face

    I want to have Megan over for Xmas dinner

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

    Santa is white, or else he'd be stealing instead of giving.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
  11. Terry

    Hmmmm...
    Jesus was from the Middle East meaning that he most likely was dark skinned, had dark hair and dark eyes.
    Just a thought.

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

      The "Middle East" is a region, not an ethnicity. There are people of all races living in the Middle East.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
  12. Ted

    Bob Penn you are correct. 2000 years ago people were not migrating to different parts of the world like now. The people of Jeruselm 2000 years ago were not blond and fair skinned. Look at the news clips from that region; that was Jesus" color. Bigots.

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

      Read about history 2,000 years ago and you will find that, especially in terms of the Middle East, there were many massive forced migrations. Whenever a country like Rome, Egypt, Syria, Babylon, Assyria, Greece, or any other conquering nation, took over new territory, it would deport the local men. This was to help prevent local uprisings. This is why even by the time of Jesus there were Jews living throughout the world.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
  13. BrownNotBlack

    Seriously....Megyn Kelly for the record your an "idiot"!!! Like Kanye West... And "idiots" should not be on television for all to hear and see. Clearly another example of how sinister her up bring must have been in reflection to other races. @Megyn Kelly....you sound ignorant and foolish with your idealist views. If your making comments like this about something so obvious all I could only imagine what your brain thinks about other races, the truth about American history and the human race and its history. Its time to wake up lady because the "whites only" dream is dead!

    December 13, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
  14. JMO

    I thought Santa wasn't even human. He is a Jolly elf.

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

      Santa Clause is human. Only his slaves are elves.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
      • JMO

        According to this eye-witness:

        "He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
        And I laugh'd when I saw him in spite of myself;"

        December 13, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  15. Evan

    Why do people who don't even believe or care about Jesus make such a fuss? If people loved Jesus for who he is and what he has done instead of what color he was, there would be no big debate.

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

      There are some people that cannot stand the thought of worshipping anything other than a White God, and if Jesus was not White, then God was not as well. These are the same people that cannot stand the thought of living in a country with a President that is not lily White. For the rest of us, the race of Jesus does not matter one iota.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
      • Kellee

        Well said!!!!!!!!!!!!!

        December 13, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
  16. Truth

    "The nation not only has a black president..." Uh news flash, Mr Obama's mother was 'white',
    figure it out for yourself CNN if you can. Having enough of class warfare now cnn is starting in on
    race warfare

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

      Personally, I would agree with you that Obama should not be called "White" or "Black" but merely American. However, most people in America consider somebody who is of a mixed race consisting party African to be "Black". Therein lies the problem and why America has so many racial divides.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  17. just sayin

    So did God make a zygote appear in Mary's belly or just a load?

    December 13, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  18. Sam

    Soon they'll be loading us onto freight cars.

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

      And the sky is falling. Don't forget that.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
  19. adibese

    Well, it used to be that anyone who disagreed with the church was brutally tortured. Only thanks to the internet, and the sharing of information, have people become confident to come out of the skeptical closet.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:29 pm |
  20. Jeffrey

    It all depends on what part of the world you are in. Each depiction of Jesus is different. Some have him white, some have him olive in color, and other have him black. It does not matter his color only his teachings.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:29 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.