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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. Mercury

    To the FOX News crowd, the very premise that Jesus was perfect - would intrinsically predicate that he was white.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
  2. sfarris

    Why is the supposed skin color of these two legends important?

    December 13, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
  3. Bob

    Jesus was Hebrew. Olive colored skin. St. Nicolas was Greek. Olive colored skin. In either case not white Western Europe, not African black. Take both current depictions give them a tan and then we can end this stupid discussion.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
  4. crakkka

    Next they will say Adam and eve were a gay interracial couple... just cuz it sounds PC

    December 13, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
    • sly

      Eve was transgender dude ... look more closely at the photographs. Adam liked to roll both ways. Heck, it's cool – been happening since before God invented humans 1200 years ago ...

      December 13, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
  5. janemutiny

    Newsflash Megyn: The physical appearance of imaginary friends is as varied as the people who hold them dear.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
    • Liberace: Americas Greatest American

      My Santa is an ebony stud with a massive meathammer. Ho Ho Ho!

      December 13, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
  6. Blackcurry

    Jesus was a Jew and probably had the same characteristics of his people. Saint NIcholas was a real person who was morphed into the character we see today. Whether he was Greek, Danish or whatever, there is no particular reason to declare that he was "white." White is not the perfect color for people to be. God made his children in many colors to share the earth. If you can't accept that, how can you be Christian??

    December 13, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
  7. Not Bill O'Reilly

    The mythical "war on Christmas" gets dumber and dumber every year.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
    • .

      Considet the source: Fox "News".

      December 13, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Perhaps we can gain additional insights from "Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas", Sarah Palin's latest "book".

      December 13, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
      • Groucho Marxist

        The first book published in crayon no doubt, composed of single-syllable words.

        December 13, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
  8. CJ

    I am of Middle East descent (Persian, non arab) and have olive skin. I am a Caucasian. Hence...I am "white". Last I checked on my census form there was no box to check for "olive skinned". Santa was European and was white. Why do we have to remake history all the time to be PC? Also, I have yet to see a "black" person. I have seen many dark brown and light brown persons of african descent, but never a black person. I have also never seen a "white" person...lots of pink and semi olive people, but no whites. These are generic terms people...move on.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
  9. Tooth Fairy

    I can accept that Santa may have been white, but Jesus was a black Jewish woman, if she existed at all.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
    • Charlie

      Your zero intelligence level is showing. If you can't reply with anything intelligent then why bother at all?

      December 13, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
      • Groucho Marxist

        Intelligent? Why would anyone respond to such an idiotic story with anything other than humor?

        December 13, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
  10. fsmgroupie

    And black jeebus said, ' I rode into town on an a$$, yo momma's a$$!'

    December 13, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
  11. Angela

    Jesus and Santa are white. Will always be white no matter what anyone says. You blacks need to stop taking things that don't belong to you. If this continues we will need more prisons built since you have filled the rest with your stealing selfs.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
    • Sokesky

      Oh Angela, you are such a racist.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:49 pm |
    • AverageJoe76

      So Jesus is like Mr. Potatoe head to you? You can mix-n-match what he is for your own comfort?

      December 13, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • The Truth

      i believe it is SELVES... I do believe yall can have "Santa Claus" thats about as PAGAN as it gets lol.. You also can have "Jesus" cause thats MOST LIKELY NOT.. The name of ANYONE from that part of the world during that time.. OH and remember that the KING had michaelangelo paint a picture of jesus the one in which you are accustomed to today.. maybe you should do some research.. While you are at it.. take a look into the Vatican and see why they have armed guards protecting all of the ITEMS they stole from africa and the pyramids.. Oh and while you are in the pyramids... check and reference to how the writings on the wall are the oldest recording of history and how much it parallels the story of the bible yet... No Pale Faces.. must be a reason..

      December 13, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
  12. Jay

    Megyn Kelly is a dumbazz white woman, that shouldn't talk about things she doesn't know...lol. Stupid bytch. And then arguing about Santa Claus...haha...I'm sure she believes that Christmas is real also.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
  13. crakkka

    You can have Kwanza... leave christmas for the white people.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:44 pm |
    • MrComments

      Kwanza is for blacks. Jesus was Middle Eastern. What on earth are you talking about. Jesus was not white or black, he was brown. He's from the Middle East. You can't debate this, it's historical fact.

      As to Santa, the original St Nick was from a part of Greece that is now Turkey. Early paintings depict him as brown also.

      Rewriting history detaches one from reality.

      Like Obama. He's not "black" like everyone says. He's half black and half white.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
  14. claudius1964

    Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, he comes in a rainbow of flavors for each and every one of us.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
    • Jeff

      Not really replying directly to Claudius..but has there really been over 2000 comments chiming in on whether someone said Santa and Jesus are white. So with all of the items going on in the world, this deserved over 2000 responses. In other words for approximately around 2000 of you on in the world, this is your biggest fish to fry so to speak. WOW! I wish I had your lives to spend on such trvial things. Please tell me you balance this moronic exercise by doing something productive in life. I cannot believe I am even wasting my time to response to this, but felt it was necessary to chime in since CNN loves this kind of trivial garbage.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
      • Jeff

        I do want to apologize by stating that my comment are only for those who take things like this seriously. For the jokesters, keep it up! For the racist in the crowd, get back to your black hole.

        December 13, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • The Truth

      Im sure revelations says he had skin like bronze out a furnace...

      December 13, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
    • jimmie

      "flavor" ??? – what's your game ?

      December 13, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
  15. jimmie

    But they both were white. Everyone knows that. muhamed was not though.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
    • .

      Mohammed cane from the same area that Jesus did. Reconcile that.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
    • MrComments

      The original St Nick came from what is now Turkey, and paintings from that era show him as quite brown.

      Jesus was from the Middle East. Also brown.

      So Jesus and St Nick were not white or black. They were brown. Middle East. Historical fact.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
  16. Brooke

    Once again, good old childhood brainwashing rules in America. If you believe a Jesus existed, then you have to acknowledge that he was born in the area we call the Middle East. He would hardly have been a northern European white guy.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
    • skarphace

      Correct, but that does not answer the question. The first mention of the Jews were from ancient Greek history where the Jews were slaves. Where they were before that would answer the question of race, and that is not mentioned in either Greek history or in the Bible. As Greek got their slaves from all over that region, the Jews could be Asian, African, or Caucasian (or a mix thereof). There are some arguments that the Jews are a race unto themselves. There is another question, though, and that is about the race of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Was she of pure Jewish blood? If not, then Jesus was of mixed race.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
  17. Devon

    I think megan kelly is great, but some of the stuff she said was just ignorant. Jesus was probably not white. I'm scottish, I'm white. He probably had Olive skin tones and middle eastern facial structure. Doesn't change the fact he was a great man. I'm Christian and can understand that. Santa however (saint Nicholas) was probably turkish looking. the german version of him was obviously white. Hate to break it to people but Santa and Christ were probably olive skinned. But definitely NOT white or Black. (originally that is) And who should care? Even white people's skin doesn't match perfectly to each other. why are we so obsessed with skin color?

    December 13, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
    • Drylie

      Well said! I especially think the end of the article was very well said. I am not even Christian. I grew up going to a Presbyterian church, but today I just am. Even if one doesn't believe, practicing the morals of the gospel is good enough. Be good to one another.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:06 pm |
  18. joe

    No, here's how you start a fight. Jesus is just as real as Santa. Hypothetically if Jesus were real, he'd be really dark colored considering where he was from. Now, how about arguing something REALLY important like the color of a Unicorns horn. I think it's swirly like a barber pole. Or maybe it's colored like those candy corn things at Halloween. Oh Wait! The candy corns are real. Back to the subject. Ya know, if you swallow bubble gum it stays in your intestines for seven years.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
    • skarphace

      Well, if you are talking about the man Saint Nicholas, then you are right about them both being as real. There are historical records showing that both Saint Nick and Jesus were real. If you are talking about the legend of Santa Claus, then he is mythical.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:51 pm |
  19. Martin Sugar

    Who really cares. Both Santa and Jesus have brought joy, hope and comfort to people of all colors for generations depicted just as they are. I can't understand why there is such an incesant need in this country to throw away our traditions and even re-write history at times iin order to conform to some politically correct agenda. What's more, no one was even offended until this dingbat opened her mouth on TV and made it an issue. Merry Christmas. Peace Be With You. Go Redskins.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:43 pm |
  20. AE

    So why did Judas have to betray him with a kiss, instead of just saying he will be the only blue eyed, pale skinned, blond haired white guy in all of the Garden of Gethsemane?

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

      If you think Jesus is white you probably think the rest of the apostles are white as well.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:45 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.