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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. Furball

    I'd also like to add, Megyn is SMOKING hot. I'd put up with her crap for a while if she got nekid for me

    December 13, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • Mopery

      She works for a billionaire, I doubt you could afford her...

      December 13, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
  2. StevenR

    The primary point is that FAUX NEWS IS A BUNCH OF RACISTS pandering to a racist audience. A secondary point is that they are no more "News" than they are "Fair and Balanced". The tertiary point is that they are a bunch of ignorant fools.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
  3. ed

    Megyn Kelly - what an Aryan dunce....

    December 13, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
  4. grand daughter of a pastor

    in the king james bible jesus is black

    December 13, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
    • Heywood

      No mention of his being born, living, and dieing a Jew. Strange

      December 13, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
    • John

      He absolutely is not, He was able to walk amongst the Romans unregonized. He had fair olive skin or white just as the people of Rome had and short hair and was able to blend in.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
    • Jared

      I don't know about black, but not white either.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:05 pm |
  5. Furball

    LOL. This is too funny.
    "Jesus was a white man, too. It's like we have, he's a historical figure; that's a verifiable fact. As is Santa, "
    Just how are we gonna verify this fact?
    OK, I'll bite – Santa was probably white. Christmas (as we know it) with Santa is Eastern European (we are talking Germany, and Dickens). Fine.
    Jesus, however, is a bit harder to pin down. First off, he wasn't named the son of god until about 400-500 AD, and it was done by a Catholic convention (as if they are not a group who makes stuff up). Not exactly verifiable stuff, and given Jesus was in a region which had a mix of cultures. Chances are he was middle-eastern. Then depending on who you are talking to (or what form you are filling out: Middle Eastern can be -> Asian (it is in Asia after-all), Middle-eastern is it's own classification (unless you are a Jew apparently). Close enough to Africa to be African, but Northern Africa had many non-blacks so it could go either way.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
  6. L

    If the KKK is racist against non-whites, would they also be racist towards Jesus Christ as well? His skin color wouldn't have been white considering the fact that he was born in the Middle East. And atheists delude themselves into thinking claiming to be a Christian makes you one or going to church everyday makes you one. They miss the point out of ignorance and hatred much like racist "Christians" are.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • Mopery

      Jesus was Jewish, just to show how utterly insane the KKK is.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
      • L

        Then they aren't Christians and atheists continue to spread hatred for NO REASON because they believe every news story.

        December 13, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
        • skarphace

          Wrong. Atheists believe in science, which is much more verifiable than religion.

          December 13, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
        • Mopery

          How are Atheists spreading hatred? Learn some history about world religions, then sit in the corner with your dunce hat on and hang your head in shame for your statement.

          December 13, 2013 at 3:02 pm |
        • .

          Can you stick to the story? After all, it's the Christians who are complaining.

          December 13, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
    • skarphace

      That is exactly why racists are adamant that Jesus was White. If Jesus were not White, then they would be worshipping a non-White savior. That would not sit well with them. Therefore, racists will insist that Jesus was White until they day they die. As for the rest of us, it does not matter what race Jesus was. He represents the human race. As do we all.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
  7. crakkka

    Yopu can keep kwanza . Leave Christmas alone..

    December 13, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • frank

      Who is "Yopu", and why is he trying to take Christmas?

      December 13, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
  8. Leo J

    Come ON people! Believe or not believe whatever you want/appeases your spirit. If Jesus was born in the Mideast – he ought to look like it. If he was born in L.A. then maybe he is blue-eyed, blonde hair & surfs ...

    December 13, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
    • Goaty McCheese

      You think everybody in LA has blond hair and blue eyes? That's even stupider than assuming someones race based on where they were born.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:59 pm |
  9. Edward J. Blum

    Just want to go on record here that in my original essay for CNN.com I made no reference to what Megyn Kelly looked like in any fashion. I have asked for that sentence to be removed from this essay.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      A reasonable request and an interesting editorial choice.

      She is nontheless blonde-haired and blue-eyed.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:57 pm |
      • Goaty McCheese

        and hot

        December 13, 2013 at 3:01 pm |
    • Bea Cuadra ("Becuse")

      I PROTEST!! Forget about Santa's race...We should be thinking of all the children living in countries where Christmas is in the summer and never had a chance to wear beautiful red coat with white fur, fancy boots...WHY IS NOT SANTA WEARING SHORTS OR BATHING SUIT LIKE WE HAD TO? I just realized how deeply traumatized I was and how left out I felt because we didn't have snow! HOW STUPID CAN THIS GET?

      December 13, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
  10. Mike B

    How ridiculous a thing to waste time on...."I'm dreaming of a white Jesus....just like the Jesus I used to know"

    December 13, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • Leon Rocamora

      I LOVE IT! Do it for the whole song. You have a future in songwriting. Great!

      December 13, 2013 at 2:58 pm |
  11. Brown Santa

    CNN lowering the bar again.....

    December 13, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • Groucho Marxist

      It's a Fox story. CNN is just unoriginal and equally willing to chum up emotions on a non-story.

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

    Ugh. "Caucasian" use on the very first page of this comments section is NOT an anthropological term anyone uses. But lets say it is. Like all such categories which were later politicized by racist white Europeans and Americans, it is true that all 'whites' (whatever that actually means) are Caucasian. But not all Caucasians are white! Why do people make this assumption? THey do so because cultural warriors of the 18th and 19th centuries made it that way.

    The people's of the Middle East, ancient Palestine/Judea/Israel if you will, were not 'white' and wouldn't be and are not recognized as 'white' by any measure of social classification today. And it is this 'social' classification that Ms. Kelly whatsherface is referring too. So, no of course Jesus wasn't "white" which, today, socially speaking (and for the last 300 years) mean of EUROPEAN descent. Anything outside of that was NOT WHITE.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
  13. Mopery

    It is ridiculous to argue about the skin color of imaginary beings. Might as well state that the easter bunny was a white rabbit, or that the tooth fairy has purple wings.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
  14. Tom

    A mentality that puts Jesus, Buddha, or any other religious icon in the same comparison with Santa Claus is severely lacking in intellect.

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

    Most recent description of Jesus.
    Revelation 1:12-16 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. The hair on his head was 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 coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

    His Face was like the Sun Shining in all its brilliance. That does not sound like anyone i have ever seen down here, so i guess we should share. Right folks? Don't you think we could share him?

    Saint Nicolas was greek.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
  16. Leon Rocamora

    It is kind of fascinating to be witnesses to the continuous evolution of the Jesus character: ever adapting to the demands of time and place, and why not? corrupting beyond recovery whatever may have been the original myth.

    So... are you brave enough to guess how will Jesus skin look like by 4013 AD? If not, no worries. By then we will probably have invented a new god to quarrel about. That I know we will do.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
    • Groucho Marxist

      He'll still be a hippy!

      December 13, 2013 at 2:55 pm |
      • Leon Rocamora

        In my opinion the One and only positive of the whole Hippie Jesus fad was the art form it may have generated. And that was about it. Everything else was pretty disposable.

        December 13, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
    • Goaty McCheese

      You don't have to believe in the divinity of Jesus, but there's ample historical evidence that the man himself existed. And he looked like whatever he looked like.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:00 pm |
    • Levi

      However eloquently put this article intends to be...it's ignoring the REASON Megan Kelly even had this soundbyte to be attacked. She was scoffing at the idea of a Black Santa. So, while the backlash against her has been misguided...her own assertion that started it, is also woefully misguided. She even claims Jesus is factually white. Santa Claus...any way you shake it, was white. The historical figure that Christmas adopted into it's holiday is white, Scandinavian in fact. Jesus however...most decidedly wasn't white. Biologically, it wouldn't have happened given his geographic location. He probably wasn't black either. Most likely had the same melanin hue and olive skin of EVERY OTHER middle eastern/jewish person of that area. Jesus Christ (no pun intended) I know it's science, but its not rocket science.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
  17. DukeofJuke

    Debating whether or not Jesus Christ was Caucasian is the same as debating the color of unicorns, dragons, Zeus's hair color, or the color of Xenu's space ship. What's the point?

    December 13, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
  18. JMO

    Coca-Cola made Santa white. The only verified eye-witness account of Santa recorded was in 1823 says he wasn't even human!

    "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 2:53 pm |
  19. ChadTL

    I really don't care who Santa was and he so insignificant really when it comes to anyone's faith unless their god is greed. However, this woman really needs a geography lesson and a freaking map. Jesus was an Israelite and not once in the bible does it mention any of his lineage coming from Europe. Jesus was a descendant of Shem Semitic decent not Jeptha whose descendants were European. She needs to get her facts right before she starts letting things spew out of her mouth. Also, don't forget Rahab was also one of Jesus descendants who was from the line of Ham who was black. Not that Jesus was any race but you can rule out white and for the most part black. She needs to just shut up.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:53 pm |
  20. WMesser58

    Who cares they are both made up fairy tales and yet you would debate a subject is suppose to mean tolerance and compassion. How inane.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:52 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.