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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. Matt

    I'm embarrassed how much people fight over what two fictional characters looked liked.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
    • Susan Bosworth

      Applauds.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
    • Ignominious

      Jesus is a historical figure. If you choose to reject His divinity that is different.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
  2. jim jimson

    Of course they are both white – after all who wants Jesus in the 'hood and scary santa

    December 13, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
  3. dreamhunk

    "Tacitus, the Roman historian of 90 A.D., says that the Romans of his day popularly believed that the Jews, which then abounded in Europe, came from Ethiopia, the land of the Blacks
    Zephaniah 3 :10
    From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, my scattered people, will bring me offerings.
    From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants,[even] the daughter of my dispersed, shall bring mine offering.
    Lamentations 4:8
    Their visage is blacker than a coal; they are not known in the streets: their skin cleaveth to their bones; it is withered, it is become like a stick.Lamentations 5:10
    Our skin was black like an oven because of the terrible famine.
    Exd 2:19 And they said, An Egyptian(speakin of Moses) delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and also drew [water] enough for us, and watered the flock.
    Explain how an ISRAELITE is mistaken as a son of HAM if they didn't look alike?
    Then 2000+ years later Acts 21:37-38 Shaul(Paul) a Hebrew mistaken as an Egyptian... So explain how SHEM's seed and HAM's didn't look alike?
    Google ancient Hebrews or ancient Hebrew dreadlocks click images and you see what the ancient Hebrews looked like!

    December 13, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
  4. Bilbo

    Imaginary people can have whatever skin color you like.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
  5. Lucas

    Absolutely ridiculous. A serious discussion about Jesus and Santa?!
    Why not mix in the racial background of Superman, GI Joe, Little Red Riding Hood, Humpty dumpty, the fantastic 4, spiderman, the spaghetti monster and Adam & Eve while you're at it? This is 2013, with HDTV, internet and safe air travel, yet people are stuck in medieval times.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
  6. Dan

    Ignorant argument in almost every aspect. First of all Jesus as to his body was a Jew, so no to white and no to black. As to his spirit and his nature he was the son of God, pure, undefiled, and holy. But what does it matter? In him we are all one where there is no respect to race.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
  7. Not All Docs Play Golf

    How many rounds would Jesus carry?

    December 13, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
  8. luvUamerica

    It is funny how these Baptists like to pretend who Jesus was. In their mind, they probably think Jesus is like Rush Limbaugh and the Koch brothers. Capitalism, gun ownership, let the poor take care of themselves. It is interesting that Limbaugh portrays the Pope as a Marxists. Jesus probably had more communism in him, then the communists themselves. He cared about the downtrodden. He cared about the sick. He cared about the poor. All hallmarks of liberal values. But then again, it is Fox after all. You make stuff up. And if you keep repeating often enough, it becomes true. Remember, Fox's viewership is about 60% old people. Old white people. So, saying Jesus is white, and he probably ate steak, potatoes and beans falls within their market. I don't see anything wrong with that. Fox is not in the business of telling facts or the news. It is in the business of selling to their crowd. And they have done an excellent job. Jesus was white, and ate Texas Chilli, and they had Christmas trees in the desert.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
  9. Nogods

    Santa and Jesus have one thing in common: they are both fictional.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
    • Matt

      Agreed. They are both characters that are based on someone that might have existed.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
  10. Phil in KC

    I wonder if this woman hears herself. Jesus Christ (whether you believe in his divinity or existence or neither) was born in what was then Palestine. Syria, Jordan and Lebanon are all neighboring countries today. He would almost certainly have been Olive complected, with dark hair and dark eyes. This is pure revisionist history – typical of Faux News.
    As for Santa Claus, I guess it depends on whether you're referring to the fictional character (sorry kids) or Saint Nicolaus, the historical figure. If the latter, she's still wrong since he was Greek, as pointed out in the article. And he would also have had a dark complexion, with dark hair and dark eyes, in all likelihood. If you're talking about the fictional character, most of what we currently know as Santa Claus developed from Dutch, German and Scandinavian folklore. In which case, he would almost certainly be white. So, as much as it pains me to do so, I will have to agree with her that Santa is white. Although, really, he's fictional. Make him whatever color that suits your narrative.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
  11. Roger Mike

    this story was orgianlly published in the dailymail. a few days ago.

    one thing you will notice is all of the CNN website stories and videos originated in the dailymail 1 or 2 days before they were put on CNN.

    does CNN go out and find their own stories anymore?

    want to see what will be on the CNN website tomorrow go to the Dailymail website today.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      I agree with your point about article selection, but this became an issue when a Fox News presenter commented on it.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
      • Satan Claws

        He's not the sharpest knife in the drawer.

        December 13, 2013 at 6:01 pm |
  12. lol??

    The Graham c*r*a*c*k*e*r* started out as health food.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • .

      And guess what? It's not white either.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
      • lol??

        Guess?? You need more salt in yer diet.

        December 13, 2013 at 3:19 pm |
    • Mr Pheer

      People fighting over a couple of fairytale characters. Get over yourselves.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
      • lol??

        You definitely are low on salt.

        December 13, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
    • Roycal

      Yes, he was white. My ancestors were Norwegian. Our family has been told, generation after generation, down through the ages, that when they visted the Holy Land 2,000 years ago they saw Jesus and he looked just like one of them. They thought it strange because everyone else there was so much darker.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
  13. Howard Harris

    Dear Roger Mike – better check again – those white Jews you see are European transplants. Yes, Europeans have diluted their blood with brown people forever!. The people of the region, the bridge from North Africa, are brown and brunette. Russian and Spanish Jews are white because they took Jewish women as wives. The religion by tradition traces Jewishness through the mother. Better do some more research on regional ethnicity traits before making general statements that have no basis.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • Roger Mike

      wrong, scientist of have learned that jews have had a unique DNA unchanged for 4000 to 5000 years

      December 13, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
    • Franky

      Again, so Hitler made a mistake?

      December 13, 2013 at 3:18 pm |
  14. GI Joe

    Hey Megyn - He was Middle-eastern, NOT from the mid-west.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
  15. MJ

    M. Kelly is correct...Santa and Jesus are white...it is getting absolutely ridiculous to try and ruin everything because a minority of people are not happy...too bad...that's life...get over it...I am not afraid of these people who try and make me do what they want by saying I am a bigot or whatever...I am just a realist.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
    • Gummybear

      News flash:

      Jesus is from the middle east.... and they have brown skin, just saying.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
    • Phil in KC

      Umm... I won't argue with you on Santa, because he's fictional. I don't care what color he is in your world. But you really need to think about where Jesus was born and grew up and where his parents were from. I'll guarantee you he was not white. But, if it rocks your world to accept that a Palestinian is not white, in the sense MK describes, you just go on believing whatever you want to. It's your fantasy world.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
    • Jesus

      Even if I was white, I'm ashamed to be quoted in national television, causing uneasiness among my sheep that has many colors. It would be better off, you guys leave me alone from comments related to one's race!

      It's a shame conservatives trying to advocate their political views using my name in vain! Just for this simple reason I can always make sure conservatives never get power in D.C. "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain" Exodus 20:7

      December 13, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
    • Dave

      And yet you are 100% wrong.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
  16. The Truth

    Why is it so hard for people to just face the fact that Jesus was a man of color with melanin in his skin, as his lineage was comprised from the 12 Tribes of Israel also known as Hebrews whose image was closer to that of African Peoples from Ethiopia and Egypt (Before the Persian, Greek, and Roman Invaders).
    People, I sincerely hope you wake up one day and realize that Jesus was nothing like the images you have been deceived into worshipping. Heck, even the caucasian population of Jews who currently occupy Israel are not true Hebrew Israelites but instead Europeans imposters whose ancestors were from Germany and Russia, but converted to Judaism.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:14 pm |
  17. cc

    Another attempt by the racist CNN create useless racist debates.

    Was Mohammed white?

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

      When did Megyn start working at CNN??

      December 13, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
  18. Franky

    So, what your saying is no one gave Hitler the memo that Jews were in fact "white"?

    December 13, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
    • lol??

      They were afraid to tell him his eyes weren't blue, fer sure.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • Spade

      So True

      December 13, 2013 at 3:26 pm |
  19. Nogods

    So when Jesus finally returns to dispense his 1st century barbarism, do you think he is going to go door-to-door and shoot non-believers in the face, or do you think he will just hack off heads with a dull knife like the Muslims like to do? More importantly, are you going to just stand by and watch, maybe enjoy a little popcorn and a cold drink, or do you think you will join in on the religious cleansing?

    December 13, 2013 at 3:13 pm |
    • lol??

      Americult is gaga over the civilized Romans. You decide.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
    • Satan Claws

      Jesus was pretty docile. It's his old man who has the perpetual hard-on.

      December 13, 2013 at 6:08 pm |
  20. um..

    wow.. it is not everyday that you see a white supremest get a center stage on a tv show.. oh, how the Fox news has fallen.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:13 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.