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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. Common Sense

    Pope Julius II paid or supposedly paid Michelangelo to paint these white images and these are the ones no other race can forget. The psychological effect from these pieces have had a terrible impact on the minds of those who are non-white, but not to mention the horrifying tales that democracy started with the Greeks and Romans. The World History has been distorted to favor one particular race, and what race might that be? If we want a better understanding of World History we must start with The Ancient Kemet Mystery System. Kemet = Africa. Africa (Aphrike) is a Greek word basically meaning "Not Cold".

    December 13, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
  2. pbuotte

    Wait, Jesus was born of a "virgin" so there would only be female chromosomes and genes, so really Jesus should be a black female!!

    December 13, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
    • Bulos Qoqish

      You're right, but since He was depicted as having a beard, the only logical conclusion was, that He / She was a true hermaphodite.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
    • jonathanL

      Scientifically you are correct. Parthenogenesis occurs naturally in many plants, some invertebrate animal species (including nematodes, water fleas, some scorpions, aphids, some bees, some Phasmida and parasitic wasps) and a few vertebrates (such as some fish, amphibians, reptiles and very rarely birds. There is a species of reptile (like an alligator) that is entirely female because they hatch from unfertilized eggs and cannot cross breed with other types of gators. Thing is a virgin birth has never been known occur in a mammal acccording to science, and if it did the offspring would be a clone of the mother without the physical DNA normally contributed by the male donor.
      Unscientificlaly you are incorrect because you have to believe the Bible whatever it says no matter what even if it can't be true, if you disagree then you are worng even if you have facts supporting what you say.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
  3. lol??

    Santa is the Son of Sam, uncle sam.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
    • .

      You're exceedingly ignorant.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
      • : D

        ahhhhhhhh.......c'mon, dude. where's your sense of humor?

        December 13, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
  4. Realy people, really?

    The mere fact that they feel they need to defend the idea that Jesus and a totally made-up guy are white only serves to prove they are racist at Fox News. If they weren't it wouldn't be an issue at all.

    Also, the idea that a guy from the middle east living in the middle east was white 2,000 years ago is down right laughable!!

    December 13, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
  5. Dasle L. Carlton

    Well there she goes again as her favorite president would say.
    A friend of mine once told me that the difference between genius and ignorance is that genius has its' limits.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
  6. Jeff

    Despite Don Lemon's weird laughing during his segment on this made up controversy, it really is a split decision. Santa is an old white dude, that's fact. Jesus is another story and probably was not white since he was a Jew living in the Middle East. Did Also Don, you're letting them put too much lightening makeup on you. You don't look like a real person anymore.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
  7. Santa KKKlaus

    I'm white, damnit!

    December 13, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
  8. Big Bad Bob

    Of course Jesus had blond hair and blue eyes. A perfect Aryan.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
    • Whoa Dude

      He's always depicted as a hippy.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
    • Mopery

      Aryan, huh? Jesus was a Jew.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
    • macbaldy

      Meh. "Iran" is the Persian word for "Land of the Aryan". That's why Hitler allowed them as allies in WWII.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
  9. American Jack

    Jesus was Jewish, olive colored skin, his looks are that of a Jewish man that in the region would be confused with Arab people though he was described as very handsome. Besides this is Fox, they are not in the news business, they are in the entertainment business....I can't watch because they are so one sided.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
    • dreamhunk

      have you ever seen olives they come in two colors black and very drak brown and I never seen a green person in my life!

      December 13, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
  10. lemon

    Fox News just begs to be made fun of. Jon Stewart has any easy job. Just let them say what they believe and hilarity follows.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
  11. fox news

    KELLY................RATING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    December 13, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
  12. RangerDOS

    YouTube is a great way to learn how to change a turn signal light in a Ford Mustang, but you'd look a little smarter if you pick up some credible history and theology books.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
    • JamesK

      The "reporter" works for Faux News TV, not the internet site.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
  13. GonzoG

    Jesus and St Nicholas (Yusha ben Yusef being from Palestine, Bishop Nicholas, of Greek decent, from Turkey) were from the region we roughly call the Middle East today. They may have been technically Caucasian, but would have certanly looked more Mediterranean than Northern European.

    Only Fox News is so deluded to think Jesus and St Nicholas looked like they came from the British Isles. They probably think the Bible was originally written in English, too.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
    • JamesK

      Not the British Isles, unless you're thinking about Beckham. Like Santa, most Americans imagine Jesus to be a tall, white, midwestern-looking man, maybe a football player, but not a soccer player.

      Santa, being a bit "stout" would be more like Toronto mayer Rob Ford, but with a beard.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
  14. Mels

    Why does it matter? Believe he's black, white, hispanic, Asian, purple, rainbow colored all you like. That's your perspective and your opinion. Just don't try to force it on others.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
  15. lolz

    jesus? who cares.... but Santa? that dude's white as hell....

    December 13, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
  16. crakkka

    They should all be returned to the wild jungles of Africa..where they came from.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
    • macbaldy

      Same DNA as yours, dude.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
      • Mopery

        Actually Africans are purer humans, genetically Europeans have as much as 5% Neanderthal DNA whereas Africans are 100% human.

        December 13, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
    • EducateMuch?

      Ummm crakkka sweetie... Don't forget that when demanding that someone "goes back to where they came from" that you, nor your ancestors, are ORGINALLY from America. The people who you are talking to were born in the U.S just as you were, but how their ancestors got here is another story entirely. Their ancestor didn't come here by choice. I'm not poking fun at you or attempting to be disrespectful, I just assume that you really aren't educated on the history of the country that I'm sure you love so much. If you don't know your history that's one thing, but to know it and ignore it, makes you ignorant. In the future either clarify your comments or educate yourself before commenting. Have a good day brother.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
  17. lol??

    The socies LUV the poor. That's why they make so many of em. Color don't matter, as long as they lead in the destruction.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
    • Mirror mirror

      Jesus loved the poor. Jesus was a socie.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
    • .

      Read Acts one day, you heathen.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:35 pm |
  18. maine liberal

    Irony: Jesus was not Christian

    December 13, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
    • Yup

      Nor did he tell anyone to create a religion around him. Or that his birthday was in any way important.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:33 pm |
    • venividivici

      'maine liberal' wrote:

      'Irony: Jesus was not Christian.'

      Right on.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
    • macbaldy

      Wasn't his cross allegedly labeled "King of the Jews"?

      December 13, 2013 at 3:36 pm |
      • Yeah

        They may as well have put "Accordian King Of Judea" on his cross.

        December 13, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
  19. Kelley

    The real problem is that there are idiots who feel the need to argue such points. What will it gain anyone? Why must people be antagonists over something that is totally irrelevant? Time for everyone to just grow up and try and be civil to one another.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
  20. basketball fan

    Since this is on-topic, is Jason Kidd white or black?

    December 13, 2013 at 3:30 pm |
    • macbaldy

      Yes.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:37 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.