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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. lemon

    North americans love to convert historical figures to make themselves feel more comfortable. Santa is white, Jesus was a nordic dude with blue eyes and long hair, Christopher Columbus wasn't an italian slaver...

    December 13, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  2. JJ

    MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING.....

    December 13, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  3. SantaBanta

    I will give Santa to be white. After all he was invented by white business men. Jesus on the other hand was a Chinese woman. I have a photo with her as a proof. Seriously.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  4. catalinN

    black Jesus, female SEALs..I love America!!!

    December 13, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  5. Bulos Qoqish

    So, according to FOX (sic.) "News", the amount of melanin in your skin determines your level of divinity. Thanks for bringing us up to date, FOX, and Ms. Kelly... I'd never have known that, by just reading the Bible.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
    • .

      Apparently that ninny has never cracked open the Bible, either.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
  6. Owl96

    I believe that there are only two people who can verify what color Santa is: Wayne Newton and his mommy.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  7. LeRoy_Was_Here

    Did you know that if you rearrange the letters in Santa, you get SATAN??

    Coincidence? I think NOT!!

    [Warning: This post was sarcasm. Please turn your sarcasm detector up. You no fool me! There ain't no Sanity Clause!!]

    December 13, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • lol??

      KillJoy was here, Ted Bundy.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
  8. vgs1895

    A) Santa isn't real. Make him any color.

    B) Jesus wasn't white.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      B) or real either.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
      • : D

        Yeah.....he was.

        December 13, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
      • no

        You say Jesus isn't real, but my lawn shows repeatedly that he does in fact exist due to the provable effect he has on it.

        December 13, 2013 at 6:04 pm |
  9. hearties

    God is a spirit. The skin issue, isn't. And Jesus Christ is way better than you can imagine, 'cuz he's backed by God, and God is very creative, the best, ever.

    Look here CNN, 56 pages so far in one day. People want Jesus! Make a note, more Jesus!

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

      You can scratch Jesus from my list. Just give me cash.

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

    I know they are both make believe, but all the pictures I've seen show them to be white.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
  11. Thorin

    Ok.....first off, the Church(Roman Catholic), during the Middle Ages, as Christianity rolled across Europe, commissioned famous painters to depict Jesus as a White person, taking images of several Celtic & Norse gods to draw from. The historical Jesus was an Arabic person, and odds are, was NOT a European looking fellow.

    The modern version of Santa Claus is based, in part, on the historical figure of St. Nickolas, who WAS a European fellow. Several Norse gods, Odin & Thor, were incorporated into the legend.....Odin rides an 8-legged horse, and Thor has a chariot pulled by 2 goats. Both Odin's horse & Thor's chariot can fly. In the ancient Norse faith, Odin leads a group of Hunters during the time of the Winter Solstice, and they take shelter at a mortal farmstead for the night when a nasty storm hits. In the morning, the family(Who don't know they visitors are Gods), finds gifts in their stockings hanging over the Hearth. That's one of the earliest stories of the modern Santa .

    December 13, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
  12. Rosslaw

    What color is the Easter Bunny?

    December 13, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
    • Frank

      Brown and some times pink.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • mr sensitive

      mine Easter Bunny was Chocolate

      December 13, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
    • Toosliq

      The Easter Bunny of the Bible is pink...

      December 13, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
  13. bob

    Since it seems doubtful that the parents of Jesus were Romans, he would have had the skin, hair color and facial features of the average Jew born in Judea at that time. In other words, he would have been what bigots and racists in this country refer to as a raghead. As for Saint Nicholas, it seems reasonable to assume that he would bear a striking resemblance to modern-day Greeks. I doubt that if either of them were reincarnated and turned loose on the streets of New York City that they would be mistaken for people of norther European descent. So why do American Christians insist that they were blue-eyed blondes? Probably because most Protestant sects were begun in northern Europe by Europeans of Nordic descent. They could hardly have religious icons that looked like they were members of what they considered to be inferior races. Their descendants are still with us, and happily have people on Fox news to remind us that bigotry and racism are still alive and well in this great land of ours. Happy Holidays.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
  14. crob1664

    Jesus was most likely not white, more of an israeli or middle eastern tone of skin.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
  15. hitchens67

    I think most of the idiots at Fox news are deluded. Jesus was NOT white, anyone with a knowledge of geography is aware of that!

    December 13, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
  16. rker321

    Jesus was born in Nazareth, a middle eastern place, and a Jew, therefore he probably looked no different than any Jew from New York.

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

      He was an Arab jew.

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

      Don't get out much, do you?

      December 13, 2013 at 3:47 pm |
  17. jonathanL

    He would have been white but they didn't have suntan oil back then. I can't believe people are arguing over his skin tone. From what we know today he was probably an unshaven long haired homeless black Jew who even today would likekly be considered a nuisance by the establishment, especially the Christian right wing conservatives and Tea Partyists would probably condemn him to being a Socialist Liberal or something they all revile. His message was the important thing. But it seems that even today most people don't get it. He certainly had an impact on history but it wasn't becasue of the color of his skin.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
  18. brianz72

    Ridiculous, may as well ask whether unicorn horns are made of keratin or bone material.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
  19. bspurloc

    fox is just based on facts fair and balanced modified facts.
    "whites" didnt live in this area...
    this lady is just another palin stewped

    December 13, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
    • Pastor Clay

      You said it absolutely right.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
  20. Light of Most Opulent Truth

    These are obviously Satan's minions thinking that our great Lord and Savior could be something other than a white person. I am sure they are the same vile creatures that are fornicating in odd ways and trying to curse the great blessing that He gave our great country. The mark has been put upon the land and His time is near. These animals will soon tremble at His feet and beg for mercy. Accept His love now, or face eternal torture and pain forever and ever. Amen.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
    • brianz72

      Why should anybody believe you?

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

      satan the christian created foe appears to be in u. this disease called religion has your brain mashed like taters

      December 13, 2013 at 3:38 pm |
    • Bulos Qoqish

      Troll.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
    • Yeah

      So only a minion of Satan would think that someone from the Middle East isn't white?

      December 13, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
    • Free Nuts

      Because Satan is real! lol Here's proof:

      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JuSfRgh0Vo&w=640&h=390]

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

      Jesus wasn't born in America, dummy. Grow the heck up.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • jonathanL

      I wonder if he would be considered a white black, or a black white? Or to make everyone happy a black yellow red white?

      December 13, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • Charles

      Ok, are you saying, accept the love of a White man, and kiss his feet, or die a cruel death? Is that what you are saying?

      December 13, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
    • Pastor Clay

      I urge you all to read the bible, specifically the book of The Revelation, Chapter 1, Verses 12-18, which describes Jesus Christ, as told by the Apostle Paul.

      Also, from a historical perspective, Jesus was born in the Middle East, and with the exception of the Europeanized Jews of the 20th century, Jews and Arabs were olive complexioned, with curly hair, as opposed to blond hair, fair skinned and blue eyed.

      If you are true to the bible and not biased by stereotypes of today's society, then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:58 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.