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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. VHV

    The reason for this uproar is relevant. All people must be treated equal – that means all accomplishments as well as all failures of a people must be acknowledged. To continue to paint Christ as a blond-haired, blue eyed white man is to deny that an historically important figure was something other than white. Many people have trouble with accepting this but Jesus of that time and place would not look like todays paintings. He would have been more middle-eastern looking then anything else. I have no problem with that. Unfortunately many cannot accept the thought of praying to a middle eastern looking man.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
  2. jim22

    Great. That will immediately stop white supremacists and nazis hating Jews because if they did hate Jews it would be self-hate. That eleminates two groups out of three. Still, it will leave one group to hate Jews and that is the mentally challenged. //sarcasm

    December 13, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
  3. DRJJ

    Call Jesus the savior of the world and you'll be telling the truth! All races included-there's room for one more! Merry Christmas

    December 13, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magic Underwear

      How is Jesus the saviour of the world?

      December 13, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
      • ryanwin

        He's not the Saviour. He's the Savior.

        December 13, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
    • Jon

      Jesus is myth http://youtu.be/Kla-BcN8u8Q

      December 13, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
  4. Wodin the Wanderer

    Long ago, there was a magical bearded man, who delivered presents to all of the good children of the world. He would wander with his 8 legged horse Sleipnir. The man himself wore a cape and carried a staff.

    Gradually, this man was transformed, as his culture met with those from the south. His horses legs each became a reindeer, he regained his missing eye, and developed a Jolly disposition.

    Yours,

    Wodin, Norse God, patron of Wednesday, father of Thor (patron of Thursday, analog of Heracles)

    December 13, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
  5. KobraKai7474

    I cannot believe we are even having this debate. Both Jesus Christ and Saint Nicholas were REAL people. Yes, depending on your religious beliefs, you may or may not believe the events and accomplishments of that are ascribed to each and that is fine, but no rational historian claims neither simply did not exist. Jesus Christ was Jewish and born and raised in what is now part of Israel. Saint Nicholas was born only a few hundred years after Christ only short distance away in what is now Turkey. Since most early Christians were descended from Jews and given the close proximity (both in time and location) of Nicolas' birth to Christ's, it is reasonable to expect that Nicolas shared the same or very similar Jewish ethnicity with Jesus Christ. Moreover, history all tells us that the Jews were driven from Judea twice in the several hundred years before the birth of Christ and populations settled all over the map from Eastern Europe to North Africa to Mesopotamia to India where they typically adopted some of the local culture including marrying within the local population before eventually migrating back to the "holy land". Point being, both Jesus Christ and Nicolas almost certainly shared DNA of several ethnicities. Yes, there is a good chance those ethnicities included Europeans but they also quite likely included African, Middle Eastern and even South Asian ethnicities as well. Short of a DNA test on the confirmed bones of either of them, we will never know for certain, but that also means nobody can claim either was definitely "white" or any other race.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
    • ryanwin

      One thing to note is that Jesus' mother was Mary, but his father was not David, it was God. Skin color is not completely determined by Mary's lineage alone. I don't care what color skin you think he is, it is more important how you live his teachings.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
      • KobraKai7474

        Agree 100%

        December 13, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
  6. Snow White

    Who cares??? They are both myth and fantasy, so who cares?
    But my toilet paper is real, I can show you. And it is white. Now just how racists is that? I want some black TP to wipe my posterior.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:53 pm |
    • Pete

      Mt toilet paper is white when I start but brown when I'm done.Am I racist or a comprimiser ? And while we are at it I want to declare the tooth fairy is Asian,the Easter bunny is actually Native American.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
      • ryanwin

        ...and the leprechaun on St. Patrick's Day is an albino dwarf African.

        December 13, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
      • Billy

        Nah, the Easter Bunny is a mutant halfbreed. The result of Jesus bonking a rabbit. Thankfully he had sworn off goats by then, or we would have had the Easter Goat.

        December 13, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
  7. ihatefanboys

    So now the idiots of the world are arguing over the ethnicity of fictional, made up characters ? Probably just Americans, you know we cant go a day without finding something to hate about the person next to us.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • KobraKai7474

      I agree regarding the silliness of it all, but the fact remains that while, depending on your faith, the mythology surrounding both Jesus and Nicolas may or may not be completely false, both WERE almost certainly real people who did walk this earth so they did have an ethnicity. Again, I agree that debating what that ethnicity might have been (especially by people who are using their claim as proof of some kind of personal racial superiority) is ridiculous.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
    • Satan Claws

      America doesn't run on Dunkin' – America runs on hate.

      December 13, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
  8. Jimmy Justice

    A mythological being can be any color you want. It's just a myth.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
  9. Tim L

    Everyone knows Jesus / God looks like Morgan Freeman and Hugh Hefner is Santa.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
  10. DM

    Coming from the part of the world that he came from, and considering the skin color of those who have lived in that area since time began, no one can say that Jesus was white, or that he was black...

    December 13, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • KobraKai7474

      ....and, since unlike most ethnicities of their age, the Jews were forced by events to constantly move and resettle all over the known world, they were more likely than most peoples of 2000 years ago to be "mutts" (ethnically speaking). During the two large diasporas before the birth of Christ, Jews settled in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and all over the Middle East and Mesopotamia before eventually returning to what we now consider to be the "Holy Land". During their time living away from the Holy Land, they adopted aspects of the local culture and that most definitely included intermarriage with local populations. In other words, the Jews living in Judea at the time Christ was born (and the early Christians living in Lycia... where Nicolas was born 300 years later) were, without a doubt, a mix of ethnicities and that mix most definitely included Africans. That is not to say that Jesus Christ (or Saint Nicolas) had African blood, but he certainly might have.... and, if he did, I, for one, don't care. It really, really, REALLY does not change anything.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
  11. JLXvsElvis

    I think they are whatever color or form your faith and/or religion depicts Him as. There are some like me who sees the creator in everything beautiful, like the smell of fresh cut grass at sunrise. ,Fall leaves or the total silence save a light breeze after a heavy snowfall.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • Snow White

      The crisp smooth bubbling of a bong. The light tang of a windowpane. The glorious scintillation of psillocybin. The firm percsussion of a gunshot. The mellow thump of a fallen warrior. The keening wail of a widow. The melodious drone of a politician. The hum of rush hour traffic. The soft sigh of a child dying of cancer. Oh yes, the creator is everywhere.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
  12. Matthew

    Historically, Fox News reporter is mostly right. Santa Claus is white based on all the legends (the Dutch came up with it). If you live far to the North, changes are you will have white skin!

    Jesus would look Middle Eastern/Mediterranean based on today. Arab people are often identified as white even though they are not truely. Jesus would likely have resembled someone from the Middle East. So I guess you can say he was white.

    Not sure why all of this matters. Also, it just shows how dumb Americans are because the Fox News reporter was correct. However, I do agree with the general theme of why does it matter what color they are.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • .

      St. Nicholas was a Greek from what us now modern day Turkey.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:54 pm |
    • dreamhunk

      The Greeks knew how to read and write. The romans knew how to read and write. the Nubains( kingdom of cush) knew how to read and write. Ethiopians knew how to read and write. The Egyptains knew how to read and write. Where are the Arabs historians?

      FROM BEYOND THE RIVERS OF CUSH!
      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFPNbAUKedU&w=640&h=390]
      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Gahth_lFiM&w=640&h=390]
      [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wDX0oFLioHw&w=640&h=390]

      December 13, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
    • Rachel M

      In addition, most Greeks and Italians to this day identify as White, most modern Jews identify as White, and even Egyptians, Libyans and Algerians identify as White... this whole 'argument' is ridiculous.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  13. George

    The people of the lost tribes of Israel were of the same hues as the ancient Egyptians. They were black people. Jesus/Yeshua was a black man. The catacombs of Rome show this clearly. The reliefs of the Assyrians show this clearly. Enough said.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • chris

      Jesus was neither a white man or a black man. Think of Jesus as sorta like Beyonce wants to be seen–as neither a black woman or a white woman.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
    • Rachel M

      Italians consider themselves white; having lived there for four years, I can honestly say that if you lined up an Italian, a Greek, a Libyan and and Egyptian, I couldn't tell you which was which based on appearance.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
    • LesMoore

      Have you met an Egyptian person? They identify themselves as 'white.'

      December 13, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
      • Eliyah Yisrael

        Have you ever looked at the pictures on the wall...now how do you identify that as white? Before the jihad in the 7th century the people of Egypt was black... after being defeated they were forced south. The people in te land today are not the biblical egyptians but arabs who took over the land.

        December 13, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
  14. Facepalm

    If you're arguing over the ethnicity of either of these figures, I can promise that they both are disappointed in you.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
  15. emintey

    Somehow I think this is part of the Christmas wars that conservatives love to fight each december.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
  16. ryanwin

    Regardless of Jesus' skin color, his clothes were white, and white clothing is consistently a symbol of purity throughout the Bible. Perhaps this is why some people are especially sensitive about their skin, because it is not remotely close to the color of clothing that symbolizes purity and cleanliness. This analogy seems to affect both blacks and whites, which (if skin color is so critical in appellation) should more aptly be named browns and light tans (or whatever). In Matthew, Jesus skin is said to have glowed like the sun. For that to be the case, it would be extremely bright. Though that was not typically the case, he will appear that way when he comes again.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
  17. rick 7809

    Next time she needs to remember....It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
  18. HotAirAce

    Fox News has a video about this flap. Their point though is that the main stream media is attacking MK and her comments about Santa because of an article in the Post praising MK, that the main stream media wants to discredit her and Fox. Interestingly, there is no mention of jesus in the 4+ minute video.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
    • framinghammer

      She absolutely asserts Jesus is white in the video. You need to watch it again.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
      • HotAirAce

        I wasn't talking about the original segment where MK claims jesus was white. I'm talking about Fox News' video about the media attacking MK for what she said about Santa and ignoring what she said about jesus. I thought intelligent persons could find the video on their own. . .

        December 13, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
  19. Proof of Jesus' whiteness

    "Obey me or I will beat the crap out of you."

    Proof enough for me. Jesus was white.

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

      Sounds like you have daddy issues.

      December 13, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
  20. Jason Stomieroski

    Who is this ignorant blonde haired blue eyed lady. There is absolutely no evidence at all that shows Jesus was white, and there is a ton of evidence that proves he was jet black and that his name was not even Jesus. This lady doesn't want to start breaking down facts. #truthhurts

    December 13, 2013 at 3:48 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.