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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. Assyrian-Semetic

    I'm from the Middle East, in fact, I'm Assyrian, a Semite, who still speaks a form of Aramaic which is the language Jesus Christ spoke over two thousand years ago. I'm not White or Black (although all race questions classify people from the middle east as white-have no clue why). So, in actuality, Jesus Christ, as a Semite, is neither White or Black! Santa Claus was a Greek Bishop, so he can technically be classified as White European! A simple History and Geography lessons will end all arguments/questions in regards to this rather pointless race topic!!!

    December 13, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
  2. Tyson

    You know whats even better? NEITHER ARE REAL!

    December 13, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
  3. Jim

    Expect a fight? If I call Santa Claus white?? Of course he's white, why would that bother people so much? Yeah, he's fictional, but if I had the time right now, I could come up with MANY examples of non-whites who are fictional, that if I said "oh, no, he's white", so many morons would be up in arms. Stop with this revisionist crap.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:01 pm |
  4. Natya

    If Jesus had not risen from the dead, I think he'd be rolling over in his tomb over this silly discussion. Of all the things he accomplished on earth, how do you think he'd feel about us arguing over his epidermis?

    December 13, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magic Underwear

      Good thing then that he didn't rise form the dead.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
      • Joel's Bar

        And this you know, because you were there!

        December 13, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
    • truthprevails1

      Then I guess he's rolling over in his tomb considering he didn't rise from the dead.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
  5. bam

    Of course FOX news would say something bigoted like that. No other new station would dare. Fox news is for bigoted tea partiers. What an embarrassement. it just proves why i never watch that station. the chick should be fired.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
  6. Jardet

    This reminds me of a bumpersticker i saw:
    I get my news from Comedy Central
    and my comedy from Fox News

    December 13, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
  7. asdf

    Jesus is not Anglo. My gardener is definitely Mexican.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
  8. keven

    It so typical of FOX to claim as fact something they have no knowledge about.Or just flatly lie.
    Do a little research, you racist idiots. First images of Christ weren't made (or at least what we've found) till two CENTURIES later. Even then, Images of Jesus tend to show ethnic characteristics similar to those of the culture in which the image has been created.
    Does it really matter?

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

      There wouldn't be any images in that period. It was against jewish doctrine at that time.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
  9. markiH

    OMG this is just something else to argue about. She is white, she grew believing Santa and Jesus are white and so did I. So to us they are! Don't like it, too bad. You can't change my thoughts or beliefs so don't try and leave her alone.

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

      ABSOLUTELY!!!

      December 13, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
  10. John

    Jesus came from an area of the world we call today Israel/Palestine. There aren't very many native white people there. Turning Jesus white is just another attempt by whites to wash away anything and everything People of Color have accomplished.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
  11. mrgus

    Come on, it's FOX news! You don't go to a vegan restaurant and expect aged beef.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
  12. Wow!

    I find it interesting that this chickypoo had to dye her hair blonde to be accepted as dumb enough to go on the air at FOX.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
    • jane

      And boy how you relate!!!

      December 13, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
  13. Zick

    Learned from online college that George Washington was actually a disgruntled samoan and Patrick Henry was misquoted. He actually said, "Give me my library card or give me death."

    I guess history is what the victor makes it and, over time, there are many different victors.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
    • jane

      AND casualties

      December 13, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
  14. Dan

    Jesus had a Jew-fro.
    Jews living in (now Israel) Palestine were likely middle eastern / Arab looking. They had dark or olive colored skin, dark features, and possibly curly or wavy hair. (Hair of wool would inicate that he had a jew-fro!) Is that "White?" It certainly isn't Aryan, blond, or any sort of Nordic or Germanic complexion. Nicely, it doesn't really fit a "black brown yellow red" box.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
  15. BrofromtheO

    I like to think of Jesus like with giant eagles wings, and singin' lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd with like an angel band and I'm in the front row and I'm hammered drunk!

    December 13, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
  16. md914

    Did the author actually write, "What the debate hides, however, is what Jesus of the Bible actually did. . . He healed the blind and those who suffered from disease. He touched and was touched by the sick."? To the author, I might suggest that he not confuse what was written with what Jesus actually did. There is no verifiable proof of any of his miracles. If the writing is all that is required, please tell me what Zeus actually did. Or Santa Claus.

    For the kids at home, this shabby assertion that biblical words equates truth is how we get circular arguments. Furthermore, does CNN lack a real editor?

    December 13, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
    • Mario

      Actually there is historical proof that he was a healer and a miracle worker, but at that time it was an accepted profession and there were 1,000's of people that did the same thing.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
      • Attack of the 50 Foot Magic Underwear

        @ Mario: Historical "proof" that he was a miracle worker??? Right! Sure! And this "proof" of miracles is ...?

        December 13, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
  17. Seoras

    Jesus of Nazareth was born Jewish in Palestine, whose ethnicity is neither Caucasian nor African.
    Kris Kringle (aka Santa) reportedly lives at the north pole and is likely of Inuit ethnicity, also neither Caucasian nor African.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  18. Todd

    As a white person who is German/Dutch/French and looks Greek or Italian, I didn't think it really mattered. However I know he wasn't purple. To those that its seems to matter... you are racists!

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

      Thank you, GOD!!! ego rider

      December 13, 2013 at 4:07 pm |
  19. EmpathicApathy

    Debating religion: Cool
    Debasing religion: Uncool

    Jesus saves: i believe
    People care what color Santa is: i do not believe

    December 13, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
    • Attack of the 50 Foot Magic Underwear

      Why is debasing religion uncool? It's been the single largest source of strife and misery in the history of humanity.

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

        Because it's...OOOOhhh, i get it.

        insert slot Tongue into tab Cheek
        rinse, repeat.

        December 13, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
  20. graz96

    Our universe might be a hologram? Yawnies...........Call Jesus white!?!?! Rah! Rah! Rah! rah! We have become such a dumbed down society. So sad.

    December 13, 2013 at 3:56 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.