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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. Third Eagle of the apocalypse.

    Funny that all of this started because a black blogger was upset that Santa wasn’t black. I’ve seen pictures of black Santas and black Jesus.. fictional characters can be any color their creators want them to be

    December 13, 2013 at 10:52 am |
    • Marty

      SantaCon

      December 13, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  2. Will

    Few actual historians discredit the existence of historical Jesus. Youre trying too hard.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:52 am |
    • Third Eagle of the apocalypse.

      They do not “discredit” his existence. What they actually say is there ins sufficient evidence to verify for a fact there was and ZERO evidence that he was the son of a god. If anyone is trying to hard it’s people who insist otherwise

      December 13, 2013 at 10:54 am |
      • Dyslexic doG

        amen!

        December 13, 2013 at 10:58 am |
  3. IT IS ALL GOOD AND GOD IS AT THE END

    I am just glad we are talking about Jesus ...the first bleeding heart liberal. Could care less His skin color.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • Alice

      Can we talk about how Christianity is immoral in every sense of the word

      December 13, 2013 at 10:53 am |
      • Z

        "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." – Mahatma Gandhi

        But I assure you, there are a few good Christians too. the 12 apostles (not Judas Iscariot), John Wesley, Jim Elliott, CS Lewis, Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, Greg Laurie, Ravi Zacharias, Michael Ramsden, Lloyd Pulley, etc

        December 13, 2013 at 10:59 am |
      • lol??

        When the men on the chessboard get up
        And tell you where to go
        And you've just had some kind of mushroom
        And your mind is moving low
        Go ask Alice, I think she'll know

        Read more: Jefferson Airplane – White Rabbit Lyrics | MetroLyrics

        December 13, 2013 at 11:03 am |
        • cobalt100

          Usually, it's the queen in my household that tells me where and when to go.

          December 14, 2013 at 9:16 pm |
  4. Z

    A few years ago(maybe longer), NY Times did a computer generated study by mixing diff. races. White with Black, Asian with White, Black with Asian, back and forth, after 3-4 generations, everyone looks like middle eastern.

    "There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man." Mark 7:15

    December 13, 2013 at 10:49 am |
    • cobalt100

      "Let my people come into my house and shareth the greatness that we all possess." Lucifer 12:4.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:20 pm |
  5. Johnny 5

    We must first verify that Jesus did in fact exist. Jesus's skin color, among everything else, will just remain a subject of opinion until doing so.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:48 am |
    • Patrick

      Whether you believe he was the Son of God is irrelevant to agreeing with his existence and his significance.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:00 am |
  6. Doc

    He Was Green. Everybody knows that.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:47 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Mmmmm.... Soylent Saviour

      December 13, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • asdrel

      Only his blood was geen. His eyebrows were upswept and his ears pointed. He frequently wished those he talked to that they "live long and prosper".

      December 13, 2013 at 11:03 am |
  7. KLB

    It is the Father that determines race, since Jesus Father is God, Jesus has no race. There is a reason why God did not describe Jesus in the Bible; it is because of ignorant people like Megyn from Foxnews. She really should stick to a subject she knows (whatever that is)

    December 13, 2013 at 10:47 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Christ was translucent? Eeewwwwwww

      December 13, 2013 at 10:51 am |
  8. Carlos Mojica

    What a ridiculous story. Everyone knows Jesus was Puertorrican....

    December 13, 2013 at 10:47 am |
  9. LizardMom

    The Jews of Christ's time probably were all dark-skinned and had black curly hair. The Europeans painted their interpretations of Christ based upon the way they all looked. I never, even as a child, bought into the blue-eyed, fair-skinned Jesus with the flowing straight light brown hair. Jesus looked the like other folks in His gene pool. My ancestors came from Denmark & Ireland.Guess what I look like. Yep. Fair skin and red hair. Do I love Jesus Christ any less because He looks like a swarthy Middle Easterner? No, of course not. If He tried to get on a plane today, He probably would be highly scrutinized. On the other hand, who really cares what He looked like? We are all made in God's image, regardless from which gene pool we were born.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:47 am |
    • Becki G

      Very well said! Kudos for saying it like it is

      December 13, 2013 at 10:51 am |
    • LogicInStyle

      Black skinned and curly hair? And where do you get that from? That's just as ridiculous as saying he was white.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:55 am |
      • cobalt100

        I can't say either way because Christo no existo.

        December 14, 2013 at 9:57 pm |
  10. albie

    what a funny religion Christianity is, I would laugh if it wasn't so hateful and destructive

    December 13, 2013 at 10:46 am |
    • Dyslexic doG

      amen

      December 13, 2013 at 10:49 am |
  11. asdrel

    As a Palestinian Hebrew Jesus would be semitic. I had thought that was considered Caucasion (aka "white"), with somewhat 'olive' colored skin. If that is not considered "white" then most Mediterranean people would not be white, including Italians, Greeks, etc. What does one have to be to be considered 'white'? Aryan with pale skin, blond hair, and blue eyes. If so, then what would most of Europe, especially eastern Europe such as the Slavs, various Balkan ethnicities, and others be considered?

    December 13, 2013 at 10:45 am |
    • lol??

      In the socie wurld one has to look like Hitler to be considered blonde and blue eyed. Let the blonde jokes begin! Don't blonde on me.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:52 am |
  12. Jesus was MiddleEastern - He was NOT White!

    Good grief!
    Jesus was NOT white!
    Jews of Jesus' time looked like the the dark-skinned Palestinians and other Middle-easterners.
    Jews who were scattered in the 2000-year diaspora all over Europe became lighter skinned though intermarriage and the colder temperature change.
    It may be hard to swallow, but Jesus would have been dark-skinned.
    FOX seems to have a corner on all of the ignorant "newscasters".
    They do seem to cast things around with little thought to accuracy....

    December 13, 2013 at 10:45 am |
  13. lol??

    Socie scientists are hung up on the notion of "race" that THEY created. Let em THEM duke it out.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:44 am |
  14. robert

    kungas will always make an excuse to cause a problem... it's in their animalistic nature.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:44 am |
  15. JB

    THANKS CNN for bring a new angle to making everyone a RACIST. Why don't you try and put some stories together instead of announce headline that separates this country further. CNN = RACE BATERS If it make good news then do it.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:43 am |
    • DOG is my Co-Pilot

      SO, let me get this straight JB. You are mad because CNN reported that FOX news has made yet another in the long line of stupid, unfounded RACE BAITING remarks. Would you prefer that CNN swept it under a rug like it never happened. Similar to FOX's denial of the trouncing their boy Romney took in the last election!

      December 13, 2013 at 10:49 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Yes. CNN's skill at race baiting is unparalelled.
      One might say they're Master Baiters.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:53 am |
  16. John-117

    He wasn't white, but DON'T pretend that he was black. He was probably more middle eastern looking since he was born in Israel, a nation of jews where people aren't black. Santa Claus on the other hand is white.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:42 am |
  17. Marv

    Call him white, call him black, call him purple.........just don't call him REAL

    December 13, 2013 at 10:42 am |
    • Todd

      Why?
      Is it that far of a stretch for a poor man to grow up 2000 years ago, becoming a vocal voice for a change in the regions politics, and religion. That such speech in a time were there was no freedom of speech could cause the man to be executed by his crime?
      Now you can be an atheist and still believe in Jesus, you probably can discredit the miracles, and the relationship with God. But you can take him as a possible real person with a defined philosophy which you can learn from or at least debate.
      Perhaps you have trouble believing in Abraham Lincoln too?

      December 13, 2013 at 10:51 am |
      • Marv

        Fine. Call him real. Just don't call him the 'son of god'........when the existence of one has never been proven

        December 13, 2013 at 10:55 am |
    • MrMythos94

      He was a real man. Maybe not the son of God, but he was real.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:57 am |
      • Marv

        Other than the biblical account, which cannot be trusted due to it's numerous fallacies, there is no other account or evidence that exists of Jesus that could LEGITIMATELY verify his existence. You can say you KNOW, but you DO NOT because you were not present when it all occured

        December 13, 2013 at 11:06 am |
  18. Caz

    All this fuss about a fictional character! I wonder if we will fight over Batman's ethnicity in 2,000 years from now?

    December 13, 2013 at 10:41 am |
    • LizardMom

      For the life of me, I will never understand why atheists or other non-believers even read, let alone comment on issues of faith.
      Go blog somewhere else!

      December 13, 2013 at 10:52 am |
      • tessie may

        Well for heaven's sake, then they couldn't get all worked up! This way they can feel so intellectually superior and sneer at the gullible idiots for daring to believe in the flying spaghetti monster. I have noticed a common personality thread in every atheist I ever knew. They think very highly of themselves

        December 14, 2013 at 7:30 pm |
  19. Dave B

    I guess the big question is this: Were you THERE when Jesus was born, when he started his ministry, or when he died? You weren't? OK, then. No one knows (for sure) because no one living today was there. No one who has lived during the past (almost) 2,000 years was there, so there is no way to prove this discussion true or false. It's all conjecture and meaningless debate. And HERE is the bottom line. We can debate all we want about whether Jesus was white, dark brown, black, etc... and standard logic would say that he was actually dark brown because he DID live in the Middle-East, but the problem is that, if you believe that Jesus was God's son (not Joseph's), and if Mary actually was his mother, there is no way of knowing what color his skin would be because no one knows what color God's skin is – OR what color skin He wanted Jesus to have. Christians around the world can all share their belief in Christ and they can color him however they want. No one can prove his skin color and it doesn't really matter, so who cares? And while we're on the subject, we can't (actually) even prove that Jesus WAS the Son of God. There is no DNA evidence and there's no body (even of Mary) to analyze. Christians believe because they have faith that He was the Son of God, but that's where it stops. We have faith, others don't. We believe based on faith alone and others don't. Fine.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:41 am |
    • Caz

      He wasn't born. He was "written."

      December 13, 2013 at 10:42 am |
      • Dyslexic doG

        beautiful!

        December 13, 2013 at 10:50 am |
    • some_guy24

      sounds to me u want to go on pretending in ur mind jesus is the way u see him which is white. i believe he is black and white, as in a name in a book

      December 13, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
  20. Snafu

    Jesus is white, Spaghetti is white. Coincidence?

    Remen!

    December 13, 2013 at 10:41 am |
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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.