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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. KobraKai7474

    Sorry but there was a picture of Jesus in my bible when I went to Sunday School. He was fair-skinned with a beard and had an athletic build. End of discussion.

    P.S. Obviously, I am being sarcastic, but that is basically the argument that Megyn Kelly, et al. are making.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:15 pm |
  2. Hubris

    The God of Americans is the military.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      I'd say it's more consumerism.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
      • Hubris

        Well............we do worship the 'almighty' dollar.

        December 13, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
    • lol??

      The poor nations always end up armed with um, err small auto weapons.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
  3. Doc Vestibule

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRNCpD3xhsY&w=640&h=390]

    December 13, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
  4. lol??

    It doesn't matter what colour you are. The size of your dream and scheme is what matters to the socies.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
    • Cole Seer lol??

      I see socies everywhere.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  5. gheri

    OKAY, FOX NEWS has really RAN out of news, To the point that there's having a debate over whether Santa is white !!!! who cares !!! retailers sells white ,black hispanic and all color santa s for Christmas .people some forget the reason for the season . And the Jesus debate 'FOX read your BIBLE 'Jesus was not WHITE !!!! (FACT CHECK) ISN'T THAT'S WHAT REPORTER DO FOR A LIVING !! Santa can be what ever color children want him to be . Each household is different ,so are People .So don't force your believes of what color Santa has to be on the world .Once childrens get older the turth comes out anyway and they don't give a danm what color he is, because they were lied to anyway !

    December 13, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
  6. Lew

    God doesn't care if you think he looks like Barney and has Purple skin. he just likes you to believe. Happy Holidays Humans of all Races.

    Love Jesus 😉

    December 13, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
    • gheri

      amen to that !! LEW

      December 13, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
    • lol??

      One race walked off the ark.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
      • Doc Vestibule

        And yet somehow over the subsequent 4000 years, the inbred children of those people mutated into all the different races.

        December 13, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
        • Text 101

          Supposedly all the different dogs we see today descended from wolves. So the potential for all those breeds once resided in the wolf. Likewise the potential for human variety lay in the 8 survivors.

          December 13, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
    • Diane

      Very true, thank you Jesus

      December 13, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  7. Robert Brown

    Romans 6

    King James Version (KJV)

    6 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?

    2 God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?

    3 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?

    4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

    5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection:

    6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.

    7 For he that is dead is freed from sin.

    8 Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him:

    9 Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.

    10 For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.

    11 Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

    12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof.

    13 Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God.

    14 For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.

    15 What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.

    16 Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?

    17 But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.

    18 Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.

    19 I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh: for as ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness.

    20 For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness.

    21 What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death.

    22 But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.

    23 For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
  8. Tony

    Jesus was Jewish, so he probably 5'7" with medium to olive skin and dark hair.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
    • Satan Claws

      And a really big shlong.

      December 13, 2013 at 6:22 pm |
      • HotAirAce

        His alleged but unproven father was a pretty big vindictive prick!

        December 13, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
  9. Ricky

    All the earlier depictions of Jesus showed him as middle eastern looking guy; which makes perfect sense, given his ethnic background and where he was born. It was not until the middle ages that European artists starting to depict him as a blond dude, obviously in an effort to make him look more European.

    Regarding Saint Nicholas, the Vatican actually analysed his DNA and order a facial reconstruction and found out that they guy would have looked very dark, similar to what a Turkish person would look like today. Of course that does not really matter because the FICTIONAL character of Santa was originally based on an old legend of the Norse God Odin, who was of course white, and used to ride on a sleigh and give gifts to poor people .

    When Christians started to expand through Europe, they decided to replace the Winter Solstice Festival (a time of the year when people would take a green tree inside and exchange gifts) with Christmas. To make it easier to swallow on the newly converted pagans, they told them that Odin was actually Saint Nicholas.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
  10. Mark Peterson

    I'd be interested in finding out the real hair colors of the Fox anchors

    December 13, 2013 at 4:12 pm |
  11. JPH

    That's' the danger with anthropomorphism of God making God into a human form, when you make an image of God and vis-à-vis a Jesus as a blond hair and blue eyed God , you are elevating oneself who looks like that image above his fellow man, which is a form of self idolatry and is blasphemes. The Muslims have it right in this regard, they have no images of God or the prophet Muhammad, and are forbidden to do so. “You shall not make for yourself an idol or any graven images for I am your God" said God.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
  12. Kman66

    OMG, could you just IMAGINE a black Jesus? "If you like it, you can keep it... I GUARANTEE it!"

    LOL!

    December 13, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
  13. Arrimine

    "And by the way, for all you kids watching at home, King Arthur and Harry Potter just are white."

    December 13, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
    • GAW

      And beneath all that black armor Darth Vader is really white. Very white. Like vanilla ice cream white. But with the voice of a black man.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
  14. superthuginc

    Last time I checked jesus had hair like wool and bronze feet. Never seen a caucasian with bronze feet statue's don't count!!!

    December 13, 2013 at 4:10 pm |
    • AJP

      Santa is a fictional character. He can be anything.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
    • GAW

      And he spit out a sword.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
  15. Elizabeth

    She's an idiot.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
  16. Joy

    Nazareth is mentioned in the Gospels as the home of Mary and Joseph, it is closely associated with the childhood of Jesus Christ and is a center of Christian pilgrimage. Nazareth is in the northern region of Israel, south-west of Haifa, in the Middle East. The Middle East is in between the continent of Asia and Africa...there is no way he could have been white.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
    • KobraKai7474

      More important... and this is even if you accept that idea of a virgin birth... Jesus was ethnically Jewish (via Mary's DNA if not Joseph's as well). The Jews of 2000 years ago had already twice been driven from the Holy Land. After each disapora, they settled all over the known globe (including Africa, Eastern Europe, India as well as all over the Middle East) where they adopted some of the local cultures including intermarrying with local populations before eventually returning to the Holy Land. So while they were mostly, ethnically speaking, middle eastern, the Jews of 2000 years (as well as the Christians of 1700 years ago when Nicolas was born) had a mix of ethnic DNA and that mix almost certainly included Africans.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  17. Leftcoastrocky

    it does not matter what colors they were

    December 13, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
  18. dreamhunk

    miss this video from PHD dr john clerk
    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5JnnWvgRjg&w=640&h=390]

    December 13, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
  19. yoyospride

    having grown up with Jesus, I can tell you he is a Guatemalan who was raised in Honduras and hates to be called a Guatemalan.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
    • Paul

      Jesus Ortiz...richest landscaper in town I grew up in.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
  20. Writing4Rvltn

    I love how you wrote this article. Very thought provoking and insightful. Historically, none of Jesus' peers would have noted the color of his skin because, as you said, it wasn't an issue. Maybe he was olive, brownish, tanned, pale, but definitely Middle Eastern. And, he was a carpenter, so he would probably have been a lot more "beefed up" than he's usually portrayed. In my mind he looks a little like Saeed from Lost! It is true, though, that he was from Nazareth, and that was not a respectable place to be from. So he would have been low on the totem pole in his society. Not the privileged class. Anyway, thanks for writing!

    December 13, 2013 at 4:07 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.