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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. Apostle

    Jesus and Santa are women.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
    • Chris Honry

      No, they were gay black men like Al and JEsse

      December 13, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
      • Chris Honry

        To reflect today's society they'd be Trannys with HIV and Hep C

        December 13, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
    • KellyP

      Naa, there was a Mrs. Clause, wasn't there? Of course, the wedding could have been in Washington state, I suppose? 😉

      December 13, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
  2. jane

    Next thing you know, whiners against white freedoms will be saying Frosty the Snowman isn't white either!!!!!!!!!!

    December 13, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
    • Cheryl Magnuson

      Aren't you priveledged? Get over yourself.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
      • jane

        Get out from under yourself...and YES. I am privileged...I fought for it!!!!!!

        December 13, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
        • Satan Claws

          Oh, do tell.

          December 13, 2013 at 6:23 pm |
        • sqeptiq

          Where did you fight for white freedom?

          December 14, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
    • truthtellerandfactfinder

      White freedoms????? what the hell does that mean, or is that the code words on Fox news when they say American Freedoms (SMH)

      December 13, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
      • jane

        If you don't know, you are neither truth teller NOR fact finder.

        December 13, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
    • Chris Honry

      HAHAH LOL that is funny! I agree, these whiner anti-white racists cry about everything, take offense at every little thing, they're just on the prowl for something to let their anger, hate, bitter bile spewing vein bulging Jesse Jackson like freak show out on ! hahahaha LOL Get over yourselves, Kunta, it aint all bout chu!

      December 13, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
      • Chris Honry

        They're just angry because they were the last to be slaved!

        December 13, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
      • Phil Esteen

        I believe you spelled your last name wrong. It should be H-O-N-K-Y...

        But, keep whining, your super special secret white person's decoder ring should be arriving from KKK headquarters this week.

        December 13, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
    • R-U-SERIOUS?

      Wow, you sound very ignorant.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:59 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Don't eat the yellow Frosty.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Last frosty snowman I saw was kind of a dirty gray.

      December 14, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
  3. Arrimine

    Revelation 1 has a description:

    "[14]His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; [15]And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters. [16]And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp two-edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength."

    This strikes me as a description of something unusual to the author; something supernatural rather than the way he would describe his friend, teacher and Lord. If this were Christ's normal, everyday appearance, the eyes of flame / voice of the sea thing would've been mentioned by somebody. So yeah... probably not meaningful evidence either way and since Christ never included race when he taught, it's probably not important.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  4. eno

    if god created everything .. he gave me the ability to think and question... then open those pearly gates when i Kick the bucket ... even though I think its all one big BS .. BUT just in case ...its not my fault ... thats my free get out of jail ca

    December 13, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
    • Nate

      Dude...that just aint gonna work out for ya?

      December 13, 2013 at 4:32 pm |
  5. Sonny

    Give it up CNN...can we get back to reporting the real problems in this country right now such as the destruction of the health care system, rather than non-issues over Santa Claus

    December 13, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
    • Did the fact that this is a Fox story ....

      ....escape you?

      December 13, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
      • lol??

        Then comment at Fox, or were you banned from their restrooms??

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

        They had to give up on repainting??

        December 13, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
  6. Rick R.

    Mythological people have no color.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
    • lol??

      Do you dream in colour or are you mythological??

      December 13, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
  7. Unlo4

    It happened in the Middle East, so Jesus would have looked more like Saddam than Brad Pitt.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
    • Vinny

      Pretty much.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:29 pm |
  8. kelly

    Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable that your savior looked like osama bin laden doesn't mean it has to change 🙂

    December 13, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  9. Vinny

    The New Testament is likely 98% made up and based only partially on second hand stories and traditions. If Jesus was indeed a descendant of David & Abraham, then he would be a Middle Eastern Jew of Canaanite ancestry. That would make him a relative of Lebanese, Syrians and other Arabs. Thus, Middle Eastern and likely of olive or brown skin. He was not by any accounts, "white". Unless you consider Latins, Arabs, Italians etc...as white. He was most likely not black either, so those claims are largely nothing more than wishful thinking by those of black ancestry. Jesus was a desert dwelling Essean Jew. Nothing more, nothing less.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  10. Wolfgang

    Santa isn't real, who cares what color he was? Jesus was born in the middle east. I doubt he was a lilly white man. But even if theres a race controversy surrounding jesus, at least the intelligent ones among us know that he was not the son of the creator of the universe.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  11. Bible Bob

    Jesus is brown, no doubt about it. He is humbly dressed as you would expect, he speaks in a tongue I do not understand, and I must say the Son of God does a heck of a job mowing my lawn for a reasonable price.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  12. R-U-SERIOUS?

    Hair of wool?..... Yeah, He's WHITE alright! lol Start reading and stop relying on what you're told. By the time you get the story, it has been changed and told in several different ways. OAN: FOX News is a joke!

    December 13, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
  13. Tyler

    Well, since there's no Santa Claus and "Jesus", only their pictures are of white people.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
    • The Sage

      Everyone knows that Jesus looks like Doug Henning, the great "illusionist" of the 1970s..... maybe with a bit of Bob Ross thrown in. End of debate.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:27 pm |
  14. Michael Vaughn

    Jesus was brown, get over it. He was from the middle east. He looks NOTHING like the blue eyed, blond haired European picture that we whites grew up with. Sheesh. Why is this even a discussion?

    December 13, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
    • R-U-SERIOUS?

      I don't care what color He is. He is my savior! We have bigger fish to fry than worrying about what color Jesus was.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  15. I AM

    There is no physical description of Jesus in the Bible.

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

      doesn't need to be because we can turn on the internets and see that middle eastern people are brown 😉

      December 13, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
      • Lew

        Not all Middle eastern people are brown. Jews???? What color would they be? Not brown!

        December 13, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
    • Lew

      There actually is, but it doesn't make him black or white. Some descriptions say his eyes were like lightining, Legs were Bronze. Maybe he went to a Holy tanning salon. 😉

      December 13, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
      • I AM

        That was in revelations..after he died and went to heaven. Supposedly.

        December 13, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
    • Carolyn

      Megyn Kelly should not be criticized because she says that Jesus is White, although He isn’t. He is Semitic (half-Black and half-White), not European. He was definitely Jewish, the Bible is very clear about that. There are at least two descriptions of Jesus in the Bible. Both describe Him as having hair like “wool”, and feet the color of “bronze” (Revelation 1:14-15). Also, He was from the Middle East, which was Northern Africa, until the Western powers annexed it, separating it in our minds from Africa.
      As a child growing up in the 50s I was taught that Egypt was its own continent. After all, at that time American children could not be taught that people of color actually built the pyramids. In reality all of Egypt is in Africa, all 4,000 miles of it. Christianity came late to the Europeans; it is not a European religion. Megyn is a victim of propaganda, just like the rest of us. Ms. Kelly, however, is racist, because she believes that people of color don’t deserve to see themselves in the icons they worship. Mr. Blum, on the other hand, is not stupid; but he is dangerous because he knows better. He wrote that story to demonize people who are righteously upset by false beliefs that maintain and perpetuate “White superiority”.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
    • Carolyn

      Ms. Kelly should not be criticized because she says that Jesus is White, although He isn’t. He is Semitic (half-Black and half-White), not European. He was definitely Jewish, the Bible is very clear about that. There are at least two descriptions of Jesus in the Bible. Both describe Him as having hair like “wool”, and feet the color of “bronze” (Revelation 1:14-15). Also, He was from the Middle East, which was Northern Africa, until the Western powers annexed it, separating it in our minds from Africa.
      As a child growing up in the 50s I was taught that Egypt was its own continent. After all, at that time American children could not be taught that people of color actually built the pyramids. In reality all of Egypt is in Africa, all 4,000 miles of it. Christianity came late to the Europeans; it is not a European religion. Megyn is a victim of propaganda, just like the rest of us. Ms. Kelly, however, is racist, because she believes that people of color don’t deserve to see themselves in the icons they worship. Mr. Blum, on the other hand, is not stupid; but he is dangerous because he knows better. He wrote that story to demonize people who are righteously upset by false beliefs that maintain and perpetuate “White superiority”.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
  16. Diane

    What difference does it make what color Jesus was ? He is the Savior that God sent to give everyone the possibility of eternal life. He came from the middle east, so he probably wasn't white but it doesn't matter to me. Jesus never discriminated against anyone because of their color, profession, etc. As far as Santa goes, he is the "Spirit of Christmas for children" It's ridiculous to argue about the color of Santa. He is not real. Children can decide what color he is for themselves. He is all colors and all races. And don't forget that we are actually celebrating the birth of Jesus at Christmas time. John 3:16

    December 13, 2013 at 4:18 pm |
  17. jpw2001

    If Santa Claus was black he would have been shot years ago for home invasion.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
    • lol??

      Leave the castle invading to the SWAT teams on OT. They need a little Xmas stash.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
  18. Zeke

    OK Jesus is the easier one. He was Jewish, His parents were Jewish. He also had a heck of a tan. Walking everywhere He went (oh except for that amazingly fast donkey ride, we know how they can get up and go). He had no place to lay His head. The man was not living in palaces and He liked to talk to people a lot. Ever met a farmer who stood outside a lot. Tan...Very Tan. But no matter the exact shade of skin, He still became the Savior for all who call upon Him. He didn't die for Only the white, black, asian, pacific islander, dark skin, light skin, people who like coffee, etc. He died for all sinners.
    So I am definitely in that category regardless of my skin palette.
    Santa, much trickier as the one who came down my chimney as a child never left a picture or any biographical information. Then one fateful year I told my parents that I thought he wasn't real and that they were leaving the presents and Santa has stiffed me every year since. No toys, candy, socks, or even a lump of coal. But I was thinking and with all that Chimney action he must get awfully covered in smoke and dust and dirt so his skin has to be darker than the tanning mom from florida.
    I sure hope Jesus wasn't that tan.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
  19. kafe

    Years from now, I am sure Fox will claim that Mandela was WHITE.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
    • Lew

      They said Tiger Woods was Black. Michael Jackson? Bryant Gumble? Who knows anymore????

      December 13, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
  20. Patrick James

    Santa should be black!? Get your own damn culture and stop trying appropriate European culture.

    December 13, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
    • .

      St. Nicholas was a Greek from what us now modern day Turkey. Get a grip , racist.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:19 pm |
    • visitor

      St Nick was a Turk.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:22 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      You do know it was the Europeans that brought their culture to the New World not the natives clamoring for christianity and the pox.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:25 pm |
    • Lew

      I don't know if Santa is Black or Green. But I do know he is a Democrat. Always giving out free stuff that was paid for by someone else and taking the credit. lol......Hows that grab ya????

      December 13, 2013 at 4:30 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.