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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. jake t

    Lady sounds pretty dumb. Go fox news

    December 13, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
    • Sherri5061

      Another bubble headed bleach blonde hosting a news show. Same ol same ol. Just a different channel.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
      • Satan Claws

        It's every network – CNN, too. The 'men' aren't much, either.

        December 13, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
  2. Perhapsif

    Jesus most likely looked more like Klinger from M*A*S*H, then that artist's conception of him looking like Errol Flynn. If he existed I mean.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
  3. Frank

    While I appreciate that this article says there are more important things about Jesus than his race, iIt's ignorant to say that race was not an issue in Jesus' time. One of the gospels actually goes through Jesus lineage just to prove that he was the descendant of King David and to prove he was the priest and King Israel had been waiting for. Also, while it wasn't based on skin color, it was apparent that the Jews of the time did not get along with their Samaritan neighbors and Jesus was actually scolded because he would talk to them without prejudice.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
  4. Austina

    What this supposedly educated woman has done is rant about some "bs" that should have been private among herself and others who feel as she does. She clearly exposed her ignorance. In her world I'm sure Santa and Jesus are white. She should study ethnicities, Jesus was Jewish, even the bible speaks of his skin tone. ANY BIBLE. Why people choose to be in denial of this, I have no idea. St Nick was Greek, need I say more. She has probably single-handedly ruined Christmas for all children because by the time the media pistol whip this story, and drag it thru the mud, most parents will have no choice but to tell their children the truth regarding Santa Claus. She needs her ass whooped by Santa's helpers.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
  5. CET

    Jesus was a Bedoin Jew. Not an olive skinned person, not a white person. Not quite an African person, but a Bedoin Jews. Bedoin Jews were dark-skinned Arabs (still are) and this is history. I don't undersand why people are still believing the European Jesus myth. It won't take long to educate yourself on this issue. And most of all, stop the racial division! As long as we keep dividing ourselves, we will not transform. We are ONE human race. Appreciate and Love all.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Jesus was of one of two black Jewish tribes.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
  6. Underwaterops

    Off topic a bit, but is the "blond blogger" really a blond?
    .
    Enquiring minds should want to know.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
  7. Bashful59

    Well..........to each his own. However, I will continue to know that he (They) not only were but are, White. So, with that said, what you may have to say would only be fruitless for you. That is what I believe and no amount of 'new' thinking will change that. So, please, just rag on someone else who will listen to you.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
  8. mark myword

    Sorry, but Martin Luther King is now being called a WHITE man in my town. That's ok with all you libs right ????

    December 13, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
    • Ferd Derfinator

      We do appreciate you righty brainiacs constantly proving your idiocy at every opportunity. It does put a smile on my face.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
    • Theseus

      I hate to shatter your little bubble here, but generalizing never works. I'm a liberal, and Martin Luther King is MOST OBVIOUSLY A FULLY BLACK MAN. How does that fit into your narrow judgments?

      December 13, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
  9. Underwaterops

    Jesus came from a line that is Mediterranean in nature, so I suspect many races could claim him in absence of any actual DNA to test.
    .
    And as the Son-Of-God, he has no color.
    .
    Santa is a northern European tradition, so he has a cultural ownership of being white. But since he has been gifted to all cultures now, he can be anything the believer wants him to be.
    .
    However, it seems to be hard to find a true white among the white supremacy groups if recent testing can be recalled (remember too, Hitler's mother, and therefore Hitler, was considered a Jew). Self-hate seems to be the theme there.
    .
    But why, oh why, does it matter?

    December 13, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
  10. Ayam

    A HISTORY LESSON:

    Jesus' color was not mentioned in the bible.
    Initially Jesus was drawn/pirctured as an arab looking figure (dark shade of skin, dark black hair)

    During the crusades Pope Alexander commissioned Leonardo Da Vinci to create a new image of Jesus, a white image as many christians crusaders felt uncomortable fighting the muslims who had similar appearance to their savior JESUS.

    Thus a campaign began to change the image of Jesus from a tan skinned arab looking individual to the image that we know today.

    This is where Cesare Borgia comes in, son of Pope Alexander VI, the image of Jesus was based on Cesare as he was thought to be one of the most handsome individuals of his time.

    Source: Makavelli & the Wu Tang Clan

    December 13, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
    • Theseus

      True, his color doesn't have to be mentioned in the Bible. If you read an Asian book that depicts an Asian baby being born of Asian parents, we're not going to assume he looks African... or White.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
  11. Vegas82

    Yes, if you make false statements people will take issue. I know it's shocking.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
  12. Doug

    We can assume that people born in the Middle East today look a lot like people born in the Middle East 2000 years ago. It's an assumption, but a safe one. So, if you can imagine what an average Middle Eastern human being looks like today it's more than probable that that is exactly what Jesus looked like. If he existed. The point is, it's not reasonable in any way to think he was, by any definition, white.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
  13. kiddo

    http://CareerDollar.com/?id=tiph23

    December 13, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
  14. Elliott Carlin

    Christ was jewish–meaning he wasn't black or Hispanic. Santa wasn't an invention from Asia or Africa. These might be difficult concepts for the uninformed to understand.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
    • Theseus

      "Santa" is a difficult concept for the uninformed to understand? Boy do I have some informed news for you...

      December 13, 2013 at 5:32 pm |
  15. ryanwin

    Isaiah 5:20 ¶Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!

    December 13, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
    • Theseus

      Well if that doesn't describe Christianity and the Bible too a T.....

      December 13, 2013 at 5:31 pm |
      • ryanwin

        It describes most people to a T. Everyone has need to correct their course in this life and strive to be better than they are. The only difference for Christians and other church goers is that they are willing to publicly admit that they need to change.

        December 13, 2013 at 5:56 pm |
        • In Santa we trust

          Where did you get the idea that non-christians cannot change?

          December 13, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
  16. Carlos

    God in a human form named Jesus, talks to us. It Is ridiculous to try to score points and create divisions between us, saying that he was white or black or whatever, or that Jerusalem is sacred and especial. God is not engaged in tribalism or in the real state business.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
    • Theseus

      Screw it... I say he was neon green.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
  17. claudius1964

    hmmmm..... this such a non-issue..... jesus is whatever you want him to be... duh.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
  18. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    They are the colour of air, though they have less substance than air.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
    • Tom

      Hi Tom.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
  19. tukyat

    everybody knows Jesus was INUIT

    December 13, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
  20. Theseus

    Hm, CNN bashing Fox news... go figure.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
    • jake t

      Not a one way street

      December 13, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
      • Theseus

        Definitely true... all the news networks suck. CNN's other headlines today:
        – Bond (a fictional character) drinks too much?
        – Danika Patrick showing skin... dear god.
        – Bob Barker does what Bob Barker has done his whole career!
        – Watch man take a shower from Star Trek.

        The list goes on.... "reporters".... and I'm the Czar of Jupiter!

        December 13, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
    • midwest rail

      You don;t get out much, do you ?

      December 13, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
    • Jerseygirl

      'jews' of natives of middle east ate Caucasians, their skin might be darker in tone but they are Caucasians , or 'white'

      December 13, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
      • Theseus

        I'm sorry, they "ate" Caucasians?

        December 13, 2013 at 5:22 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.