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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. Michael

    This is an argument about (mostly) fictional characters. There was a "St." Nicholas, but he was a 5' 0" swarthy Greek man with a broken nose, looking nothing like modern depictions of Santa Claus. As for Jesus, there is little evidence he even historically existed. Everything else attributed to these two characters are fairy tales used to encourage good behavior, the Santa fairy tale being for children, the Jesus fairy tales being for adults.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
    • Roger Mike

      fictional charecters have a skin color

      what color was jims skin in hucklebery finn?

      December 13, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
      • Michael

        Yes, but most people don't have heated debates over the skin color of characters they recognize as being fiction. The problem is that America is the only developed country in which the majority of people take fairy tales for history.

        December 13, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
        • Fact

          Jesus Christ the historical figure existed. Only fringe atheist websites that looked like they were designed by a 6th grader deny that fact.

          December 13, 2013 at 5:38 pm |
    • Jack

      Are you kidding? No historical evidence that Jesus existed? There is plenty of historical evidence showing that Jesus was born, that he lived until he was around 33 years of age, that he performed miracles indicated in historical eye witness testimony, and then suffered unbearably nailed to a cross, died and ascended into heaven. He is real.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
      • Uncle Chan

        Seriously? Where is this proof/evidence?

        December 14, 2013 at 11:32 am |
  2. ztarbod

    White or colored, both Jesus and St. Nicholas, were human. It is about time both sides of the "race" issue realized we are all the same race. I have been told, with my tan, I am as black as a black person (actually the N word was used) but that doesn't change my skin color.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
  3. Roger Mike

    why are liberals so hung up on skin color?

    george zimmerman was white according to CNN and all other liberals news outlets.

    but a jewsish guy named jesus is not white?

    even arabs are white

    palestinians are white

    italians are white

    but liberals because they hate xtians have determined that jesus was black

    December 13, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
    • Satan Claws

      Um, it's Fox who are hung up on skin color. I have determined that you are an idiot. I'm sure I'm not alone.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
    • jat3clove

      For years African Americans have accepted white depictions of Jesus because it doesn't mater what color He is. He is our Lord and Savior, in any color. What's amazing is the complete disdain that whites have at the notion of a black Jesus. It's just not something they can allow themselves to consider. That's fine (small minded) but fine unless you're a Christian. If you know that He came to die for your sins and have accepted Him as your Lord and Savior, it is unacceptable to reject Jesus in any color. That reveals a larger issue than race. It calls into question the strength of your faith and belief in Him.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
  4. Jesus Christ Son of God

    I was white, but by the time I got done rotting on the cross, I was gray.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
  5. oo oo

    But I no exactly what he looked like.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
  6. nnn

    huh

    December 13, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
  7. jim davis

    Non-whites are spoiled, babies who cry if they can't have things their way.WAHHHHHH!

    December 13, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
  8. annabanana

    Don't tell me we have to pamper blacks again! YEA they were white. Deal with it. Sick of this stupidity.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
  9. One one

    If god created man in his own image, which man is god's image, a white man or a black man ?

    December 13, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
    • jim davis

      Read the BIBLE. It says Jesus was king of the Jews. Ever seen a black Jew?

      December 13, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
      • One one

        If god created man in his image and man originated out of Africa and was black it means god must be black.

        December 13, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
  10. I'm Curious (Yellow)

    So oo oo wants to tell us what Jesus really looked like. Go for it, dude. Here's your chance.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:22 pm |
  11. D-Rock

    We live in a society that is more concerned with Christ's skin color than his purpose. His purpose was atonement & salvation, not to spark an argument about his possible skin color.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
  12. QS

    As Christmas and more specifically Santa are, for all intents and purposes, guilt-inducing tools to use on children to elicit a desired behavior; and as Christmas is simply a more childish version of the religion that spawned it, it stands to reason that religion is simply a guilt-inducing tool to use on adults to elicit a desired behavior.

    To use guilt in such a way, at least with me, has always had the opposite effect. It is a weapon wielded by those who typically hold the most shame, against those who are generally good people but are weak-minded enough to allow that person's shame to become their own.

    More than anything else, religion raises my sense of non-conformity to its highest level.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
    • tomster

      @ QS: spot on!

      December 13, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
  13. bob enweave

    ...and santa spied for the nazis in world war 2...got a full pardon by the alies to help us fight the russkies..true story.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
  14. Jesus

    So if it is now time that we start changing historical traditions, why don't we make Kunta Kinte a white person, since I am uncomfortable with Black people always being portrayed as victims when there is plenty of evidence to suggest the opposite is more true.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
  15. NMStan

    I always liked the white, "hippie" Jesus knocking at the door ...with a apparent porch-light on!!!!!! adding shade and highlight to that painting. Can I get an "Amen" from the congregation?!

    December 13, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
  16. Observe Reason

    It is doubtful that either Christ or Saint Nick would have cared...

    ...it is their message that is important, not the color of their skin.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
  17. Colin

    It’s a pity the gospels, being the only books in the entire Bible that tell us anything about Jesus’ life, are so horribly unreliable. It would have been wonderful to have a historically reliable docu.ment that told us something about Jesus’ life. An eyewitness account would have been the best.

    Unfortunately, the best we have are the 4 canonical gospels. They are the only parts of the Bible that docu.ment what Jesus said or did. We don’t even have the originals and it is unlikely that we can reconstruct what the originals said from what we do have, apart from in the broadest terms.

    The oldest gospels we have date from about the early Third Century. They are (of course) handwritten copies of copies of copies etc. of gospels originally written about 150 years before. They were all originally written between 40-65 years after Jesus died by people who never met him, spoke a different language, lived in other parts of the World and relied largely on oral stories circulating in a highly superst.itous time and place. We have no idea how accurately these early Third Century copies even represent the (highly suspect) originals.

    So, for those Christians who base your religious view on what we English speaking people have in the English Bibles on our bookshelves in the 21st Century, you have to face a somewhat sobering fact. Your entire faith is based 100% and solely on interpretations of highly circu.mspect docu.ments written by people you know nothing about, who never met the person whose life they record, and who claim supernatural, magical acts! This in itself ought to be enough to destroy their credibility. There is simply no way around this.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
  18. jailbreak

    Everyone is in for a shock after they die!

    December 13, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
  19. pooper

    Hate to break it to anyone who thinks he was white but...

    jesus was the same color as Osama Bin Laden, that is unless mary migrated from some area that had white people, which would of been a hell of a trip via donkey or camel. There is however, no evidence for that. Of course there is no evidence for virtually everything in the bible yet people continue to believe that for some reason... so who knows I guess.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
  20. Sherri5061

    Jesus was born into a Jewish family so His skin tone is likely olive..... not white. Santa Claus is a mythical character so let the families who do Santa make him as they see fit. Whatever makes the kids happy.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:19 pm |
    • Roger Mike

      olive?

      CNN trying to create controversy out of nothing?

      the image of santa created by cocacola was a fat jolly white man = santa is white.

      jewish people are white so yes jesus would of been white. it takes longer than 2000 years for skin color to change color through evolution, it takes about 40,000 years.

      jewish DNA has remained unchanged for 4,000 years.

      rossanne bar is white
      larry david is white
      jerry seinfeld is white
      william shatner is white

      if you got o israel you will notice that jews are white.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
      • anthropologistical

        "jewish DNA has remained unchanged for 4,000 years."

        You don't understand how DNA works, do you?

        December 13, 2013 at 5:28 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.