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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. cog in the wheel

    I'd be quite surprised if Jesus was NOT dark-skinned–but I find it hilarious that people who believe he was the "Son of God" care what human form he took (maybe their belief is not really that strong? :-)) People are also worked up that Santa is depicted as white - hehehehehe 🙂

    The Santa myth is based on a historical person who lived in Turkey, so it's probably true that historic person was dark-skinned. But really, who cares?

    December 13, 2013 at 11:07 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      God did all of creation so he could live as a Jew for less than 45 years. Must have been pretty sweet to be a Jew then.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • Dan

      Nicholas was Greek. They are fairer complected than the Turks who later conquered Anatolia.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:21 am |
      • tessie may

        Nicholas was born on what was at the time the border of Turkey and Greece. Besides being of importance as the original model for Santa Claus, he was a member of the very influential Council of Nicea around 325 as he was bishop of Myra-a Greek province.

        December 16, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
  2. John P. Tarver

    Black Jesus is why our church attending klansmen are in for a disappointment at judgement.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • Bob

      Yeezus

      December 13, 2013 at 11:11 am |
      • John P. Tarver

        Yeezus bin Perez.

        December 13, 2013 at 11:12 am |
    • Dan

      I'm sure they would be very scared if it was not a fairy tale.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  3. Not All Docs Play Golf

    Ah, the religious wars......"I'm Sorry,but it looks like MY KARMA JUST RAN OVER YOUR DOGMA".

    December 13, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • lol??

      Don't be a typical socie. Clean up after yasef.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  4. I AM

    He started out brown and became white, like Beyonce.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:04 am |
  5. wrm

    What fuqin' difference does it make?

    December 13, 2013 at 11:03 am |
  6. Joe from Boston

    I'm not the most devout or religious person, but I do have faith. And I have to believe it's exactly these types of arguments that we waste our time on that make Jesus weep, or at least shake his head. We're kind of missing the point. Does what he looked like here on earth really make any difference?

    When we do meet Him, I believe he will appear to us in a most uniquely wonderful way that we can't even imagine.

    I just pray that's it's Him that I meet. Could still go either way....

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

    Jesus was a Jew so probably had tanned skin. We'll all be the same color in Heaven so don't anyone worry about it.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:03 am |
    • Suzy Mack

      And a big nose. And a fat lip. Short. Pudgy. Balding. Cheap. And needed glasses. Probably loved money...

      December 13, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • Roy

      Race is a lot more than skin color.

      If it wasn't, then just getting a good tan would make one a good B-baller, no?

      December 13, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • Suzy Mack

      Probably looked like a younger Alan Greenspan. Thank GOD we revised Jesus's image.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:07 am |
  8. Baracuda74

    Jesus wasn't even a real person so he can be whatever color makes you feel better.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:01 am |
    • SAM

      You're hilarious. It's one thing to to not believe in Jesus as God, but to say he never existed? Crack open a history book, Jesus is a real person.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:06 am |
      • tallulah13

        The bible is not a history book. You won't find Jesus in an actual history book because there are no contemporary accounts of his existence. Kinda strange, considering the Roman love of record keeping. He may or may not have existed, but it's not a certain thing.

        December 13, 2013 at 11:14 am |
      • Andres

        You don't know if he existed at all. People from the bronze age believed in so many 'gods' it is completely ridiculous. I don't mean to spoil the party but science is proving that religion it is a fantasy for insecured people. Check Bill Mahe'r religulous. It will give you a better perspective on things. It's time to be assertive in the 21st century, no more fairy tale stories.

        December 13, 2013 at 11:17 am |
    • Joe

      you're factually incorrect

      December 13, 2013 at 11:13 am |
  9. Spinner49

    Apparently, we are not made in God's image, He is make in ours.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:00 am |
  10. Roy

    If Jesus wasn't white, then Jews aren't white.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:00 am |
  11. lolCAT2000

    Christmas can't be real because of evolution x-)

    December 13, 2013 at 10:59 am |
  12. TYRANNASAUR

    Debates over Jesus' race are not particularly new. In fact, they've become an American tradition..............

    Actually since this Jesus is a fictional character he can be any color anyone wants to say he is.....for the IGNORANT believers there is no proof whatsoever of anyone in the middle east named Jesus...it's not even a name used in that area of the world.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • jhamariah

      first of all jesus is not a fictional character... he is not some made up charcater.. u will see. he died on the cross for your sins.. you needa show some respect ... talking bout sum he a made a charcter. you sounnd like a scientist. i bet you if you went to jesus grave and dug as deeep as u wanted you wouldnt find nothing there because jesus is in heaven.. DONT EVER DISRESPECT THE LORD LIKE THAT. !!!!!!!! YOU NEED TO GET SACED. FAST OR IT IS GOOD CHANCE YOU GOING TO HELL!!! I BET YOU BELIOVE IN THAT DONT YOU.... GET YO LIFE TOGETHER......

      December 13, 2013 at 11:07 am |
      • Joe

        Crazy much? Rants work a lot better when you can spell and others can read your posts. When you get to heaven Jesus will tell you punctuation counts! In fact bad punctuation means you go to hell, so you better get ready or get smart. You can always tell who doesn't go to college by how devout they are....

        December 13, 2013 at 11:15 am |
      • Dyslexic doG

        lololol

        December 13, 2013 at 11:15 am |
      • Andres

        You need to stop believing in fairy tales. It's the 21st century. Religion is mass dilution. sorry but that's just the way it is.

        December 13, 2013 at 11:20 am |
      • Rich

        And second of all?

        December 13, 2013 at 11:21 am |
      • Ian

        Lol....You are an idiot...Its funny how people still believe in a thousand year old book....the has been edited about 10,000 times....Science can be proven...religion cant...Religion is a tool to control the masses..

        December 13, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
      • New Age Goddess

        LOLOLOL @ jhamariah... u r sillyyyyyy!!!

        December 13, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • Dan

      Just curious. Do you think the founders of all religions are myths? What about Mohammad, Buddha, Confucius? Are they all fictional characters, or just the one who bothers you the most?

      December 13, 2013 at 11:07 am |
    • Grant Smith

      LMAO not mentioned in that part of the world? Jesus is a prophet in Islam.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:07 am |
    • Responding to the Pride

      Have you ever studied the etymology of the name Jesus (I mean–going beyond Wikipedia)? Your ignorance has no limits.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:08 am |
    • Please don't spread ingnorance

      Jesus is the translation of Yeshua. As you should know, the books of the bible were not originally written in english. You wont likely find any old writings about a something called water either, as it is and english word and english didn't exist at the time.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:17 am |
    • tessie may

      No but Yeshua, Miriam, and Yusef were. Why do you think the Anglicized versions were their real names in life?

      December 16, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
  13. Dyslexic doG

    what color is god? jesus is half jew and half magic man in the sky, so his color would be a mix. perhaps light brown with little sparkly bits and some flames here and there ... ?

    December 13, 2013 at 10:56 am |
    • New Age Goddess

      LOLOLOL.. i cant with you

      December 13, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  14. ImvotingforHillary

    Jesus was Jewish and most likely looked arabic. WHen He comes back one day I am going to love seeing the faces of all teh racists when they see He was not white.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:56 am |
    • Grant Smith

      so Martin Luther King Jr. was a racist?

      December 13, 2013 at 10:57 am |
      • Joe from Boston

        No, he was a realist who understood that a black leader who tried to make that argument in the 1950's in the USA had no chance of delivering a message of peace and racial harmony in the future. C'mon, man, try a little bit.

        December 13, 2013 at 11:10 am |
      • In Santa we trust

        From the Atlantic
        "In Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Advice for Living” column for Ebony in 1957, the civil-rights leader was asked, “Why did God make Jesus white, when the majority of peoples in the world are non-white?” King replied, “The color of Jesus’ skin is of little or no consequence” because what made Jesus exceptional “His willingness to surrender His will to God’s will.” His point, as historian Edward Blum has noted, is that Jesus transcends race."

        I don't think he actually said jesus was white but equally didn't say what color he thought he was.

        December 13, 2013 at 11:11 am |
      • CJ

        From the quote in this article, it doesn't sound like MLK said Jesus was white as much as he passed on picking a fight over it and basically said why does it matter what race he is.

        December 13, 2013 at 11:22 am |
    • Dyslexic doG

      he's not coming back you loon.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:59 am |
      • Truth

        Why the name calling?

        December 13, 2013 at 11:05 am |
    • TYRANNASAUR

      Discussing fiction as if it was an important REALITY is a form of INSANITY.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:00 am |
      • Grant Smith

        Apparently they didn't teach history where you come from. Jesus Christ was an actual person who lived an breathed on this earth. The Romans have historical accounts of his execution. Whether you believe in the walking on water, curing blindness or other miracles is understandable but that is just man's flawed interpretation of Christ. His message of love and forgiveness is what was important but you don't have to believe in what he practiced but he did walk the Earth. Fact.

        December 13, 2013 at 11:04 am |
        • Doc Vestibule

          The Romans do not have records of His crucifiction, I'm afraid.
          Those who merited such an execution were considered sub-human and not worth noting as individuals.
          The only mention of Christ's Crucifiction by early historians comes from Tacitus – but he also talks about Hercules....

          December 13, 2013 at 11:12 am |
      • Dan

        LOL...and yet you come to these boards to discuss him all the time.

        December 13, 2013 at 11:10 am |
    • tessie may

      And what will your reaction be when you see him as a Middle Eastern Jew? Since, you know, that is what is was. Repeated again and again throughout the New Testament.

      December 16, 2013 at 7:43 pm |
  15. Jeff

    It's hilarious to speculate whether Santa or Jesus was white because they're both fictional characters.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:56 am |
    • TYRANNASAUR

      WHAAAAAAA............YOU mean I'm not getting any presents this year too?.....WHAAAAAAAA! LOLOLOLO

      December 13, 2013 at 11:02 am |
    • Truth

      And you know this – how?

      December 13, 2013 at 11:06 am |
  16. Grant Smith

    Funny how so many commenters condemn Kelly for saying Jesus was White but don't mention the fact that MLK said the same thing.....If Ms. Kelly is so dumb doesn't that imply MLK was too??

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

      She isn't dumb, she just said a dumb thing.

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

        Jeff, If she said a dumb thing that is still implying that MLK said a dumb thing...because he made the same accusation that he was white.

        December 13, 2013 at 11:04 am |
    • HotAirAce

      Megan is much nicer to look at than MLK.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:00 am |
      • Responding to the Pride

        I think we found something we can agree on!

        December 13, 2013 at 11:11 am |
  17. Daryl

    This should not be on the top of anyone's list of things to care about. Jesus is simply insignificant.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:54 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      "Insignificant" is the last adjective one should use to describe Christ.
      Whether you think He was real or not, you can't deny that His story has had tremendous impact.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:56 am |
      • Marty

        It is his followers that spread his story that Christians have to thank for how much it spread not Jesus himself. The Romans crucified him then four centuries later ADOPTED and began practising his theological idealogies. Thank them too.

        December 13, 2013 at 11:01 am |
    • Dan

      Um, anyone who has influenced teh lives of literally billions of people can be called a lot of things, but "insignificant" is not one of them.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:12 am |
  18. kennypetrowski

    "Obsessions about race are obsessions of our age, not the biblical one"

    With all due respect, that's simply not true. 1st century (& pre-first century) middle east was full of racial / cultural issues between Jews, Samaritans, Greeks and other tribes. Jesus cuts through all of it for sure, but his lack of discussion on it doesn't mean it wasn't an issue of the day.

    Also, Jesus is depicted as white in Greek and European art for centuries. Making Jesus 'our race' as been happening for a very long time. The courage to accept that he was not 'our race' means that God is bigger than our preconcieved notions of who's in and who's out. Kelly would do well to study THAT Jesus, as would we all.

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

      Bingo. Good comment.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • ELMO

      Its a human condition you monkey. Its been with us since the beginning.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:00 am |
  19. andrzejkiszka

    ...___...

    December 13, 2013 at 10:52 am |
  20. CJ

    He's a figment of you imagination anyway, make him whatever race you like.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:52 am |
    • Thinker...

      Hmmm... just because I think the mental image of this is fun; Jesus was a (insert whatever race Yoda was).

      December 13, 2013 at 11:18 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.