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The faces of Jesus
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 Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Art • Belief • Bible • Billy Graham • Black issues • Christianity • Discrimination • Faith • Faith Now • God • Jesus • News media • Opinion • Persecution • Prejudice • Race • United States

soundoff (7,471 Responses)
  1. Trey

    The funny thing about genetics is no one really knows quite how things are gonna turn out...Perhaps we are all so screwed up because we fight over what color Jesus was as opposed to the message he was teaching...but I guess pseudo christians seem to do that frequently

    December 13, 2013 at 5:44 pm |
    • Andres

      Thank you Trey. What really matters is the message, not the messenger's color. This reporter deserves all the heat, not for being racist, but for being spiritually shallow.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
  2. parshman

    (Whistle blowing) Time out! Jesus as a person in history is not only recorded in the Bible but in the works of Josephus and others. Claiming his place in history is a myth disregards evidence used to prove many other historical figures commonly accepted. To those who think the Bible is myth, put it to the test. For years critics claimed there was no way it could be accurate, and then scrolls found in the caves of Qumran showed it was accurate. Is what the Bible says true? That is a test done with your life. I have personally found the Bible to be the truth and it has changed my life. I have found Christ to be true to His Word, and if you ask Him, He will reveal himself to you also.
    As far as requiring scientific proof before you believe, or as the standard of belief, you are limiting your belief to that which you can understand or prove. Try that with gravity. What is it? We know how it acts on objects, but what is it? Does it pull with molecules or waves, magnetism or something else? I can say with certainty that while I do not understand all there is to know about gravity, that it exists and acts on me in spite of my lack of understanding. Faith is not limited to Christ, it is a large part of science as well. What is not known is guessed about, or believed to be so. What is ignorant is to say that something is untrue when there is no definitive evidence to that end; only a lack of understanding.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
    • Frankly

      Bible and all Christian accounts: written decades after his death by no one who ever met him.

      Josephus: wrote 80 years after Jesus died, and was only repeating Christian claims.

      Neither are credible.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
      • Winter

        No. The 4 Gospels were written long after his death. But other writings are available from people who knew him.

        December 13, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
        • John P. Tarver

          John and Mathew were both literate men and wrote at their gospels at the time. Even Revelations is written by 69 AD, as 666 is Cesar Nero in Greek.

          December 13, 2013 at 5:53 pm |
        • Frankly

          Name them. Hint: they don't exist.

          December 13, 2013 at 5:59 pm |
  3. heaven is white

    JESUS AND SANTA AND THE POPE ARE ALL WHITE ... AMERICA WAS CREATED BY ALL WHITES
    ?

    BE GLAD OF THAT ... WHITES ARE NATURALLY GENETICALLY PREDISPOSED TO MODERNISM AND TECHNOLOGY AND IORDERLLY PROCESS

    WHY DOES IT MATTER ?

    LIBERALS ARE ALL RACISTS AND OBSESSED BY RACE AND DISORGANIZED

    December 13, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
  4. Yup

    That picture looks like a poster for Idiots Anomynonnynomimionous

    December 13, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
  5. Elowen2583

    Jesus is not white or black. He was Israeli/Jewish. He would have slightly tanned skinned with dark hair. He would talk in Hebrew and be considered a middle-easterner.

    People arguing for ABSOLUTELY no reason. Is the moon green or blue? NEITHER!

    December 13, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
  6. davidi

    Guess what,,,, where all different.... small,big,short,tall,light,dark,/// Some just like to drive wedges... The media is good at this.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
  7. Crashman

    Santa is based on Saint Nicholas, a man from what is now Turkey. Being of white skin with rosy cheeks would be really out of place there. Jesus is from Israel. Have you ever seen a blond white man from Israel?

    People are so concerned about skin color. White man made Jesus white because they couldn't think about him not being so. Time to wake up and smell what you're shoveling. Both Nicholas and Jesus were Middle Eastern. I believe the word "swarthy" is often used for people of that region.

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

      Omigosh, Crashman, a person who actually makes some sense and has a brain.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:48 pm |
    • Habberdashery

      Our modern Santa is based on several figures in folklore. St Nicholas is one of them and, sure he supposedly gave kids gifts, but a lot of our modern conception of Santa Claus is similar to Odin and Father Christmas. So there's little reason to go back and try to figure out the St Nicholas' skin color and think that will bring some truth to Santa Claus' appearance

      December 13, 2013 at 6:30 pm |
  8. Buster

    Based on what awe know:

    Both Jesus and Santa Claus were from the Middle East. It is possible that both of them could have had a fair skin pigmentation, but not very likely to have been black. Jesus was born in an area where the skin pigmentation varied from stark white to olive in tone with very dark black hair color to light brown. Blue eyes are possible, but not likely. Green or brown eyes are very likely. Santa Claus was from an area of more olive tone skin with dark hair, but blue or green eyes are possible too. I don't know what Jesus looked like, but I think the most accurate portrayal shows a fairish olive skin tone, brown or hazel to emerald green type eyes, long flowing stark black hair that contrasts the lighter skin tone.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:38 pm |
  9. davidi

    Were all members of the human race, can't we give this a rest.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:37 pm |
  10. JohnnyMnemonic

    This article is so loaded for the racists and crazies it's not even funny.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
  11. One one

    Santa is a bad example for kids. He is obese, he smokes tobaccos, he wears animal fur, and he has slaves.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
  12. WillB

    Fox Policy is that only white people count. They do hire one or two minorities, but only because their job description includes house cleaning for the executives and doing Megyn's laundry on the weekends. They even have 1 gay guy on The Five, but what his "extra" duties are only Bill O'Reilly knows.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
  13. ThinkAgain

    According to Megyn Kelly of Fox, Santa Claus was originally from Greece, a region that is now part of Turkey. Jesus was from Israel. Most folks from these regions do not look like Northern Europeans. So there's no reason to believe that Santa or Jesus looked anything like the blue-eyed, Caucasian representations.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
  14. davidi

    O good grief....

    December 13, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
  15. sly

    Y'all know how many gorgeous teenage chicks there are in Heaven – not deflowered? No Laws. The Big Fella loves a bit of hanky panky (see Palm 41:421aosx Adam-Eve). No wives. No football?

    Just a hole lotta time to roll around with the cute chicks and eclipse Wilt the Stilts famous '10000' record.

    Now THATS enough for me not to be an athiest.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
  16. Bill

    I hope Megyn Kelly is completely embarrassed about what she said. She should be forced to take some diversity training. If anyone of us said what she said in our workplace, we would be on an action plan and be facing possible termination.

    December 13, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Is that you O'Reilly?

      December 13, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
  17. Jose soto

    So?.. jesus wast latino?

    December 13, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
  18. Ricky Bobby's New Career as a FOX Reporter (hair dyed blond)

    Ricky: "Dear lord baby Jesus or as our brothers to the south call you, Jesus, we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Domino's, KFC and the always delicious Taco Bell. I just want to take time to say thank you for my family: my two beautiful, beautiful handsome, striking sons Walker and Texas Ranger or T.R. as we call him and of course my red-hot smoking wife, Carley who is a stone-cold fox. Who if you were to rate her ass on 100, it would easilly be a 94. Also wanna thank you for my best friend and teammate, Cal Naughton Jr who's got my back no batter what. Dear Lord baby Jesus, we also thank you for my wife's father, Chip. We hope that you can use your baby Jesus powers to heal him and his horrible leg. And it smells terrible and the dogs are always bothering with it. Dear, tiny infant Jesus, we–"

    Carley: "Hey, um, you know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don't always have to call him, 'baby.' It's a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby."

    Ricky: "Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best and I'm saying grace. When you say grace, you can say it to grownup Jesus or teenage Jesus or bearded Jesus, or whoever you want."

    Carley: "You know what I want? I want you to do this grace good, so that God will let us win tomorrow."

    Ricky: "Dear tiny Jesus in your golden-fleece diapers, with your tiny, little, fat, balled-up fists pawing at the air..."

    Chip: "He was a man. He had a beard."

    Ricky: "Look, I like the baby version the best, do you hear me? I win the races and I get the money."

    Carley: "Ricky, finish the damn grace."

    Cal: "I like to picture Jesus in a Tuxedo T-shirt because it says, like, 'I wanna be formal...'"

    Ricky: "Right."

    Cal: "'...but I'm here to party too.' 'Cause I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party."

    Walker: "I like to picture Jesus as a ninja fighting off evil samurai."

    Cal: "I like to think of Jesus, like, with giant eagle's wings."

    Ricky: "Yeah."

    Cal: "And singing lead vocal for Lynyrd Skynyrd with, like, a angel band. And I'm in the front row and I'm hammered drunk."

    Carley: "Hey, Cal? Why don't you just shut up?"

    Cal: "Yes, ma'am."

    Ricky: "Okay. Dear, 8-pound, 6-ounce, newborn infant Jesus, don't even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent, we just thank you for all the races I've won and the 21.2 millios dollars– Whoo!"

    Cal: "Whoo!"

    Carley: "Whoo!"

    The Kids: "Ow!"

    Ricky: "Love that money! –that I have accrued over this past season. Also due to a binding endorsement contract that stipulates I mention Powerade at each grace I just wanna say that Powerade is delicious and it cools you off os a hot summer day. And we look forward to Powerade's release of Mystic Mountain Blueberry. Thank you for all your power and your grace, dear baby God. Amen."

    Carley: "Amen."

    Cal: "Amen!"

    Ricky: "Let's dig in!"

    December 13, 2013 at 5:34 pm |
  19. lgt

    Maybe Jesus was black. so why do black people not like being black in color? the tv anchors are usually lt brown or tan. or you could say blacks like to look more white; like Opra; she was black in purple but now she's litn'n up with creams and stuff. and MJ, he was black and claimed to have some disease that made him white. blacks just don't like being black, black, Why? Conclusion; Black folks don't like being black in color, they just don't.

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

      Definitely wins the award for most rambling, senseless post of the day.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
  20. Roger Mike

    there are only 3 races according to anthropologist and biologist

    black white and asian

    well jessu was not black or asian

    so that leaves WHITE

    December 13, 2013 at 5:33 pm |
    • Rhinnrhinn

      This theory on three races of humans is old school. It has been disproved.

      December 13, 2013 at 5:56 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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.