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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. Brandon

    If it's ever confirmed that Jesus is black the black community will claim a hate crime against the Jews.

    December 13, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
    • troll Spotter

      Here is a big one.

      December 13, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
    • That guy

      Why? For finding out Jews were black at one time.

      December 13, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
    • Cheryl Magnuson

      Or we'll just label you racist. Get over yourself.

      December 13, 2013 at 6:55 pm |
    • Al

      You ever heard of the Falasha?

      December 13, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
  2. Jon

    It really doesn't make a difference if Jesus is white, black, or sky blue pink. Focus on what he is all about.
    This type of non-story is asinine.

    December 13, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
    • troll Spotter

      Agree 100 percent.

      December 13, 2013 at 6:57 pm |
  3. JHH

    When was the last time you saw a black Santa Claus in the local mall? Or a black Jesus hanging from a cross in front of a church. Yeah, didn't think so! As for CNN, you're getting stomped in the ratings by FOX News and Megyn Kelly. Get over it and move on! (I suggest getting rid of Piers Morgan for a start)

    December 13, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
    • vinster76

      Yo – I LOVE the idea of deporting Piers Morgan, what a moron......but that's ok CNN, you keep him, and continue to get the snot kicked out of yourself nightly by FOX.....Ha!

      December 13, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
    • That guy

      When was the last time you left the block?

      December 13, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
  4. That guy

    If some fat dude comes down my chimney I am going to blast him. Screw what color he is.

    December 13, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
  5. Ghostonefour

    Calling Jesus or Santa white is about as racist as calling George Washington White. Or calling the Pope white. or calling Julius Ceasar white. Its a statement of fact. St. Nicholas and Jesus Christ are real historical figures. They are not the Black people's version of the Wizard Of Oz here. Wake up.

    December 13, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
    • Kathy

      Wrong. Those other people were real. Jesus is a figment of your imagination.

      December 13, 2013 at 7:03 pm |
  6. el nuevo cicero

    Jesus was Jewish. He could have been any shade of brown (or olive, if you wish). If he had some Roman in him maybe he could have been white. Need to look into Mary's background. We need not check Josephs background.
    He could also been transparent (we can not see God, can we?)
    This is one ridiculous article

    December 13, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
  7. vinster76

    does it really matter what the color of his skin is? My salvation by Christ was not dependent on whether I had his skin color white....The human race is really in need of a Savior. We have to argue about something as irrelevant as this.....sheesh

    December 13, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
  8. crakkka

    White is the color of the big boss man.

    December 13, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
  9. Jesus is real?

    I like how we can scientifically prove that the Earth is 5 billion years old and then all of the sudden 4.999 billion years later God decided to send Jesus to Earth, create man in his image (which is a lie because if we were created in his image, then there would be no such thing as sin), teach some nonsense about following him and loving everyone and everything, then condemn non believers that they will go to hell if they don't believe. Sounds like extortion to me. Why would Jesus extort people? Furthermore, why do people continue to follow the catholic church when they've been accused of exploiting children in recent years?

    December 13, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
  10. joe

    It would be ridiculous to be believe Jesus
    -------
    You should have just stopped there.

    December 13, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
  11. Atheist Forever!

    My invisible spirit is black, and he DOES NOT like white invisible creatures. He won't allow himself to be unseen with them.

    December 13, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
  12. jim davis

    Jesus is Mexican, he and his brother Jose cut my lawn every 2 weeks. Swell fellas.

    December 13, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
  13. qqq

    It was some leftist Slate writer that wanted to have a black Santa. M. Kelly is merely responding to it, saying that if we depicted Santa in a way for hundreds of years, let's stick to it and not change it for political correctness. I agree

    December 13, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
    • jim davis

      I agree. As for Jesus, he's been portrayed as Caucasian for over 2,000 years and masterful works of art by the greatest painter of all time have graced the finest art museums in the world and then along comes the pot smoking, liberal, hippie, nut-whacks trying to change everything to fit their definition of political correctness. Sorry, libs....you can't have your bong and smoke it too.

      December 13, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
      • tessie may

        These same artists also portrayed Biblical figures in the dress and hairstyles of their own time and nationality. The only common thread is that Mary is always depicted wearing a blue robe. My mom taught me that so I could recognize her when we went to museums.

        December 14, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
  14. Shazzam

    Kelly obviously needs to feel a strong personal connection to her faith and she has a right to that privilege as do ALL people. In 1 Corinthians 9:22 while working for God, Paul describes 'becoming all things to all people' so that he might by all means save some. To Kelly, the historical mediterranean Greek Saint Nikolaos of Myra, and Middle Eastern Jewish Christ ought to have blue eyes and blond hair (despite the obvious) because that is how Paul, working for God would become and present himself so that he could save her. The same goes for each of us no matter what we look like and what our brand. Kelly's faux pas was forgetting that Santa and Jesus are not her's alone. If she truly believes she needs to share, in a meaningful way. Merry Christmas all.

    December 13, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
  15. Earl Reed

    When Jesus was born and the king was looking to kill him Mary and Joseph went to Egypt to hide from the king of the Jews. Egyptian are people of color. Thank you have a nice day.

    December 13, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
    • Jesus is real?

      I almost forgot, you were there to witness this right?

      December 13, 2013 at 6:49 pm |
    • tessie may

      You are quite simply mistaken. Egyptians, then and now, were not always black. They were a huge civilization which encompassed a great number of ethnic tribes-much like ancient Rome. If you look at the pharaohs in total, only a few are depicted as clearly Nubian (or southern African) Many more are represented as Arabic (as we would think of them today).

      December 14, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
  16. Really?

    So people are getting upset about the color of 2 imaginary people? WOW! Time to wake up and pick a different battle folks!

    December 13, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
  17. Atheist Forever!

    Jesus was gay from what I have heard, so maybe he has a rainbow color scheme.

    December 13, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
    • troll Spotter

      Found a REALLY stupid one.

      December 13, 2013 at 6:53 pm |
    • "Internet Atheist"

      http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=internet%20atheist

      "Users of the internet that are known for their Militant Atheism. Usually commenters on Youtube and /atheist/ Reddit, Internet Atheists will attack virtually anything related to religion. Hilariously enough, they are generally just as dogmatic as the religious."

      December 13, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
      • tessie may

        What, atheists militant?

        December 14, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
  18. Atheist Forever!

    Is it considered "racist" to hate on an invisible creature because of his or her (imaginary) color?

    December 13, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
  19. crakkka

    Kwanza is black

    December 13, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • Mik

      Kwanza is Black American

      December 13, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
  20. joe

    Exactly. Write an absurd article. Get a bunch of click throughs, charge the advertisers.

    December 13, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Dear joe,

      thank you for your 'click' today.

      Sincerely,

      CNN Accounts Receivables

      December 13, 2013 at 6:52 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.