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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. Bryan

    Victor wrote:
    <>
    Well, for one, Victor,wind, radio raves, electromagnetism, DNA, atomic particles, and myriad other things we can't see, are all verifiable and demonstrable by the scientific method. The "existance [sic]" of God isn't. And that's how we can doubt the "existance [sic]" of God.
    For Megyn Kelly to argue that either Jesus, as embraced by Christians as the Son of God, or Santa, as the infinitely generous being who lives at the North Pole and delivers presents to every well-behaved child on the planet on Christmas Eve (What other possible understanding could she be advocating?) is an "historical figure" or "verifiable fact" simply proves that she doesn't know the meanings of the words "historical", "verifiable", or "fact". I'll grant her possible understand of the word "figure".

    December 13, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
    • Iain

      I agree that you cannot "prove" the existence of God, and therefore you can doubt. But that is what so many today forget. Belief in God is "Faith" – not fact. I believe, even without proof, but I hold no malice towards those who do not. I also think that claiming that Jesus was white as "fact" (same as Santa) is ridiculous... but not uncommon for her and FOXnews in general. More simply put. She's an idiot. I think that is a point on which we also agree.

      December 13, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
  2. Darthkato

    Jesus is a Democrat.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
    • BuckRogere

      He would be if he were here now.

      December 13, 2013 at 7:38 pm |
      • Jim

        I would think Jesus would be above our petty politics if he were alive today.

        As it is, Jesus would have had no concept of political parties.

        December 13, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
  3. BuckRogere

    There is more 'evidence' for King Arthur than there is for Jesus, and nobody thinks Arthur was real. It's probably just a myth folks.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
    • God

      Wrong again, BuckRogere.

      December 13, 2013 at 7:44 pm |
  4. David

    Santa Claus is legend and folk lore. He was created Northern European. If it makes you feel better, make him what you are. There is no copyright on Santa. Jesus is what the Palestinians are. It certainly isn't white. It is more of a brown or maybe olive, but what difference does it make. We all originated out of Africa. Just follow the DNA.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
    • Elijah

      The white race was grafted onto the human race by the devil.

      December 13, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
      • David

        ... and you are a troll.

        December 13, 2013 at 7:39 pm |
  5. Jesus is Lord

    why does it matter if he was Red,Yellow,Black,or white? the only thing that matters in this world is believing that God sent his only son Jesus to die for our sins,and if we will confess that we are sinners and turn from sin and except the lord as our savior we will be saved... now if i was to tell you what color i am some of you would hate me no matter what color i choose... some of you will hate me because i spoke of God and Jesus .. some will hate me because i may have miss spelled something and others will hate me just because i left this comment :/ we live in a world of hate .. we have ppl in this world that would kill us for believing in something different then they do.. God bless you all

    December 13, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
    • Eric

      I don't hate you... I kind of pity you. What a fairy tale to grab onto and allow to run your life.

      December 13, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
      • Jesus is Lord

        don't pity me ,the piece i have in my heart makes me happy.. happiness is something thats hard to find for a lot of ppl, i pity the ppl that get offended over little things that dont matter

        December 13, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
    • politimom2

      Thank you... who cares about race jesus loves us all why cant we love each other enough to see that white, black, red, orange is nothing more than cells trying to protect u from the sun.
      And if jesus was white then why are so many people from the middle east olive complected with dark hair... he would have stood out like a sore thumb

      December 13, 2013 at 7:39 pm |
    • One one

      Why did god have to kill his son to save us from more of his wrath and punishment ? Surely he could have come up with a less bloody and repulsive solution. It seem that god just demands human sacrifice. That is, according to the myth.

      December 13, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
      • God

        No offense, Mr. One one, but when I devised my perfect plan, I didn't draw into consideration your sensibilities. Don't mock me – you will regret it.

        December 13, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
      • Jesus is Lord

        Wow im glad you brought that up.. from the days of adam and eve the only thing that could cover sin was blood so ppl would sacrifice their best cattle as a offering to God..(alot of animals would have to die these days for all of our sins) but God was not satisfied with the blood of animals anymore so he sent his son to shed his blood to cover our sins so that all ppl could be saved through jesus.... i could go way deeper with this but maybe what i said will help you and others understand

        December 13, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
  6. yaa

    What is pathetic is your need to know if he was white or not

    December 13, 2013 at 7:32 pm |
    • yaa

      Oh and here's my take.

      If Jesus was real as the bible says he was, he ain't white.
      If he is supposed to be white as you say he is, he ain't real.

      December 13, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
  7. Mike the American

    Umm I thought this stuff was settled long ago. Jesus was not a white guy. That doesn't mean any person who is non-white should feel good about themselves only because of that.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
  8. redmom

    Congratulations CNN....Is it not possible to just NOT print things like this stupidity right here:
    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?”? So as memory serves me correctly... most 5 years old aren't "sophisticated" enough to give a rip about skin color. Kids don't come out of the womb racist. This is something that is passed on to them. Let me tell you something else... St. NICK.. He was CATHOLIC... ewwwwww gas on the fire... more you say... let get this fire really burning... Jesus was a JEW from the house of David... an Israelite. BREATH... BREATH.... BREAAAAATHHHHHH... That's right it's just not that deep. It's shouldn't be. You all do more to create RACIST minds sets than you do to propagate acceptance and peace. Stand before the mirror one in awhile.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
    • steve

      The children were watching FOX at 10 :00 at night. Not a news channel.

      December 13, 2013 at 7:39 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      "Let me tell you something else... St. NICK.. He was CATHOLIC"

      Ummm, not exactly. Christian yes, Catholic, not really.

      St. Nikolaos of Myra in Anatolia, is a pre-"Catholic" 4th century Greek Christian. If anything he is more Eastern Orthodox than Catholic, but he pre-dates the 11th century east/west schism so is shared by both traditions. Use of the word "Catholic" before the schism is kind of meaningless.

      December 13, 2013 at 7:45 pm |
  9. kitkatbar

    Maybe there both asian?

    December 13, 2013 at 7:29 pm |
  10. tuscarora50

    In the GOP world white is right Jesus has to be white. In fact it is the GOP and not he Jews who are his chosen people. Would be interesting to see the DNA results of the talking heads at FOX and what skeletons would fall out of their closets.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
  11. Mikey

    Santa? Seriously? Is this really happening? People are arguing over the skin color of an imaginary man. Anyone out there screaming "SANTA IS WHITE" or "SANTA IS NOT WHITE" please take a moment and think about what you're saying. If your child has an "imaginary friend," will you ask what the color of skin of that "friend" is? Santa is only in our heads, it makes me wonder how man of you people weren't told that as a child.

    The Bible does not have the quote, "Jesus, a white child, was born of the virgin..." Skin color is not mentioned, because it never mattered. If you believe in the Bible, it should be a sign to you that neither the authors nor the word of God cared to mention it. For those who actually believe in Jesus and Christianity, why does your savior need to be white?

    December 13, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
    • troll Spotter

      The first post to make sense. Bravao!!!!

      December 13, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
  12. BuckRogere

    Talk to any White Supremacist you happen to know and he'll tell you Jews are not White and Jesus was not a Jew! And he might hit you.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
  13. Martin Linskey

    This world is getting goofier and goofier. I'll join in, I think Santa and Jesus were both Purple with pink pokadots.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
  14. One one

    Does anyone know what color Thor, Odin, and Zeus were ?

    December 13, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
  15. Chris Worden

    I have no qualms with this story if the author is only saying that white people no longer have as easy a time enforcing their world view, which means they get called on b.s. more than ever before. But I think the author means it as a complaint.

    I'm sorry, but while Jesus may not have been Wesley Snipes, he certainly wasn't any shade of the cast of Friends. Also, I would bet anything that Dr. King did NOT believe Jesus was white; he just knew if he said otherwise, the entire civil rights movement would be jeopardized because, to paraphrase Chris Rock, white people would lose their mind if they had to accept that (someone NOT European) gave them salvation.

    Also, to all the white people who are saying defensively that Christ's race doesn't matter, then go ahead and just start saying Jesus isn't white. You won't though, and that's how I know you are lying about whether it matters.

    I'm a white dude, but I have seen too much of a white arrogance that plays like this: When there is overwhelming evidence that Jesus or Santa Claus isn't white, you say race doesn't matter....BUT when white people THINK the evidence is the other way, it's suddenly worth fighting over.

    Can you not see the double-standard?

    December 13, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
    • One one

      Why don't we take it a step further. These are both fictional characters, e.g. They are myths. To debate what color they are is silly because it comes down to what my people want it to be vs. what your people want it to be.

      Like so many other conflicts, it simply comes down to ... them vs. us.

      December 13, 2013 at 7:35 pm |
      • Jim

        I don't find it hard to believe that a man named Jesus existed at one point and gained a number of followers. It would be no different than any number of modern religious figures or cult leaders. As for the whole son of god part and resurrection, I'm inclined to think that was fabricated. It's not so different from the stuff that many modern cult leaders proclaim. Without the sort of recorded history we have in modern times, it's easy to see how a story could morph as it got passed down through generations.

        December 13, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
  16. Tom

    Jesus didn't look anything like those racist paintings of him that make him look like he is German or from northern Europe.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
  17. Lord Zedd

    Jesus was a middle-eastern jew, besides the fact he is a fictional character. Newsflash: That means Jesus wasn't white or black, he was brown.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
  18. lindaluttrell

    If you consider the origins of Kris Kringle, Father Christmas, etc., Santa DOES have European/Caucasian origins. If you pay attention to the Bible...Jesus is of Jewish/Middle Eastern descent...therefore, NOT "white."

    To believers of both: What difference should it really make about the color of their skins??? Grow up, people.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:26 pm |
    • .

      As the real St. Nicholas was a Greek from what is today Turkey, are you sure about that?

      December 13, 2013 at 7:34 pm |
  19. JESUS

    OF COURSE I'M NOT WHITE YOU MORONS!!!... I WAS BORN IN BETHLEHEM MORE THAN 2000 YEARS AGO FROM A JEWISH FAMILY!!!.... Most Americans have no idea where that is in the middle east! Back then the lightest people were the Romans and they were olive skin... NOT WHITE!!!... It wasn't until the middle ages, when the Germans and other Northern European peoples started to migrate and colonize southern Europe and then the Middle East (up until now), that "Romans" and few middle eastern peoples got the "white" skin tone!... My point is that the deeper you go to the middle east, the darker and even very dark brown (black) people originated and still can be seen. St. Nick came from Greece which was then Turkey. At this time the people there were mostly olive skin to very dark!!!... SO PEOPLE... ALL WE NEED IS TO GET YOU PEOPLE A LITTLE EDUCATION AND THIS WHOLE DISCUSSION IS ENDED WITH FACTS!!! (BTW... Jews from Norther Europe got the white skin tone from the Northern Europeans... of course... But they also started with very dark skin tones)..

    J

    December 13, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
    • rupert

      Feel better now? Jesus Christ, what a rant.

      December 13, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
    • JJ

      Hey Jesus...I know you have dark skin for you mow my lawn every Summer. Hope to see you in June!

      December 13, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
      • troll Spotter

        LOL. Not really, you idiot.

        December 13, 2013 at 7:33 pm |

    • White sugar
      White meat
      White bread
      White women
      White ties
      White lies

      Everyone wants to lighten up. Always been that way.

      December 13, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
    • Lisa

      Yes, only in America and most likely on Fox news can "fact" be a matter of opinion. Kelly is really over the top here. History for her means since she was born – not very smart.

      December 13, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
    • Chuck

      You really shouldnt lie like that

      December 13, 2013 at 7:37 pm |
      • JESUS

        no lie! look it up! or go to school!

        December 13, 2013 at 7:45 pm |
  20. Joe

    The phenotype of Jesus wasn't an issue to the (anonymous) writers of the New Testament gospels because it would have been obvious to them, he (assuming he was real) was a Palestinian Jew.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:25 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.