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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. Terrible_Ted

    Jesus Christ was a white man. So many people like to claim him as coming from their race. Just like the colored people like to claim Shaka Zulu, as their own. When in fact he was a Boer.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
    • thegadfly

      The "colored people"?

      December 13, 2013 at 7:58 pm |
  2. Megyn Kelly

    I AM NOTS A DUM BLOND!!!! I DIE MY HARE!!!!!

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

    "Jesus of Galilee" Depends on Your definition of "white".

    December 13, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
  4. Jim

    Who cares. Santa is not real so what difference what color anyone makes him out to be. Jesus was not a god nor the son of any god. So difference does it make what color his skin was. But i was was most likely the same color as that of his mom and dad.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
  5. Harold

    As silly as this article is, my 4th grader's public school recently pulled "Superfudge", a book by Judy Bloom, out of the curriculum because the characters talk about the fact that Santa isn't real. All of the parents grabbed their pitch forks and went right at the Principal who folded immediately. They didn't want their 4th graders (9-10 year olds) finding out about Santa!

    We've become a country of fat, ignorant, lazy slobs where a story like this can make the front page of the leading news outlet in the country. Time to move to New Zealand.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
  6. ssachida

    Meghyn kelly does not need this to get her prime time ratings up.... Even a parrot echoing the conservative talking points would get better ratings in fox than any one from cnn, msnbc, NPR, AJ etc.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
  7. fuzzback

    I don't know if Jesus was white, but I do know Megyn Kelly is a bimbo and Fox "New" is propaganda

    December 13, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
  8. politimom2

    If the anchors on fox news met jesus they would have deemed him a terrorist....
    Jesus was white is a joke, but I guess on fox jokes are facts

    December 13, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
  9. Andrew Orr

    ...who really cares what race he was?

    December 13, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
  10. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    This topic just keeps burnin' and churnin'. It's running at an average of about one post every 10 seconds for the ten plus hours it has been up.

    Megyn Kelly is even better for the belief blog than Bill Nye the Science Guy and that's saying something.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
    • tony

      But probably one in a hundred reallly stupid religious post results in another atheist.

      December 13, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
  11. Bob

    Lol, I don't know who's more stupid: CNN for reporting this or the people making a deal about this. Let's just let things be what they are according to their origin.
    Let Jesus be a Semitic.
    Let Santa be a European.
    Let Catrina (Day of the Dead) be Mexican.
    Let Buddha be Himalayan (Nepalese possibly??)
    Let Confucius be Chinese.
    Let Uncle Sam be a white guy and the Easter Bunny pink or purple.
    If you're gonna drive a Ford don't call it a Chevy...

    December 13, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
    • .

      Fox broadcast it.

      December 13, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
      • Bob

        CNN's where I read it...

        December 13, 2013 at 7:54 pm |
    • One one

      But who do I need to believe in to get to heaven after I die ?

      December 13, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
  12. Mr. Man

    Jesus was from Palestine. Native Palestinians are usually pretty tan, tho they sometimes look white. Jesus probably looked like them. So he is probly tannish like most ppl from the Med.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
  13. Karin

    Seems to me that they skipped a step or two. The first step should be to provide some evidence that the guy existed.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
  14. tony

    The made up fantasies of the blindly religious are infinite in number and extent. And then there are the lies that they create to pour over the facts their when the absurdities are exposed.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
  15. Nia

    It says in the bible that Jesus was a hebrew that lived in the middle east (Jerusalem) so there's no way that he could've had blonde hair or have been as "white" as people are saying. With that being said we're all a reflection of god's image and examples of his never ending love so let's just try to focus on extending that love to those around us no matter what their color is. There's no harm in a white child identifying with a white jesus and a black child identifying with a black jesus and a Spanish child identifying with a Spanish jesus it's all irrelevant because the message behind any jesus of any ethnicity remains the same and that's love.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
    • tony

      that's love tempered by mass death by Tsunamis, Hurricanes and Tornadoes, and that's just for starters.

      December 13, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
  16. Dan The Man

    Black? White? They're IMAGINARY. Make them whatever you want.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:48 pm |
    • One one

      I really don't care. All I want to know is how do I get to go to heaven after I die ?

      December 13, 2013 at 7:51 pm |
  17. heyheyheyy

    the real Santa was from an area in today Turkey,and i am sure he must have looked like the rest of the people who live in that area and nothing like the Coca Cola Santa that today we know.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:48 pm |
  18. Al

    Jesus looked more like Yassar Araftat than Charlton Heston. His hair was probably short as was the style in the region at the time.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
  19. Dennis

    Suffer the ignorant gently is a good rule, especially if you are in front of a microphone. Yikes. The next thing you know they are going to say that the Pope is Catholic, the Tower of London is in London, the President is Black, and the .... Really. We are getting numb and dumb by the hour.

    God help us and I don't care what color He, or you or I are.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
  20. ssachida

    If Jesus is white, so are Iranians, Iraqis, syrians, Jordanians, palestinians, Afghanis and even some pakistanis and Indians.

    December 13, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
    • .

      Right??

      December 13, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
    • Franky

      Jesus is ethnically Jewish.

      What is the definition of "white"?

      December 13, 2013 at 7:56 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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.