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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. Mark*

    Frosty the snowman was black.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:09 pm |
    • .

      Dork.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
  2. ggenua

    Superman is 'white' and Shaft is "black" because that's what their respective authors made them. Why don't we just live with what people(fictional or not) are and not try to change them just to appease someone, (while offending someone else, by the way)? I see no problem with what Megan Kelly said. It is akin to saying that Martin Luther King Jr. was black.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:09 pm |
    • ggenua

      What if someone, in a hundred or a thousand years from now try to say that Martin Luther King Jr. was white? I would hope that someone like Megan Kelly would correct them.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
    • Franky

      Ok, so the "authors" ... of the bible made Jesus- Jewish .. done deal now let's pass me the chips.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
  3. simply123

    Santa and jesus were reptilians from another planet.. and they were green. Man, are you running out of topics to discuss?
    Too comical.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:09 pm |
  4. Lou

    Jesus Christ, regardless if He was a mythical or actual person, was Jewish, hence Middle Eastern, and for all practical purposes could be categorized as "White".

    Santa Claus legend – modern figure Nordic – thus white

    December 13, 2013 at 8:09 pm |
    • Franky

      Since when did "Middle East" equate to whte ... and certainly when did Jewish become Germanic, especially, a Sephardic Jew ... so basically you are stating that Hitler was wrong. And Jews are now white and Aryan?

      December 13, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
    • dallen

      It really does not matter what color he was because the greatest commandment he left us as Christians was to love thy brother as I have loved the, and we do not show that love to our brothers and sisters. We condemn, judge and put down what we do not understand. We are some of the most hateful people in the world. instead of worrying about his color why don't we try to live according to his principles and just maybe we can turn this country around. We are not setting a great example for this next generation and so many are losing there lives because of the love that they do not see in this world. When will it stop being about color in about the fact that we are all human beings. We are the only mammals that can not get it right in the order of things.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:31 pm |
  5. Bobbb

    Jesus was Jewish, so I would assume he was the same color as Jewish people of the time-which would be considered white. Jesus IS a soul now, without race or color. (come on "Popular Mechanics"?) Santa Claus (wikipedia) The modern figure of Santa Claus is derived from the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas. That is a white country. I wonder if the black population would mind if the world questioned Martin Luther King Jr.'s race 500 years from now when the black race is absorbed into the general white and latin populations?

    December 13, 2013 at 8:09 pm |
  6. Joe

    Jesus lived in Israel 2000 years ago and was Jewish of Semetic Origin. He would look very much like the Jews of Jerusalem that have lived there for several thousand years. These people are olive skinned and look very similar to modern Arabs.

    Santa, the white fat guy in a red suit is a creation of the Coca Cola company created for an Ad campaign in the 1930's. He's based on a fictional tale about the St Nicolas who was likely of Greek Origin, and also Olive skinned living in the area that is currently Turkey.

    Anyone insisting either of these characters is "white" is a racist.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:09 pm |
    • Franky

      Kris Kringle aka St. Nick , being of germanic origin actually would have qualify as likely white.

      Jesus a Sephardic Jew would not be "white" unless Hitler was mistaken ...

      Finally, I don't think people who think that Jesus is white are racist , I really just think they've never really bother to study ethnicity or pick up a history book ...

      December 13, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
      • Joe

        Santa Claus is not German in Origin. It's based on a fictional tale based on a real Saint. That saint is Saint Nicolas who lived in what is now Turkey at a time when it was primarily ethnically Greek. The modern view of him originated in a Coca Cola ad campaign (hence the reason he wears CocaCola's colors, red and white). Santa is fictional, he has no race and if you want to attribute origin is either the real Saint Nicolas or his origin is Coca Cola. He isn't white anymore than a can of coke is.

        December 13, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
  7. thegadfly

    What color is love?

    December 13, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
  8. Robert Schweigert Jr

    Jesus was not a black man.Everyone thinks, just because he has dark-skinned, he is black. Now, Santa Claus is black. I have never seen a black Santa Claus. I have heard Jesus and Santa Claus are historically black. Just because we have a black President, everyone wants to change history. Next, they will be saying everyone that was seen on a black and white television. everyone was really black. They will be saying black and white television sets really did not exist.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
    • .

      Yeah, that MUST be it. Eyeroll.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:09 pm |
    • Franky

      Who said Jesus was black. What is black by the way?

      I think the correct answer is sitting there in the bible, Uhm ... Jesus would have been a Sephardic Jew. Although, there were are "black" ... his correct ethnicity is Jewish. White nor Black are actually ethnicities they are social construct that really have an amorphous meaning depending on context and discussion.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
      • thegadfly

        Oh, thanks. That really clears things up.

        December 13, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
    • thegadfly

      Some whites are better than some blacks. Some blacks are better than some whites. People who think all whites are better than all blacks are better than no one. My advice to blacks and whites: Be better.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:16 pm |
  9. Sue

    There is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, we are all one in Christ. Could you imagine arguing over hair or eye color?

    December 13, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
  10. Franky

    Who has "black skin"??

    Albinos are more of translucent pink.

    Note there is no such thing as "white pigment" .or a "black pigment"..

    There are only 2 predimonently "brown" and "red" ... most all humans produce predominately brown pigment, people, with lighter skin produce less but also produce brown pigment called eumelanin, red heads tend to produce not only eumelanin , but large amounts of phenomelanin, hence why they will end up with red hair and freckles .... note all humans have the same number of melonacytes.

    Other interesting points, blonde, and blue eyes are caused again by absence of pigment or lesser pigment, the mutation that turns of pigment production in the iris which also causes blue eyes is the same mutation that can cause albinism. Interestingly all humans until 10,000 years ago had brown eyes.

    MOre intersting, that eye color confers no genetic advantage, ie as in the case of skin color being darker in sun rich climates or being more translucent in less sun rich areas. And there are actually "black" people with deep blue eyes. ... Oh wait sorry I was supposed to be talking about the St. Nick a fake person and his ethnicity not real science.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
  11. cleareye1

    Jesus would have looked more like Saddam Hussein than Megyn Kelly.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
  12. Isabel

    first off, who is "white"??? please define this "white" race. second off, the main theme of God's word is that race, heritage and economic status is not of concern to God as a qualifier to enter the kingdom of heaven and that is why there is emphasis in both the old and new testament that Jesus is from a "Heinz 57" heritage.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
  13. WASP

    if anyone really needs to ask this question; "is jesus and santa white" seriously
    just walk around and look at all the stain glass paintings in churches, the murals on their walls, the pendants around everyone's necks.......................the guy is depicted white.
    now why would that be? hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm maybe because the people that came out of europe forcing everyone else to become christian, was white.

    santa, need you folks even ask; just watch any commercial on tv. the guy is missing a bit of pigment to be anything other than white. santa, his wife, the fracking elves they are all pigment impaired.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
  14. wisman

    All anchors in fox network are sons and daughters of satan. They dont know jesus because they are blinded by satan's words. Satan is making fox anchors say bad things. Let's pray to Jesus that they will be cured on satan influenced disease that make them create & voice controversies and create false statements for purpose of self promotion. Satan is truly at work in fox.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
  15. thegadfly

    I cannot say with certainty what skin tone adorned the outer surface of the man. But I do know for certain that he was not European. Being Mediterranean, I suspect he had a robust tan. Probably lots of body hair, too, unlike the many statues we have of him hanging naked and dead at the hands of politicians. And I can most assuredly say that his appearance only matters to those to whom appearances matter.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
  16. Dustin.Goldsen@yahoo.com

    Santa isn't even human. He's an elf. From A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clark More

    "... He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
    And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;..."

    December 13, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
  17. djjimi

    He's neither since he's a figment of the so-called "Christian" imagination.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
  18. Scott

    I like all colors of Santa and Jesus, even multi-color like camo for instance. No problem. If someone likes Kris Kringle so what? Kris Kringle is cool. Eddie Murphy Kringle is cool, too.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
  19. dwayne

    Santa is white in my house. Jesus is white in my house. You take care of your house but stay out of mine!

    December 13, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
    • Fred Ferdifredinator

      The meth and the crack are white at your house too.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
    • thegadfly

      Trust me, I don't want to go anywhere NEAR your house.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
    • .

      Oooh the boogie man will get you if you don't watch out.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
  20. Xavi

    Is the reason that Foxnews is #1 in ratings that CNN has to constantly call them out? Doing this will not make it a better network, it has turned it into another MSNBC. It is not Foxnews' fault that CNN is eating grass in the ratings, it is its own fault for being mediocre. I am close to stop watching them too.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:04 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.