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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. Ashley

    Well, considering both santa and jesus are fictional, who cares what race you consider them to be,

    December 13, 2013 at 9:46 pm |
    • southerngent

      Willing to bet eternity on that? I would bet on your last breath you cry (forgive me Lord), if you don't die instantly!

      December 13, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
  2. Argyle

    Well any good tea partier knows the answer to that! If 'he' looks different, then they must be birthed elsewhere, stealing healthcare, taking jobs away, or just simply living off the system.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
    • Scott

      Everyones ancestors were born elsewhere but the Native Americans. Americans have an obligation to take care of Americans, the Government has an obligation to take care of those things that individuals can not do on their own. This mean spirited, selfishness is not American, it is elitist, it is bigoted, but not American. it used to be we strived to do better, that is why we ended slavery, ended segrigation, created Social Security, built roads, public schools, ended child labor, created FEMA, the National Weather Service, FDA, FFA, the Military and all the other programs that give us safe schools, roads, public buildings, homes, food, water and products.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
  3. Sue Perlative

    Jesus was a Hebrew; he belonged to the Semitic race, just like the Arabs and other Middle Eastern peoples. Swarthy. If you want to say he was white, he was not the same white as people from northern Europe.

    Santa Claus is a myth – he can be green or purple. The original Saint Nicholas of Myra and Lycia was Greek.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
  4. Veetkoosh

    Does Megyn believe in Santa Claus? She seems to be a Christian, and she seems to regard Jesus and Santa similarly.

    What about the Easter Bunny? Is he white, too? Yeah, like Jesus, Santa AND the Easter Bunny are ALL white. That seems quite unlikely.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
  5. riverwalker762

    And while the little people are busy arguing about the color of someone's skin the big people are taking over.
    Keeping it real.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
  6. miguel

    Of course Santa is white. St Nicholas was Greek!

    December 13, 2013 at 9:43 pm |
    • Hello! This is the real world out here!

      And Nikolaos of Myra lived at the North Pole and had magic flying reindeer.

      December 13, 2013 at 9:46 pm |
  7. Karin

    I would suspect that if there was this Jesus character than the contributing factor of his skin color shouldn't be an issue as much as what appears to be an undiagnosed case of psychophrenia back in his day.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:42 pm |
  8. Bible slavery?

    Bible condoning slavery doesn't prove Jesus wasn't black tard. All races were subject to Slavery back then and even up to and during slave trade in the 18th century. Bible condoning slavery does prove that religion was invented for control and fear by the wealthy and those in power.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:42 pm |
    • .

      Idiot. Quite a leap there.

      December 13, 2013 at 9:47 pm |
  9. Cyrus W

    Christian researchers have a definitive answer on this and come up with a exact make of the color of Jesus. The color code (for the graphic designers out there) is F9FFD1 as seen here:
    http://mankabros.com/blogs/god/2013/12/12/the-color-of-jesus/

    December 13, 2013 at 9:41 pm |
  10. Cattlelight

    Next time you feel the wind blow take a deep breath. Christ

    December 13, 2013 at 9:39 pm |
    • Hello! This is the real world out here!

      Next time you feel the wind blow, take a breath: air pressure differentials.

      December 13, 2013 at 9:44 pm |
  11. Pam Small

    Three people were shot today at another school.......one is dead.........what difference does it make what color Jesus or Santa Claus is............is this really news or just a reach for something to say?????

    December 13, 2013 at 9:39 pm |
  12. Ron Hennessy

    Jesus' race is very simple. He was a Jew.

    The Proto-Jew, Abraham, was from Ur of the Chaldees on the Euphrates River in from the Sumerian culture in modern-day Iraq.

    So, whatever race the other Jews of his time were, Jesus belonged to that race.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:39 pm |
  13. jeremy

    Jesus was not anglo-saxon white. He was born in the northern part of modern Israel to a jewish mother. His race does not matter. What matters is Jesus is the savior of mankind.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:38 pm |
  14. Cattlelight

    Believe in me and you shall not perish but have eternal. Christ

    December 13, 2013 at 9:38 pm |
  15. Cattlelight

    I am "black" and so is God. Christ

    December 13, 2013 at 9:37 pm |
  16. M. Raymond Sheppard

    The question that should be pondered, did Jesus or Santa Clause ever exist...

    December 13, 2013 at 9:36 pm |
    • Mosihasteen

      Santa Clause? I saw that movie the other night on AMC. And Jesus, no question He existed. 43 ancient historians can't be wrong.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
  17. Cattlelight

    I am Christ, my name is Michael

    December 13, 2013 at 9:36 pm |
  18. GR Downtown

    Ms. Kelly had a real chance to proof that she was not a moron and she blew it. FAR FROM SETTLED? It's like she said that world was flat, it's just a fact, and comes back two days later to report no she wasn't WRONG it's just far from settled. The one group that has always claimed that Jesus was a white man is the KKK. Ms. Kelly, you are better than this.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:35 pm |
  19. nomad

    White is right.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:35 pm |
  20. Jib76

    That is correct!

    December 13, 2013 at 9:33 pm |
    • Mosihasteen

      Jesus was a Semite, not a Northern European. He was a darker skinned white guy, not unlike a Sicilian or a Arab. But really, does this even mean anything?

      December 13, 2013 at 10:38 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.