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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. Ross

    Anyone who ever went to western Turkey, which used to be part of the East Roman Empire where Saint Nicholas lived, knows these people are white and not black. The only ones who don't understand that are probably liberal bigots and hypocrites. But then again, that's no surprise as it is pretty obvious they aren't very blessed with intellect.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
    • Dr. Jensen K. Miller

      East Roman Empire and Turkish ethnicity is not white they are olive skin. I have taught anthropology for 45 years.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
      • Carl

        Maybe you have taught anthropology for 45 years.but you don't seem to be very intelligent.
        I spent quite some time in the Anatolia/Armenia/Georgia region and these people are white. As a matter of fact, they were even whiter back then before there was an influx of people from further south.

        I wonder why they say 'Those who can't do, teach'.

        December 13, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
        • Dr. Jensen K. Miller

          I have lived in Tel Aviv for 30 years and did most of my doctoral research there. Perhaps I might know a few things more than you . I teach at Dartmouth now and lead a team to the middle east almost ever quarter for research in anthropology. Jesus was not white may according to commercial media he is and you soundly believe that so be happy with that I don't need to teach you, be happy with your limited knowledge if it suites you. Keep watching that fox news.

          My wife Nushka was born in Armenia and she is also an anthropologist at Brown University her focus is on geopolitics. We have dedicated our lives to seek knowledge and educate so no disrespect to you or your personal opinions but we also do know a few things based on life long study and Jesus was not white by any means.

          December 13, 2013 at 10:37 pm |
  2. Jim

    According to the bible Jesus was not a handsome men, he was not good looking.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Ridiculous. Verses that could be interpreted to imply such a thing could just easily be interpreted in some other way.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
  3. allan

    Santa should not only be multi cultural, he should not just be associated with a Christian holiday. He should also come on Ramadan and Yom Kippur and Darwin's birthday for the secularists.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
    • Zeus

      Now there's a thought! It's all about gift-giving anyway, even now for oneself...

      December 13, 2013 at 10:01 pm |
  4. Mike Denney

    Jesus finally turned red from all the embarrassment...seriously–were we worth it?

    December 13, 2013 at 9:57 pm |
  5. Cattlelight

    Jesus is a slandered name, I am Christ, my name is Michael, believe in me and shall not perish but have eternal life.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:56 pm |
    • Mike Denney

      Nobody could slander Jesus–just falsely accuse him...get some help, 'Mikey'.

      December 13, 2013 at 9:59 pm |
  6. allan

    Really Santa Claus' color should be in the hands of Coca Cola. They chose the color of his suit. (true story)

    December 13, 2013 at 9:56 pm |
  7. Meg yen

    Megyn Kelley and others on fox will have their heads explode with the though that Jesus was a middle easterner/arab and not Caucasian white.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:55 pm |
    • Ross

      Uhm, Jesus was Jewish, hence the inscription INRI – Jesus from Nazareth, King of Jews. He was not Arab. You should get your facts straight before you're trying to sound all grown up.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:02 pm |
  8. Steve

    Of course Jesus was white and so was Santa. If that is a problem for you, get a life, you racist pig.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:55 pm |
    • khan78

      niether white nor black....he was dark guy...how's that for a new direction to the arguement

      December 13, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
  9. peterfrohwein

    Why in the 21st Century are we still talking about color ?

    We ALL came from the same source.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:54 pm |
    • Zeus

      Better yet, why are we still talking about Santa and Jesus?

      December 13, 2013 at 10:03 pm |
  10. Smeagel4T

    Odd how kids have no problem painting any figure as lime green if that's the only crayon they have available... a person has to be taught to be racist. Kids are color blind.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:53 pm |
  11. Matt

    Been to Israel, large majority is white. Sorry to disappoint you in your opinions of that. The bottom line who cares what color either men were. The ideologies of both is the message, not the skin color. Some of you need to invest some time in an Anthropology class your science and beliefs are askew. It's ok if you don't believe in religion but trashing others because of theirs is insulting. Your surely not all knowing. If we are wrong in our beliefs then we die wrong. But if we are right and your wrong, well have a great time in hell. God be with you.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:53 pm |
    • Reflecto

      I'm curious. When did Santa Claus live, again?

      December 13, 2013 at 9:55 pm |
    • Zeus

      Do you seriously believe in a Judeo-Christian hell? Oh Lordy...

      December 13, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Pascal's wager is ridiculous for a whole number of reasons. And the only being worthy of eternal torture is the one who has the power to make such a place, sustain it, and allow it to exist for any being.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:05 pm |
    • khan78

      yeah who came to israel after world war II

      December 13, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
  12. Realist

    000000000000000000000000
    ------–
    ------–

    ... http://www.GodIsImaginary.com...

    ... and thank goodness because he ...

    ............. emanates from the .............

    ... http://www.EvilBible.com

    ------–
    ------–

    December 13, 2013 at 9:51 pm |
    • Lenny Kravitz

      http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/brendanoneill2/100230985/how-atheists-became-the-most-colossally-smug-and-annoying-people-on-the-planet/

      December 13, 2013 at 9:53 pm |
  13. Jack

    This is so stupid!

    December 13, 2013 at 9:50 pm |
    • Jill

      It is rather entertaining, though. Who would have thought news pundits could be even dumber than you ever imagined?

      December 13, 2013 at 9:53 pm |
  14. Flipper

    Jesus/God was Jewish when He was in human form.

    Who doesn't know that?

    John Stewart aka Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz looks pretty white to me but of course back in the day of Jesus they would be darker due to being outside way more. I'm not sure John Stewart goes outside at all but maybe to get a latte or something.

    Also John Stewarts older brother Lawrence Leibowitz, is currently Chief Operating Officer of NYSE Euronext (parent company of the New York Stock Exchange), Hmmmmmm don't liberals always complain about the evils of wall street? Maybe Lawrence is a republican. Probably white too.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:50 pm |
    • Flipper Flubber Fixer

      It's Jon Stewart, not John Stewart.

      Try "Jon Stewart's older brother" instead of "John Stewarts older brother".

      I could go on...

      December 13, 2013 at 9:58 pm |
  15. Brandon

    Wow, even fictional characters aren't immune to race baiting.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:49 pm |
  16. Tim

    Next, Megan will be telling us that Jesus spoke English.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:49 pm |
    • Megyn Kelly

      He did, you tiblard! Uh, Flibshard! Bibhard! Oh it's something like that. Where's my lip gloss?

      December 13, 2013 at 9:52 pm |
  17. me

    fact of the matter whites c jesus n santa as white blks see them as blk and so on and so forth who cares as long as they believe in jesus right?

    December 13, 2013 at 9:49 pm |
  18. Smeagel4T

    Kelly went out of her way to drag Jesus into a debate about Santa Claus. Why? What does Jesus have to do with Santa Claus? "St. Nicholas" was his own person in his own right, entirely separate from Jesus.

    ..and uhhh... while I'm inclined to think that Jesus was a historical figure, what "verifiable fact" does Kelly refer to beyond the Bible? What independent source verifies what the Bible says? Or does Kelly believe it is okay to simply take a single book's word for anything and everything. Does that mean that Harry Potter is a real person? I know of writings that talk about other gods before any writings about Jesus.

    This is all just an offshoot of Fox's war on "Happy Holydays". Has Fox thought to mention yet that the original Americans to engage in a "War on Christmas" were the Founding Fathers and essentially all of the Revolutionary War generation? Following the Revolution, Americans were against celebrating Christmas. It was viewed as a "British Holiday". In fact, Congress was in session on Christmas. So CLEARLY since the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary War generation were engaged in a "War on Christmas", one must reach the conclusion that any patriotic American is obliged to do the same.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:49 pm |
  19. dwinner

    And? I mean, it really doesn't matter.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:48 pm |
  20. Rock Reynolds

    Jesus' color is not important.
    It was Jesus' message that was important.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:47 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.