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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. Russ

    Popular Mechanics ran an article called "the real face of Jesus" in Dec.2002.

    based on studies of 1st c Jewish skeletal remains, they made a composite rendering of the avg Jewish man at the time. the picture is fascinating... along with the fact that on average such a man was 5'1" & 110 pounds. in both cases, it's VERY different from how many conceive of him.

    here's a link to a summary article (which includes the original link):
    http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2010/07/09/what-did-jesus-look-like/

    December 13, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
  2. OK enough of this silly controversy

    Time for some inspirational music.

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kppx4bzfAaE&w=640&h=390]

    December 13, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
  3. Lakers

    if FOX NEWS says he was white God forbid anyone argue that

    December 13, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
  4. Lets see here

    He was from Palestine right? So......he looked like anyone from that area.....dark complexion. I do not see why some people want him to be black or white.....when both are wrong.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
    • Zach

      *Israel. Palestine never existed, and it was Israel back then.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:16 pm |
      • Lets see here

        Really....never heard of it? Common now....you missed the point. I am not talking about geography.
        I could have said he came Bethlehem in Judea which is what it was back then. Point is he was from that area and as such probably olive in complexion as Jews of from the Middle East are today.

        December 14, 2013 at 12:06 am |
  5. Sandra

    Jesus was white had blue eyes, blond hair and an American passport

    December 13, 2013 at 11:04 pm |
  6. carlos_1951

    FOX News version of Jesus was white 100% it would be very unchristian of FOX news to regard him any other race white blond blue eyes and spoke English actually spoke american

    December 13, 2013 at 11:02 pm |
  7. Terry in Florida

    This is exactly why I'm glad to be an athiest. Enjoy your moronic racially based controversy, folks.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:02 pm |
  8. yates56

    Jesus white? when did that happen?

    December 13, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
  9. tom

    Jesus was not white he was jewish origin

    December 13, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
  10. Kim

    if u call jews white then maybe

    December 13, 2013 at 10:59 pm |
  11. john

    jesus was middle eastern not white he was jewish

    December 13, 2013 at 10:57 pm |
  12. Evolved

    Jesus is fictional. The book his (he) imaginary father allegedly wrote didn't have pictures in it. The nomadic jew characters in the roman new testament are all fictional, meant to keep the story together from the old testament.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
  13. john

    jesus was middle eastern not white

    December 13, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
  14. Henry

    I don't know what's funnier, the ditz who said it in the first place, or the lemmings who try to support her idiotic comment.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
    • Zach

      LIBERAL LIBERAL LIBERAL LIBERAL LIBERAL BLACKBLACKBLACK LIBERAL

      December 13, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
    • Zach

      Henry, it was one of your liberal brethren (a black guy no less) that took his time to write a whole story on why santa should not be portrayed as white. I don't see how this is not considered racist, if saying that santa's skin is white (in your eyes) is racist. Its a double standard. LIBERAL LOGIC.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:13 pm |
      • Ben Gleck

        Fact: people of the Middle East are brown, not white. Turn off the FOX, turn off the Limbaugh, and get a grasp of reality.

        December 13, 2013 at 11:24 pm |
  15. sam

    Jesus was olive skin

    December 13, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      Black. An olive skinned Jesus fails the test of John 3:16.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
      • Say wha?

        That passage says absolutely nothing even remotely related to race. But it's all idiocy anyway, so if you want that to mean Jesus was black, hey, go for it.

        December 13, 2013 at 11:01 pm |
  16. meki60

    In those times, black people were still monkeys in the trees.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      The English shot the nose of the Sphinx for it's black features.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:57 pm |
    • SkepticalOne

      In this time you are.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:00 pm |
  17. robert

    jeasus was jewish so not white

    December 13, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
  18. steve

    Jesus was a direct descendant of Judah, yes Ruth a Moabitess was in the mix but that was one female link in dozens of generations. Jesus had a black genetics in him like most of us do VIVE LA DIFFERENCE I say, but lets face it, while some ( I would say racist) people would suggest that Jews aren't "white enough" I would have to challenge anyone to find a direct descendent from judah with a similar lineage to Jesus that any sane black person would say "yea that's black" too. Just not possible. But if that's more important to anybody than their salvation I'd have to discount that persons opinion on the matter. If I get the opportunity to see Jesus and he happens to be black I'm going to kiss his black feet and thank him for everything he did for me. I suspect they may smell faintly of myrrh and it will be the greatest thing I'll have ever had the oppoortuntiy to do.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:51 pm |
    • John P. Tarver

      The Messiah prophesy says Jesus was an Ephraimite twice, black as coal; in Hosea as Ephraim and then in Ezekiel as from Judah and Ephraim. Then Mary is described as from the remnant of Ephraim relocated to Judah by Isiah in Luke.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:55 pm |
    • Zakkaria

      Maybe your right. I just thought those people over there were like olivy or swarthy.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
  19. Zakkaria

    Jesus was not white he was Jewish.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
  20. Todd

    This question has brought many disagreements, here are the facts his mother/Mary was white/olive skin color and the Holy Spirit that pregnantor her has No Color! Yes, you heard correctly. So Jesus the Son of God creator of heaven and earth was white, The main point should be that Jesus died and was the perfect sinless sacrifice for all races, male, female, children of all ages etc!!!!!

    December 13, 2013 at 10:48 pm |
    • adibese

      Are you serious? I can't tell what's satire sometimes.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:49 pm |
      • Hmmmmmmmmmmmm

        I think he was serious, kind of a theological version of mixing finger paints to get a new color.

        December 13, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
    • SkepticalOne

      It's a myth. Just like Santa.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:02 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.