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. dreamhunk

    Israel is Literally Ruddy


    December 14, 2013 at 9:24 am |
  2. dreamhunk

    ancient Hebrews black culture


    December 14, 2013 at 9:22 am |
  3. Huff Huff

    Fox/CNN should run this story

    Christians do some CRAZY things !

    'Kidnapped For Christ,' Planned Doc-umentary, Aims To Expose 'Ex-Gay' Experiences In Christian Reform Schools

    Posted: 12/12/2013 10:52 am EST


    December 14, 2013 at 9:19 am |
    • truthprevails1

      Child abuse at its best!

      December 14, 2013 at 5:27 pm |
  4. tupster

    I'd like to know how Megan intends to "verify" that Jesus was white.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:18 am |
    • Catherine howard

      She will probably consult Sarah Palin 😉

      December 14, 2013 at 9:33 am |
      • Whoops

        Dang, you beat me to it!

        December 14, 2013 at 10:11 am |
  5. Rainer Braendlein

    Wouldn't it be nice if we really could encounter Jesus or Santa? Concerning Jesus it was possible for several periods of time: When he lived on earth as carpenter and pastor, and when his mystical body, the Church, has still existed. Yet, it seems like Jesus has gone beyond, the Christian Church has also gone. That is the apocalypse – mankind has lost her right to exist.

    The incarnated God Jesus spent a period of time of about 30 years on earth. At the one side he was the ordinary carpenter Jesus, Joseph's son, from Nazareth living in Capernaum at Lake Tiberias, on the other side supernatural power came from him, he was sacral. When Jesus spoke with somebody that was more than human talk. When Jesus spoke with somebody, at the same time Christ or God spoke with the certain person. People which encountered Jesus in fact encountered God or the whole Godhead. That was the special thing and mystery of Jesus. Meeting Jesus meant to get into God's presence.

    However, today Jesus is beyond, and no longer in our world.

    How can we get into God's presence today?

    Is there a temple? The Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed 70 after Christ, therefore this possibility is cancelled. Is there another temple? Yes, thank God, there is the Christian Church. The Christian Church is the place of God's presence today. Through sacral acts of the whole Church we get into God's presence, and that conforms an encounter with the earthly Jesus former times.

    The Church, of course, consists of people of all nations, colours, status, ranks, etc.

    Conclusion: It plays no role if Jesus was red, black, white or yellow. The historical Jesus who certainly had a certain color is represented today through a multi-tude of people of different colour.

    Don't discuss about the colour of the historical Jesus but join his Church where you can still meet him today. The Church, Christ's mystical body.

    What is the Christian Church?

    The real Church preaches discipleship of Jesus on the basis of the releasing power of his sacrifice. This power is dedicated to us through sacramental baptism. Discipleship is kept through Lord's Supper and private confession of sins. I admit that it is hard or nearly impossible to find such a church today. Let us pray.

    If Jesus would return today, would he find the faith on earth? Hardly.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:18 am |
    • RC

      You talk too much....

      December 14, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
  6. Bettecia

    This article is inappropriate because Jesus is nothing..

    December 14, 2013 at 9:18 am |
    • Whoops

      Thank you for your opinion. In reality it is widely acknowledged that Jesus is/was a real person. Whether or not he is/was the son of God is debatable, but the debate about his existence is over.

      December 14, 2013 at 10:13 am |
  7. dreamhunk

    white people lie about the ancient Hebrews

    December 14, 2013 at 9:17 am |
  8. Really?

    You should ask the Republicans, I am almost positive they have insisted on seeing their birth certificates at some point! If not then this article has opened a whole new can of worms!

    December 14, 2013 at 9:16 am |
  9. wealthcoaches

    Only on Fox would you even see a stupid argument like this. If good "Christians" are arguing about Jesus' skin color, then they've missed the point, haven't they?

    December 14, 2013 at 9:13 am |
  10. Mina Lewis

    Just found out Michael Jordan isn't white. I am deeply offended! I guess I need to pick a new hero.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:12 am |
  11. dreamhunk

    lost tribes of israel

    December 14, 2013 at 9:11 am |
  12. ButtWeasel

    Why does the race of an IMAGINARY CHARACTER matter....unless you actually are racist? Call "him" what you want...he never existed! He was created by an ad agency! Duh.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:09 am |
    • qqq

      Tell that to the Slate writer that came up with this "problem".

      December 14, 2013 at 9:29 am |
  13. dreamhunk

    more proof the ancient Hebrews wee black!

    December 14, 2013 at 9:09 am |
    • Dave

      I always considered people from the Middle East (Arabs, Jews, and other cultures and groups) to be white. I was really surprised when I heard people saying they weren't white. If not, what are they? Black? Oriental? (to use the old term with no politically correct modern alternative to describe the group that historicallly lived in the Far East)

      People from the Middile East look white, except with slightly darker skin. They aren't pale like Irish people or Scandinavians, but their features are similar. They look like white people who have adapted to a more tropical climate (or you could say white people look like Indians or Arabs who have adopted to a more temperate climate). Indians are the same way. White features, dark skin.

      The point is that even if you are going to take racial divisions seriously, which is a pointless, foolish, waste of time, how are you going to decide who fits into which racial category? Spanish and Italian people are usually considered white, but their skin typically is darker than that of a person from China, so you can't really use just skin tone. Do you use facial features, areo of geographic origin or what? A combination of those factors? What combination? The borders of racial divisions are pretty much imaginary, which makes all of racial divisions pretty much imaginary.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:38 am |
  14. Wise man #2

    Jesus is the color of the average zombie.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:07 am |
  15. Salty Bob

    All this over a person who never existed, I'm like wow.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:04 am |
    • Daniel

      Agree. People wonder why the world is so messed up. You can't expect to have a civil society when 90% of the people are brainwashed by fairy tales. Wonder when humanity will wake up?

      December 14, 2013 at 9:12 am |
    • Whoops

      Point of fact; both of them existed. Jesus was a real person. Santa (Saint Nicholas) was a real person. Whether or not Jesus is the Son of God is obviously debated often and I doubt any educated person really believes that St Nick is actually flying around on Christmas Eve.

      December 14, 2013 at 10:17 am |
  16. Kenny

    I know for a fact the Santa is white. How? Every movie, every TV show and every actor who plays him is white. Even in Bad Santa, Bill Bob is a white actor! They wouldn't put him there if Santa wasn't white! And Jesus? I have seen the paintings many times in church and he is always depicted as white. If it is not true then the church is lying, and we know Christians don't lie! So there, this is completely logical and I just don't understand why more people don't get it!

    December 14, 2013 at 9:01 am |
  17. Charles Gannon

    Jesus was a Jew, Santa is a fictional person, move on.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:00 am |
    • Salty Bob

      Jesus and Santa are fictional persons, move on.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:06 am |
    • Daniel

      Jesus is fictional also. Wake up. This is pathetic...

      December 14, 2013 at 9:12 am |
  18. scars

    As a middle eastern person, Jesus was most likely not the pale skin, blue-eyed blonde that he has been portrayed as. However, most in the middle east are classified as caucasian, He was Jewish, so He would be considered white. But, honestly, does Jesus' race even really matter if you are a Christian? If you are white and a black Jesus would destroy your faith - you should give up your faith now because you just don't get it. If you are black and you need to Jesus to be black in order to worship Him, you should also give up your faith now because you, too, do not get it. Jesus didn't tell us to love our neighbor - but only if they look like you. I'm so sick of people who claim to be Christians but who actually reject every single teaching of Jesus because it would mean they would have to live up to what he instructed us to do ...

    December 14, 2013 at 8:54 am |
    • J. Bob

      it's good to have a fresh air of reality here.

      As far as St. Nick, he would most likely have been Byzantine, or Greek, but also middle eastern.

      Much ado about nothing.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:13 am |
  19. erin

    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."

    No, it didn't. Maybe in Fox News' wet dreams.

    December 14, 2013 at 8:53 am |
    • lol??

      Buddha was born rich in the wurld's goods. Jesus is richer. He owns the world because He created it. Must be a patent thang.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:04 am |
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About this blog

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.