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. CG

    Just wanna make sure I got this straight: Jews are NOT white people. And it's ok to be inclusive. We have a white Mandela at our civil rights gatherings. You should just feeeeeeeeeel the love.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:24 am |
  2. Jeff

    Anything the left can do that will attack the message of Christianity they will stop at nothing to advance their agenda.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:24 am |
    • midwest rail

      Absolute nonsense.

      December 14, 2013 at 10:24 am |
    • Milton Platt

      So, the message of christianity is that Jesus was white??? i

      December 14, 2013 at 10:37 am |
    • Alias

      So a follower of jesus christ thinks white people are somehow better.
      huh. First time for everything i guess.

      December 14, 2013 at 10:48 am |
  3. dreamhunk

    From beyond the rivers of cush Zephaniah 3 where is cush?

    December 14, 2013 at 10:23 am |
  4. ted

    Remember when The Jews were slaves in Egypt? Yeah.. Remember when Joseph fled the wrath of Herod to save the life of baby Jesus and he hid in Egypt? Yeah.. He went there to blend in with the population. Herodotus (the father of Greek history) gave eye-witness testimony that Egyptians were black.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:23 am |
    • Joyce

      Fine. Who even cares?

      December 14, 2013 at 10:39 am |
  5. teamblog

    Stop making everything about race. Who cares? The questions should be do you believe in Jesus? On the passing of Nelson Mandela you should be asking why can't you forgive and move on? Or do you just like to stir up hate? Jim

    December 14, 2013 at 10:23 am |
  6. E Park

    You're all ridiculous. Jesus is Korean. Didn't you all see 21 Jump Street?

    December 14, 2013 at 10:23 am |


    December 14, 2013 at 10:22 am |
    • Joyce

      I've come to abhor comments from illiterates. I don't even care what they have to say, or whether I agree or not. Most of the time it's hard to discern what they are even talking about, since they don't know how to write using proper English.

      December 14, 2013 at 10:38 am |
      • ladeda

        And English isn't everyone's first language, so maybe climb down off your high horse and see how well you would do commenting in a language other than your own.

        December 14, 2013 at 11:29 am |
  8. mudfoot

    I thought Santa wasn't real?

    December 14, 2013 at 10:22 am |
  9. dreamhunk


    December 14, 2013 at 10:22 am |
  10. Evelyn Connaway

    Some mentioned that Jesus lived on the Earth for 30 or about years. Some religions mentioned he died on the cross , which is when we celebrate Easter (sometimes in late March, but mostly April) and state that he was 34 1/2 years old. If we go by years – and he was 34 1/2 years old at death – his actual birthday would be in October of the year, not December!

    December 14, 2013 at 10:21 am |
  11. Light of Purest Truth

    Satan's minions are busy in these very comments. Vile animals are trying to smear His good name and purpose. They do not realize that for those who will enter His Kingdom, He has the power to wash away all sins and restore everyone to their pure white color. But these wretched creatures of Satan will not listen, The mark has been put upon the land and they will soon be trembling at His feet begging for mercy. The time is near! Repent and accept His divine love or suffer endless pain and agony in the cauldron of fire! Amen.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:19 am |
    • JJ

      Praise Jesus and may the aroma from their burning flesh and the screams of their agony be pleasing to our lord!

      December 14, 2013 at 10:24 am |
    • Cyrus

      If he had a chance to revisit his followers and witnessed what his followers did in Europe, South America, Africa and America he would have hanged himself.

      December 14, 2013 at 10:39 am |
    • sheesh

      Check your sentence structure – your use of His references Satan all the way through your comment.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:32 am |
      • David

        Yes WE christians are trying to smear Satans name...

        December 14, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
    • featherknife

      Light of purest truth.....Hey I have an idea! Dig a hole and fall in it!

      December 14, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • David

      Funny thing about that... you seee that reckless arrogance about white skin? Yea God kind of address that in the Bible.

      Jeremiah 23:32
      Behold, I am against them that prophesy false dreams, saith the LORD, and do tell them, and cause my people to err by their lies, and by their LIGHTNESS; yet I sent them not, nor commanded them: therefore they shall not profit this people at all, saith the LORD.

      God didn't send you so get off the board!!!

      December 14, 2013 at 3:31 pm |
    • David

      Sounds like Osama Bin Smoked something crawled out of the sea annd started typing on here!!

      December 14, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
  12. Michael Israel Morgan

    Megyn Kelly's irreverent quips have little to do with what she believes, and more to do with a political agenda of perpetuating socioethnic divisions, tension, and even (or especially) violent behaviors. This may sound far-fetched, until you look at the history of European imperialism and its inherent racial supremacism through the ages. The greatest irony, which Kelly unsurprisingly seems blind to, is the fact that the legacy of imposed ethnic fallacies (such as depicting - enforcing - a blond, blue-eyed 'Jesus') was all about threatening ordinary Europeans against daring to think outside the very small box that they had systematically been shut into. But apparently Kelly doesn't feel so cramped....they're paying her enough to stay stupid.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:18 am |
  13. dreamhunk


    December 14, 2013 at 10:17 am |
  14. dreamhunk

    Origin of the ancient Egyptians

    December 14, 2013 at 10:14 am |
    • Tom

      Go away troll.

      December 14, 2013 at 10:17 am |
  15. Jim

    Jesus was a Jew which would make him an olive-skinned Middle Eastern man.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:14 am |
    • Sartre

      Absolutely not. Haven't you heard the ancient hymn? He was Red and Yellow, Black and White.

      December 14, 2013 at 10:16 am |
  16. Sartre

    Jesus had dark red skin just like Egyptians.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:14 am |
  17. Felix Sinclair

    If it offends me = you're wrong.
    If it offends you = you don't have a sense of humor

    December 14, 2013 at 10:12 am |
  18. dreamhunk


    December 14, 2013 at 10:11 am |
  19. ACPD

    Even Billy Graham disagrees with her:
    "Jesus was not a white man; he was not a black man. He came from that part of the world that touches Africa and Asia and Europe. Christianity is not a white man's religion, and don't let anybody ever tell you that it's white or black. Christ belongs to all people; he belongs to the whole world."

    December 14, 2013 at 10:11 am |
  20. Tom

    Come on, folks, it's a little known historical fact, but Jesus was Asian and therefore yellow-skinned.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:11 am |
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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.