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. blakenaustin

    Cut the PC nonsense and the race baiting crap. Jesus was a Jew.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:11 am |
  2. dreamhunk

    The Biblical "Israel" is a Who, Not a "Where" – BibleOrTraditions

    December 14, 2013 at 11:09 am |
  3. annebeth66

    Look at the people of the area where Jesus lived: they had olive or brown skin. Blonde hair, blue eyes and pale skin are not that common in that area. Funny how so many things are whitewashed to make so called Christians feel comfortable.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:08 am |
  4. dreamhunk

    What do you think of the theory of the Khazars?

    December 14, 2013 at 11:08 am |
  5. bananaspy

    "Is Jesus real?" would have been a better headline. How do you except to prove the ethnicity of someone you already have little to no proof of in the first place?

    December 14, 2013 at 11:07 am |
  6. dreamhunk

    The Hidden History – The Khazar Empire

    December 14, 2013 at 11:07 am |
  7. dreamhunk

    The Biblical "Israel" is a Who, Not a "Where" – BibleOrTraditions

    December 14, 2013 at 11:06 am |
  8. 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. Don't let us waste time discussing about Jesus' color but restore a lively Church which preaches the releasing Gospel of Jesus Christ – it is high time.

    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, or does anybody know better?

    Never in history the Western World enjoyed so much order and progress like today, the government fulfills it task. However, never in history Westerners lacked so much pastoral care like today, the churches don't or cannot fulfill their task. We need a real sacral Church where God is present. Material life is at the maximum but spiritually we are dead bodies – what a misery.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • Chris

      You people truly are beyond gone. You live in your own little magical world.

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

        No, it is the doctrine of the New Testament or Early Church. Christianity is sacral, that is its nature. Sacral does not mean magical.

        In the realm of the Church curing is possible but it is mostly connected with forgiveness of sins, and is no public show. There is a deep connection between sin and disease.

        December 14, 2013 at 11:14 am |
    • marcus

      it's so disappointing to think that with all the advances in technology, with all the increased knowledge of the inner workings of the universe, there are still so many simple-minded folks like yourself, preaching that christianity is a truth.. the things you think you believe in are downright laughable.. i hope that one day, during this lifetime of yours, you will actually be able to think, not to just continue to regurgitate the garbage you were brainwashed with as a child..

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

        I am not an opponent of science but science can neither help your soul nor my soul – that is the task of the Church, and belongs to the world of wonder.

        December 14, 2013 at 11:17 am |
  9. Dave

    John 4:24 – God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. What color is a spirit?

    December 14, 2013 at 11:04 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      Present your body as a living sacrifice – that is adoration is Spirit and in Truth.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:08 am |
      • doobzz

        Isn't that a slap in the face to Jesus? Didn't he already present his supposedly perfect self as the ultimate sacrifice?

        December 14, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
  10. dreamhunk

    Israelites Fleeing Into Africa


    December 14, 2013 at 11:02 am |
  11. Tommy

    All that really matters is that you believe he died on the cross for our sins! If you don't that's up to you and if you do there's a better place called heaven. How stupid is it that adult's have to argue over something so unimportant as the color of his skin!

    December 14, 2013 at 11:00 am |
    • marcus

      it's just as stupid to argue about the color of jesus' skin as it is to believe we were created by the ultimate intelligent, loving being in the universe, and he's so disappointed with his creation, that the only thing that will make him forgive us, is the brutal execution of his sinless son... wake up..

      December 14, 2013 at 11:06 am |
    • Chris

      How is it up to me? Not only does your book say that I will suffer forever because I disagree, but it doesn't give you a choice. It's like the mob demanding protection money. Either do what I want or I'll make you suffer. Some father figure.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:11 am |
  12. Nomine

    Jesus might still be white... if his biological father was a Roman soldier.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:57 am |
  13. Sheshie

    Race baiting with Jesus huh? Oh, and throwing Santa in the mix for good measure. Slow news day?

    December 14, 2013 at 10:57 am |
  14. Donkey T Dong

    I know four guys named jesus and not one of them comes close to being white.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  15. dreamhunk

    Why Amen is said after prayers [ Nubian Origins of Amen (Ra) ]

    December 14, 2013 at 10:56 am |
  16. dreamhunk

    Islam, Christianity, & Judaism originated from Egyptian Religion

    December 14, 2013 at 10:55 am |
  17. Evelyn Connaway

    One thing I know for sure, The majority people who claim to be Christians, do not really follow the teachings of God and Jesus Christ, no matter the color of their skin!!!

    December 14, 2013 at 10:55 am |
    • Al

      Jesus was a Jew, but followers of Jesus' teachings reject Judaism to the point of torturing and murdering millions of Jews.

      December 14, 2013 at 12:45 pm |
  18. rkdres

    The headline reads "Is Jesus White?"....shouldn't it read "Was Jesus White?" ?

    December 14, 2013 at 10:54 am |
  19. dreamhunk

    Apostle Paul Controversy: Long Hair NOT A Shame Nature Teaching! (Nazirite)

    December 14, 2013 at 10:53 am |
  20. Larry L

    Here in Texas it is a well-know fact that Jesus looks like Willie Nelson. The main difference is Willie Nelson is real.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:52 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.