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. George

    I was always amused by the fact that the KKK would pray to and worship a middle eastern man of color.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • tony

      There is no lmit to the stupiity of sheep.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:46 am |
  2. Dr. Donnel Johnson

    In my class, I don't care if you are a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim. I don't care if you are an Atheist or Agnostic. Worship Mithra or Zues or Dionysus if you wish. I don't care. Hindu? Great. Buddhist? Fine. Just shut the fuck up about it and listen to reason as a basis of comparison. Nobody likes evangelicals or missionaries. Got it? Good. Maybe I don't have to flunk everyone.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • George

      So how and when did reason (your imperfect faith) become exempt from your ban on other faiths?

      December 14, 2013 at 11:43 am |
      • Dr. Donnel Johnson

        When did your reading comprehension skills become so poor? I don't think you will pass this class.

        December 14, 2013 at 11:48 am |
  3. Happy Holidays


    December 14, 2013 at 11:34 am |
  4. palintwit

    If anything is a threat to the national security of the United States of America, it is Sarah Palin. This screaming, unrefined oaf has as much class as a searing release of flatulence followed by hysterical giggling at a state banquet. Is this what the people of the USA deserve?

    December 14, 2013 at 11:30 am |
  5. jvburrows

    CNN is the biggest race war baiter out there....oh wait, I forgot about MSNBC. Ok, its the second biggest race war baiter.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:27 am |
    • palintwit

      Surely you mean Rush Limbaugh instead.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:32 am |
    • midwest rail

      Delusional nonsense.

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

      Oh, wait...THIS IS WHAT FOX "NEWS" is putting out. Shaddup.

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

      Ok. the literal BAIT was "Santa is white"

      therefore the BAITER was Fox News Megyn

      December 14, 2013 at 3:25 pm |
  6. jim in texas

    Santa Claus is a symbol. He's not even really depicting an actual historical character (unless you want to drag out his origins – St. Nicholas, etc.) The Santa we all think of today is largely the result of an ad campaign done by Coca Cola. Insisting that he be of any race is kind of ridiculous. It's one thing to argue that Jesus be white, but he at least existed, historically. Santa is a myth. he can be whatever color we want. I try to keep an open mind about Fox news, but they continue to distance themselves from any sort of diversity.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • 3vix6

      There are many scholars that argue that Jesus never existed. Many of the stories like Laserous coming out of the Tomb, comes from Egyptian mythology and is not original. I think you have this the other way around..

      Jesus is based in mythology derived from many other major religions of that time. Santa as we see him today has his basis not only in Dutch and other European mythology, but also a real person named St. Nicholas.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:30 am |
      • SSellinger

        Actually you have that wrong. Most scholars of modern antiquity accept that the Jesus existed. Indeed most scholars of antiquity and classical historians would argue that any theories of his non-existence have been effectively refuted.

        In addition, his historical baptism and his crucifixation have all but universal assent.

        Everything beyond that is open for debate.

        December 14, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
  7. dreamhunk

    quote from this site "An Illinois high school student was reportedly pulled from the classroom on Thursday over his Halloween costume: Jesus Christ.

    Angenetta Frison, the mother of Highland Park High School senior Marshon Sanders, told the Chicago Sun-Times her son was kicked out of class because some teachers found the student's costume - consisting of a white robe, red sash, a white head scarf, a crown of thorns and a cross necklace - to be offensive.

    UPDATE: 4:10 p.m. - According to the Chicago Tribune, the teen has been allowed to return to class and wear it once again after school officials confirmed he did not mean any disrespect with the costume. They had initially believed the costume could offend “religious sensibilities."

    Earlier Thursday, Sanders was forced to remove his costume before returning to the classroom at the Highland Park, Ill. school, his mother told ABC Chicago.

    Highland Park is located about 20 miles north of Chicago.

    The incident is not the first time a student has been removed from school for dressing as the religious figure for Halloween, In 2008, an eighth grader in New Jersey was sent home from school over his Jesus costume."


    December 14, 2013 at 11:25 am |
  8. Sal

    Calm down, folks. Imaginary people can be whatever color you'd like.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  9. john

    Of course he was white. What other color could he be. Dumb question.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:22 am |
  10. ted

    Jesus is as real as Santa.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  11. Christina Honigberg

    What color is your God ? What does it matter He is God . If I was to choose a color for Him I would say all colors of the rainbow.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:18 am |
    • tony

      How can you sanely love and even worship something you know nothing about?

      December 14, 2013 at 11:26 am |
  12. dreamhunk

    Nimrod from cush!

    December 14, 2013 at 11:18 am |
    • John P. Tarver

      Nimrod also was the god of wine, from where Bacchus and Dionysus. All born on December 25 and resurrected.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  13. ironage

    Jesus and Santa are both "creepy ass cracka's"

    December 14, 2013 at 11:17 am |
    • .

      And you be a creepy ass racist.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:30 am |
  14. dreamhunk

    Was Jesus Christ Black or White?

    December 14, 2013 at 11:16 am |
  15. Randy

    Considering the part of the world He came from, His skin color was likely some shade of brown.

    But it doesn't matter what the color of His skin was – He died to save mankind from sin and eternal damnation.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:16 am |
    • tony

      How does that dying to save mankind work exactly? Are you saying we wouldn't be here otherise

      December 14, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • Bob

      Yeah, Randy, along the lines of what tony asked you, how is it again that your omnipotent being couldn't do his saving bit without the whole silly Jesus hoopla? And how was Jesus' death a "sacrifice", when an omnipotent being could just pop up a replacement son any time with less than a snap of his fingers? Pretty pathetic "god" that you've made for yourself there.

      Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement.
      Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:49 am |
  16. Salvation

    For all of you who would like to know if He was white or not including the media press.

    All you have to do is accept His Salvation and believe that He died on the cross to save you from your sins and there nothing you can do to save yourselves and one day you will surely see what He looks like. You will be present with Him for ever.

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

      Yeah.....whatever. Happy Yule!

      December 14, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  17. dreamhunk

    "Tacitus, the Roman historian of 90 A.D., says that the Romans of his day popularly believed that the Jews, which then abounded in Europe, came from Ethiopia, the land of the Blacks
    Zephaniah 3 :10
    From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, my scattered people, will bring me offerings.
    From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia my suppliants,[even] the daughter of my dispersed, shall bring mine offering.
    Lamentations 4:8
    Their visage is blacker than a coal; they are not known in the streets: their skin cleaveth to their bones; it is withered, it is become like a stick.Lamentations 5:10
    Our skin was black like an oven because of the terrible famine.
    Exd 2:19 And they said, An Egyptian(speakin of Moses) delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and also drew [water] enough for us, and watered the flock.
    Explain how an ISRAELITE is mistaken as a son of HAM if they didn't look alike?
    Then 2000+ years later Acts 21:37-38 Shaul(Paul) a Hebrew mistaken as an Egyptian... So explain how SHEM's seed and HAM's didn't look alike?
    Google ancient Hebrews or ancient Hebrew dreadlocks click images and you see what the ancient Hebrews looked like!

    December 14, 2013 at 11:14 am |
    • maine liberal

      Megyn Kelly, fox and the KKK are the only ones concerned with the color of God.

      kelly believes Santa was an "historical" figure like Jesus.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:22 am |
      • featherknife

        He was a historical figure like Jesus....a non existent one.

        December 14, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
    • Lucille

      We are not told all the facts but Moses did marry an Ethiopian woman. Aaron and Miriam, his siblings, chided him for doing that. God judged their sin.

      Jacob's son Joseph was given a gentile wife when he was in Egypt. The ruler of Egypt did know that Joseph was a Hebrew.

      December 14, 2013 at 11:31 am |
      • David

        Keep going... the third high priest of Israel was Nubian. Yes he was! His name was Phinehas, and that is lterally translated from the hebrew to mean "dark skinned" and it's Ancient Egyptian cogante was "Pa-nehas" which refers to Nubian people.

        Remember Phinheas was born before Moses took them out of egypt

        December 14, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
    • Al

      This was an interesting article from Popular Mechanics: http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/forensics/1282186

      December 14, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
  18. Jesus was MiddleEastern - He was NOT White!

    FOX has the most ignorant people working there! Unfortunately, they infect other ignorant people with their nonsense!

    December 14, 2013 at 11:13 am |
  19. Chris

    I feel so bad for the religious people on this thread. I mean wow. You guys really need to a find a hobby or something constructive. There's not a shred of proof and you people talk like you know it to be fact.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:13 am |
    • mick

      Faith is faith, belief is belief. You also cannot prove that Jesus is not God.

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

        And you can't prove that Itzamna isn't god.

        December 14, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
  20. jim in texas

    I believe that the white American insistence on Jesus looking like a western European does more to detract from Christianity than it does to support it. Even with the modern influx of Jews from all over the world, people today in Judea are still predominantly dark skinned. Artwork since the 1200s has always depicted Jesus as looking like the contemporary culture.

    December 14, 2013 at 11:11 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.