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


    December 18, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
  2. dreamhunk


    December 18, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
  3. dreamhunk


    December 18, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
  4. dreamhunk


    December 18, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
  5. Mary

    Jesus had a lot of ancestors, so why couldn't one of them had been from Finland?

    December 18, 2013 at 12:34 pm |
    • One one

      Or Puerto Rico.

      December 18, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
  6. Wanda

    Jesus and Santa have one thing in common: They are fictional characters who are not real. They may both have been based on a real person (or not), but have developed a mythology that is nowhere near actual historical reality. What color is a unicorn? I've always assumed white, but then, they didn't actually exist so if someone wants to think unicorns are black what does it really matter?

    December 18, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
  7. Jesuslives


    December 18, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
    • igaftr

      Have you never heard of CAPITAL punishment? Stop yelling.

      December 18, 2013 at 12:25 pm |
  8. Mary

    If Jesus isn't white, then why does he look white in paintings?

    December 18, 2013 at 11:28 am |
    • Kyle

      Well, you'd know if he were, or not, I suppose!

      December 18, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • dreamhunk


      December 18, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  9. rightaway999

    What "color" was Jesus? We could get some idea by checking the "color" of Jews born in Israel today and in recent decades. As far as I can tell, they are pretty much indistiguishable from average Jews–or Caucasions–from elsewhere. Does Netanyahu look any different in "color" than, say, Chuck Schumer or Jack Benny? Yes, there are "darker" Middle Easten people, but most are essentially white. Was Aba Eban "dark"? Was Golda Mier? Was Moshe Dayan? They looked about as white as my own mother, and I'm not Jewish or semitic. Even Yassar Arafat, an Arab, could easily pass for "white."

    There's little reason to think Jesus was somehow a "dark, olive-skinned" man. He might have been. But He most certainly would not have been another Robert Mugabe or even Harry Belefonte or Obama. That would make no genetic sense. He would have more likely looked like most of His countrymen, and they look pretty much white today.

    December 18, 2013 at 10:31 am |
    • igaftr

      Don't be ridiculous. The jews left the area, for 2000 years, mixed with many people, mainly europeans, then 2000 years later come back, and you think their genetic make up is the same as when they left?

      Look at the people who satyed in the region, like the Palestinians....the rightful owners of the land....do you call them white or middle eastern?

      December 18, 2013 at 10:37 am |
  10. guest11212

    0 Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, said to himself, “My master was too easy on Naaman, this Aramean, by not accepting from him what he brought. As surely as the Lord lives, I will run after him and get something from him.”21 So Gehazi hurried after Naaman. When Naaman saw him running toward him, he got down from the chariot to meet him. “Is everything all right?” he asked.22 “Everything is all right,” Gehazi answered. “My master sent me to say, ‘Two young men from the company of the prophets have just come to me from the hill country of Ephraim. Please give them a talent[a] of silver and two sets of clothing.’”23 “By all means, take two talents,” said Naaman. He urged Gehazi to accept them, and then tied up the two talents of silver in two bags, with two sets of clothing. He gave them to two of his servants, and they carried them ahead of Gehazi. 24 When Gehazi came to the hill, he took the things from the servants and put them away in the house. He sent the men away and they left.25 When he went in and stood before his master, Elisha asked him, “Where have you been, Gehazi?”“Your servant didn’t go anywhere,” Gehazi answered.26 But Elisha said to him, “Was not my spirit with you when the man got down from his chariot to meet you? Is this the time to take money or to accept clothes—or olive groves and vineyards, or flocks and herds, or male and female slaves? 27 Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and to your descendants forever.” Then Gehazi went from Elisha’s presence and his skin was leprous—it had become as white as snow.


    December 18, 2013 at 10:23 am |
  11. guest11212

    If jesus was white why was leprosy in the bible such a big issue? In the old testament, if you had leprosy you would be put out of the camp.

    December 18, 2013 at 10:15 am |
    • Kyle

      Leoparcy is the disease where your body parts eventually drop off, not the one where people lose their color, like Micheal Jackson.

      December 18, 2013 at 11:35 am |
    • Amalek slayer

      To be cursed with leprousy was to be turned white, kyle is a devil and is banking on people who dont read the bible to believe him, this also proves that ALL Israelites were of color and not white, in this verse Moses' sister Miriam is struck with leprousy an it CLEARLY states she turned white, as white as snow, numbers 12:10

      December 18, 2013 at 8:34 pm |
  12. Doug

    I'm pretty sure Jesus was middle-eastern (olive skinned, not white or black), but who can really say for sure?

    All we know for certain is he did drive a Honda. "...and they were all in one Accord."

    December 18, 2013 at 9:54 am |
  13. neved

    after a thorough analysis based in the comment of most netizens,racism in religious belief is due to ultra consevativeness of the faithfull.The future will be only meaningfull if one accepts change and understand basic science specifically evolution.Then going back in time to the big bang to the present ,it would become logically clear the presence and existence of God,No more atheist but an ultra modern faithfull or religious individual who never question or doubt His existence.

    December 18, 2013 at 9:47 am |
  14. Reality # 2

    Christmas is historically a non-event. See the details on p. 137 of the commentaries

    December 18, 2013 at 8:45 am |
  15. Jim

    More race baiting articles.

    December 18, 2013 at 8:34 am |
  16. dreamhunk


    December 18, 2013 at 7:49 am |
  17. xbizi ruoth

    lets forget about the colour ...did u get the message...?

    December 18, 2013 at 7:24 am |
  18. laststonecarver

    Okay, I admit that in an ill lit area white looks greyish, and all dark colors look black, but..
    In a well lit area, most folks are not white or black...
    Brown is not black, and pink is not white, and all the colors between pink and brown are not white or black –
    In the picture,above for CNN, there are 3 folks – the one in the middle has a white shirt and a black jacket – none of their skin colors match the shirt or jacket, as i'm fairly confident that none of the posters' here, have skin that matches those colors of the shirt or jacket –
    So why would a Santa or a Jesus have an un-natural skin color??

    December 18, 2013 at 6:59 am |
    • X phile

      Why indeed? Watch out for the grey people and the vivid green ones.

      December 18, 2013 at 7:04 am |
  19. X phile

    One day John Smith from Roswell New Mexico was taken up in a beam of bright light by a blue eyed blond in a glowing robe. Mistaking it for Jesus or possibly Santa Mr. Smith went willingly, he was returned to his bed a few hours later with his memory erased, scoop marks on his arm and missing a kidney.

    December 18, 2013 at 6:39 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.