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. Tim

    Splitting hairs really.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:59 am |
  2. Dan G

    Now the only time it's OK to call someone White is in cases where you have an Hispanic shott a Black teenager – then it's OK to call the Hispanic White.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:59 am |
    • Dan G

      The only reason this article is here is because CNN's ratings are right next to MSNBC.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  3. crakkka

    Let us not forget the brilliant idea someone had... to change the color of the three fireman raising the american flag at ground zero after 9/11...

    Faking history to be inclusive is just another example of how liberals want to placate the blacks.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:59 am |
  4. JohnM

    What could be less significant about Jesus than the color of his skin? As for Santa, his most popular look came from Madison Avenue and, I think, subject to change. Lost in all this absurdity is that the spirit of Christmas knows no skin color or nationality. Good people everwhere celebrate a wonderful holiday, the miserable ones bicker about petty details.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:59 am |
  5. Gordon

    WAIT! WAIT! WAIT! We are arguing over the skin color of being that might or might not exist and in the case of Santa Claus certainly does not exist? Really? The racist people from all of the races on this planet have just gone over the cliff at this moment.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:58 am |
    • AverageJoe76

      Exactly. Some people just love friction.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
      • Ernest T Bass

        some people just love FICTION.

        December 13, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  6. Just read. He DEFINITELY isn't white

    Song of Soloman 5:11 His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are bushy,and black as a raven.

    How many white people do you know with BLACK LOCKS? Hmmmm....

    December 13, 2013 at 11:58 am |
    • Howard

      If we are calling semetic people "white", a lot. "White" is a complicated label. So is "black" for that matter.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
  7. tim

    So, are we saying both Jesus and Santa are real or are we saying both Jesus and Santa are...?

    December 13, 2013 at 11:58 am |
    • SurelyUjest

      They are a spirit in which we reflect certain aspects of our behavior and moral code. They are colorless in that regard. When you start going in to historical fact....then things get murky.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:02 pm |
  8. Deesnutz

    Santa is white, Jesus who knows.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:58 am |
  9. spence

    I guess her underlying point is that since Jesus is "white", then his dad must also be white. White people win again 🙂

    December 13, 2013 at 11:58 am |
  10. Howard

    Jesus was semetic and thus caucasian, though probably olive skinned as native to the area tend to be. Nothing to get to worked up about. St Nick was Greek and was "white", though probably also had a little color as Mediterraneans often do. They aren't "black" but also don't look much little Ms. Kelly (though who knows what color her hair really is).

    December 13, 2013 at 11:58 am |
    • SurelyUjest

      Are you okay with Tan or Brown?

      December 13, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
      • Howard

        Me? I better. It's what I see in the mirror every morning.

        December 13, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
  11. AverageJoe76

    Heck, Hollywood still doesn't even want to have ethnic people play Egyptians. And they painted their images on walls for proof that they weren't white.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:58 am |
  12. Dreaming of a White Christmas

    Santa Claus is a tradition whose origin predates Christianity.. It is entirely a European Invention, and most a Northern Europoean tradition that Blacks and Hispanics have readily adopted.. If they want their Santa to appear as they are, so be it.. Not historically accurate.

    Jesus had to appear human and similar in appearance to Mary and Joseph who were Middle Eastern Jews.. Technically they were born in Western Asia, and would have looked like Arabs and Jews from that region... Semetic. Not White Not Black but Arabian....

    Get over it.... Remember the Victors write the history books, and the Victors are Europeans, whose culture dominates the 5 continents and won all the wars of the last 200 years.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:58 am |
    • Corey

      And that's it, in a nutshell. I don't know why it's so difficult for people to face these simple truths. It just goes to show we haven't evolved all that much in our core. People on both sides of the political spectrum are obsessed with skin color.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
    • JBRserve

      thank you
      Happy Festivus!

      December 13, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
    • Andrea Braboy

      Actually, St. Nicholas was GREEK and a martyr of the Greek Orthodox Church!!

      December 13, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
  13. pixelmeow

    I didn't realize there were white people in that part of the world at that time in history... I thought the people there were dark skin and haired, *indigenous*. Like the Indians here before white folks came: dark skin and hair. Jesus was not white and blond. I think if Saint Nick was Greek, then he was dark skinned too. I don't understand why white folks insist on denying these people's heritages. Insecurity in their "whiteness"? I dunno. But she's a nutbar, anyway...

    December 13, 2013 at 11:57 am |
  14. Rachel

    What would CNN or MSNBC do if they didn't have Fox News to report on each day? Obsess much?

    December 13, 2013 at 11:57 am |
    • Elvis

      FuxNews is geared to viewers with less than 3 digit I.Q.s

      December 13, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
      • JBRserve

        Thanks for that clever thoughtful response. Don't forget to take your cans back, they are worth something / Happy Festivus!

        December 13, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
  15. Phil

    This is the definition of non-story. American fools are arguing over the skin color of two fictional characters. We have this same discussion every year. Doesn't Fox News get tired of pulling this garbage every year. Also, there are more groups of people in the world than white and black. For some reason, Americans can only think in terms of white people and black people.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:57 am |
  16. Opposing View

    There are Only Three Races on the Face of the Earth...

    FACT: Despite all the many nations, there are only three different races on the face of the earth: Hebrewic, Ethiopian, and Gentile. All races on the face of the earth fall into one of those categories. Jesus Christ himself was a Hebrew and of Israeli descent. The Ethopian race encompasses all people of darkish complexion: African, Mexican, Chinese, Taiwanese, etc. The Gentile race encompasses all people of whitish complexion: English, Germans, French, etc. This is truth backed up b scripture. All else you hear is only lies...

    December 13, 2013 at 11:57 am |
    • Farmer John

      "This is truth backed up b scripture. All else you hear is only lies..."

      Yeah, and EVERYONE knows that you breed special striped goats by having the parents stare at striped objects while they are mating! All else you hear is only lies...

      December 13, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
      • Opposing View

        Proverbs 1:22 – the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge…

        Atheist Rule #3: When all else fails, mock or speak evil of that you understand not…

        December 13, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
      • Ernest T Bass

        Christiaqns #1 rule = quote the bible because the bible says the bible is fact.

        December 13, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
  17. Balthazaar

    Does the fox news eye candy announcer consider Palestinians white? Of course, white is a non specific term that changes definition depending on geography and time period. Jesus was a Palestinian Jew. He would have looked a lot more like Arafat than Brad Pitt........

    December 13, 2013 at 11:57 am |
  18. Maani

    Although Santa has always traditionally been depicted as Caucasian (since he came out of a "white" tradition – nothing odd or racist about that), Jesus was "Semitic," and a "sabra" at that, meaning that He was probably not Caucasian (as we generally apply that term), but rather "olive-skinned," like most Middle Easterners. Nothing "racist" about that either.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:57 am |
  19. KnockYouInTheMouth

    We shouldn't be surprised at some of these white people. They grow up in lily white environments, go to all white schools, never befriend anyone who isn't like them, so they grow up thinking everything is based on a white world including their god.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:56 am |
  20. joe

    Jesus was Jewish, so obviously he wasn't black. He was probably a little tan, maybe. But it doesn't matter, Santa is white, and it would be ridiculous to change him now, because someone doesn't like him being white, smh, America is falling apart.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • Balthazaar

      One of the tribes of Israel is in Ethiopia. They are very black. However, Jesus was essentially Palestinian, or what we would today call Palestinian Jew.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
    • ST

      Jesus and Santa are no Barbie dolls....you don't just change them because they look different than you. Maybe we can make Buddha black too.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
    • Vince

      Santa doesn't exist. So like all make believe things....he can look anyway the make believer wants him to look.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
    • James

      Are you saying that there aren't black jews?

      December 13, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
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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.