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


    January 5, 2014 at 12:04 pm |
  2. dreamhunk


    January 5, 2014 at 12:02 pm |
  3. CommonSense

    People are not saved by Jesus ethnicity or skin color. If Jesus is black, i doesn't mean he came to save blacks. If he is white is doesn't mean he came to save whites. We miss the point over and over again. Jesus came to save humanity.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:32 am |
  4. Tony

    Looks like they changed the photo I referenced. It is the newer pic appearing with these "dark Jesus" articles. Its a photo where he looks stockier.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:21 am |
  5. Tony

    Jesus probably had dark hair and certainly looked semitic. Modern Israeli Jews would probably be a good example, however I consider that "middle eastern." I pictured Jesus looking similar to the History channel's Real Face of Jesus, with thinner features than this photo suggests. This photo makes him look stocky.

    January 5, 2014 at 11:18 am |
  6. cin

    ever hear the saying..... making a mountain out of a mole hill....... who cares what color any of them are..... or have been for hundreds of years....... it's what is in your heart that matters..... ding bats

    January 5, 2014 at 11:00 am |
  7. corey butler

    Ms. Kelly just proved how easy it is for a white person to get a job.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:51 am |
  8. corey butler

    Does it really surprise anybody that white people-who have always deemed themselves superior to any other race-would proclaim that Jesus was white? In their minds (most of them) anything good and/or beneficial has to be associated with white.

    January 5, 2014 at 10:43 am |
  9. billy vidal

    THIS HAVE AN ALZHEIMHERE because he is lost ! the explanatio are many carbon dioxide

    January 5, 2014 at 9:04 am |
  10. Phil

    What needs to be understood is that people change over time, like America forinstance, people started out white, and now are turning darker everyday. What will Americans look like in 2000 years? Americans will not be white, I can tell you that. And this is what has happened to all civilizations. The Arabs were once white, but imported many thousands of black slaves, then intermarried with them and became dark. And so it is with the people who lived in palistine, once white, now dark. My feeling is that Jesus was white, but over time the people in the area became dark, and because of this people believe that the people of this area were always dark. Not so. This is not a hard thing to understand. We just need to wake up.

    January 4, 2014 at 5:50 pm |
    • Joe Schmo

      You sir are mentally retarded.

      January 4, 2014 at 8:49 pm |
    • corey butler

      "America started out white?" Clearly Phil, the problem is education as you have just proven. Just because you all claim that Christopher Columbus discovered America does not make that any more true than your claims of Jesus being white. How did America start out white when the native americans were here first?

      January 5, 2014 at 10:47 am |
  11. cruzkit

    This is all silly talk. Plus, most white people aren't white-they're pinkish white.

    How about asking what color someone's soul is. I have seen and was touched by people with a souls so beautiful that it takes my breath away just thinking about it. I do believe that Jesus, the lady I met last week and maybe even you have a beautiful soul. Please, describe a beautiful soul for me, if you will, because I can't and, to be honest, never even thought about it. One thing for sure, it wasn't just white or black or purple. It was everything.

    January 4, 2014 at 1:38 am |
  12. cbrfast

    The point being missed, race and gender matter very much in this society. The majority has used the race and gender of this so called masiah to perpetuate and enforce their dominance, since the founding of this country. Chalenge the narative, and we come closer to the truth, and equality.

    January 3, 2014 at 11:54 pm |
  13. dreamhunk


    January 2, 2014 at 2:09 pm |
  14. simmy

    I didn't know that Jews were not considered white people? Because they sure aren't considered black????????

    January 2, 2014 at 12:32 pm |
    • simmy

      Just ask any Jew or Arab if they consider themselves black? Jesus was a Jew...."WHAT IS ALL THE FUSS ABOUT ANYWAY....BLACK, JEW, ARAB, WHITE......in the end, it won't really matter what he was but more of "WHO HE IS!"

      January 2, 2014 at 12:39 pm |
      • igaftr

        I'm pretty sure that Sammy Davis Jr. and Lenny Kravits consider themselves black. There are many others.

        Jewish is a religion, not a race.

        January 2, 2014 at 12:42 pm |
      • dreamhunk


        January 2, 2014 at 2:06 pm |
  15. dreamhunk


    January 2, 2014 at 10:23 am |
  16. Brien

    2,000 years ago, there were no white folk in the Middle Eastern area of the world except as the occasional Viking or Goth visitor or slave.

    January 1, 2014 at 3:55 pm |
    • Jen

      arabs are caucasians

      January 1, 2014 at 5:05 pm |
      • Jen

        I'm probably the stupidest person alive. I've come to realize that everything i've posted is completely worthless. I apologize. I'm going to go quit being so dumb and finally go on that diet i've been needing.

        January 2, 2014 at 1:23 am |
        • Jen

          Who ever wrote this under my chat name is obviously mentally ill, or else has a massive chip on their shoulder for being a sub sahara african or descendant of one, then again, they built nothing, and accomplished nothing ,having to wait on everyone else to build their cities for them, and feed and clothe them, and the world has just about had enough of these professional life long beggars, and they have beem doing it for hundreds of years, and they blame the arabs for the slave trade when it was the african themselves that would sell unwanted family members or members of other tribes to them, blame yourselves!

          January 2, 2014 at 3:02 pm |
        • Jen

          Again, I have to apologize for my lack of knowledge. I act like a complete ignorant and I should stop posting comments that demonstrate my uneducated side. I promise I will go back to that diet that I started years ago; I have to prevent the greasy stuff that eat everyday from spreading to my brain. So again, I am so sorry for displaying my ignorance.

          January 5, 2014 at 12:02 am |
        • Jen

          To the person that has been impersonating me, i suggest you climb back up the tree you climbed down off, as only monkeys imitate people, and you fit the bill

          January 5, 2014 at 1:21 am |
  17. Hear The Truth


    December 31, 2013 at 10:28 pm |
    • igaftr

      Clearly not the truth.

      January 2, 2014 at 10:13 am |
  18. patilistan

    Is that Captain Haddock in #10?

    December 31, 2013 at 5:01 pm |
  19. Jack Sonberg

    "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." - no second coming allowed here? Whatever else he was, Yeheshua ben Yosef was certainly Jewish!

    December 31, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
  20. stinky

    Black Santa got Soul

    December 31, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
    • Jen

      Santa Claus was from Turkey, Saint Nicholas

      December 31, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
      • Jen

        actually, i looked it up and i'm wrong. i'm sorry

        January 2, 2014 at 1:25 am |
        • Jen

          Stop copying my chat name monkey, thats what monkeys do?Copy everything everyone else does?

          January 2, 2014 at 3:05 pm |
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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.