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. crakkka

    If Santa was black he would be a fraud.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
    • kelly

      Santa is not real. You do realize that right

      December 13, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
      • ST

        yes he was...he's also known as St. Nick....who was real.

        December 13, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  2. Kim Kowalczyk

    Well this has to be the dumbest argument I have seen in a long time. Here are some race classifications for people to ponder. Pick one for Santa and Jesus and make them your own. lol

    December 13, 2013 at 12:07 pm |
    • ST

      dumb...so only people from europe are considered "White"? What about the Russians. they are part Asia. They must not be white....

      December 13, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
  3. sly

    Only small minded people still think there is a thing such as 'white', when we all have about 5% black blood.

    Geneticists have shown that all humans are 99.9% similar – only dufus's focus on that .1%.

    Jesus? Who knows about some character in fables from long ago. May have been such a person – we'll obviously never know.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
  4. crakkka

    White is beautiful..

    December 13, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
  5. Tutuvabene

    As with everything else in the internet/facebook/twitter age in which everyone can spout their 2 cents for better or worse, Christ has become a highly charged political football. As far as I know, the Bible does not delve into the subject of Christ's skin color. He was a Jew and was whatever color Jews were at that time. Enough already.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
  6. vic

    It is the fake war on Christmas that Fox throws out every year. However, it really shows how prejudice they are. Any chance of an apology for all the people she offended with this ridiclous remark! Doubt it.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
  7. Here we go

    Since this seems to be a discussion about race, 'white" refers to the Caucasian race. Jesus was a Hebrew, which is a Semitic group (like Arabs) which is in the Caucasian race. St. Nicholas (aka Santa Claus) was Greek. Also Caucasian. Where thier skins as light colored as a Norwegian? No. But still a bit on the white side. The largest group of Caucasians are in India who have very dark skin. Jesus and Santa Claus were not black. I may want a white Martin Luther King to make me feel better about things, but it would be a fantasy.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
    • S

      THANK YOU!

      December 13, 2013 at 12:08 pm |
    • sly

      .... scientists have already shown that all people are a minimum of 5% black ... it's called evolution.

      (of course, on the religion blog, most flat earthers do not believe in science ...)

      December 13, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
  8. louis

    um Jesus was not white, he was a middle eastern Jew.

    As for Santa, well he is not real BUT the person whom he is based on was a Turkish saint (white or middle wastern?? whatever)

    December 13, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
    • anon

      I don't think he was Jewish. I do believe his mother was a Levite, since her daddy was the local high priest. That prestigous position in society would explain why she wasn't just stoned outright when it was discovered she was pregnant. Her father had influence enough to delay long enough to pay for a doctor to verify her virginity.

      It is no small thing that she wasn't stoned, yet "free thinkers" don't think this far. Unless they doubt Mary even existed, or perhaps a doctor was bribed. Yet, fathers back then simply didn't think enough of their daughters, let alone love them enough to do something like that. And allowing just any old b@stard child to come into the family just to save face would have been unthinkable.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
      • kelly

        it doesn't matter

        he was a middle easterner

        December 13, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  9. Badva

    There are more black people who are racists than white people.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
    • andrew

      um, no here aren't
      the vast majority of racists are white anglo men

      so tell me another one

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

        Nope. Black people are always the source who scream racism. And then they wonder why it won't go away.

        December 13, 2013 at 12:09 pm |
        • kelly

          Um screaming racism is not racism. you are truly retarded. please do not pollute the world with your kind

          December 13, 2013 at 12:11 pm |
        • Badva

          When you scream racism for a benefit when there was never truly any racist association, then yes, you are a racist. Black people hate white people.

          December 13, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
        • kelly

          oh yeah because white people have always loved black people, they never lynched them, they never discriminated against them, they never enslaved them..oh yeah whites are not racists

          keep dreamin loser

          December 13, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
        • Badva

          Try to stay current Kelly. Lynching and slavery happen today? Looks like you are making an excuse for black people's actions today. Kind of like when you all screamed "Travon is innocent" but ignore the facts. But then you probrably shrug off the Knockout game as nothing more than a game. Stop making excuses for the evil a lot of black people spew on a daily basis. Just read any crime report and get educated.

          December 13, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
      • anon

        Bringing slaves to this continent from Africa was SUCH a bad idea. Believe me, I doubt there are many whites who wouldn't give most if not all they have to either go back in time and erase slavery from U.S history altogether, or pay for one way tickets to anywhere in the world a disgruntled African American would rather move too. I know I would.

        December 13, 2013 at 12:13 pm |
  10. Hollar

    This is just a story of another ignorant newscaster running their mouth and stirring up trouble before researching the facts.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  11. Menicy

    As much as the bible doesn't really talk about skin color, they definitely talk about what country a person came from and what stereotypes they fit or shift (i.e. the Good Samaritan – Apparently if you are from Summaria the likelyhood you would do something nice for someone deemed lesser by other was slim to none, but yet this one Summarian did something nice for a man in a gutter.")
    With that said, any idiot should be able to determine 2 things, (1)Jesus was a Jew and all he was trying to do was improve Judaism not create an entirely new religion (2) The fact that he comes from Bethlehem alone should be able to let you know, especially with what their decendants look like that Jesus would never EVER be a blonde haired blue eyed man.

    But when you are a bigot you can't see things for the reality they actually are. They don't care how much evidence there is in front of them. As far as racists are concerned Jesus is so white he's albino.

    Anyone who is smart will know otherwise.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  12. Not All Docs Play Golf

    This just in: Fox news has hired Jesus as a news commentator, so we'll all know the answer soon.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  13. crakkka

    Worry about what your Santa looks like...not what mine looks like.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  14. John

    This is quite possibly the dumbest argument ever. Exactly when was it that anything white and Christian was deemed attackable, and anything minority untouchable. It seems to me there are different standards for the treatment of the majority compared to the treatment of minorities. Minorities can say whatever they want about majorities and they are "contemporary". Majorities say anything about minorities and they are intolerant. What an absolute bull….

    December 13, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  15. anon

    Is Semitic the same as jewish, or does it cover describing ALL the tribes? Help me out here, since I admit i probably don't know what I'm talking about. These things are just what I've heard. It would be interesting to know what I've heard that is fact versus fiction. With my luck, probably all of it. 🙁

    December 13, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  16. joegeoff

    It is inaccurate to say the Bible was not concerned about race. Plenty of descriptions of different tribes in the Old Testament and how some were treated as less-than. Also in the New Testament, we have descriptions of people as being from many different lands, and the description of a "despised Samaritan." If it is not racism, it is the same thing in an earlier, tribal form.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  17. Cave johnson

    Do we get white mlk jr?

    December 13, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  18. gadraa

    Consider the fact he spoke Aramaic, and the Hebrews originated from Abraham who migrated north from Ur an ancient city in Iraq. Fair to safe he was neither black nor white but somewhere in between. Should it even matter?

    December 13, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
    • Dilapidated Emu

      It is totally fine for people to imagine Jesus as whatever their ethnicity is, it helps them identify with him. That being said, you are entirely right and Jesus most likely looked similar to people who live in the Middle East today.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:10 pm |
  19. Matthew Kilburn

    "it's just why does he have to be?"

    ...because attempts to make Santa, or Jesus, or any other figure (see the 9/11 firefighters) darker in complexion than would be appropriate walks hand in hand with the idea that minorities are owed something by those of European descent for "oppression" that happened hundreds of years ago.

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

      Oppression did not end hundreds of years ago. Oppression is still present today and the movement that brought it to present levels from much higher levels occurred in the 1960s. Also, as a white person I do not think that it is in the best interest of everyone to label this as wanting something in return for oppression. You are making the assumption that the people making these arguments do not have valid points. I do not know for sure if they do or do not, but it is wrong to make the assumptions that you are making.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:14 pm |
  20. jonp

    I like to believe that Jesus was Korean.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:03 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.