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. Phil

    Jesus is white. Read the bible folks (KJV)
    Revelation 1:14-15, " And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.

    14 His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;

    15 And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.

    When you burn fine brass in a furnace, it becomes a glorious white. Honestly, does it really matter? It doesn't and shame on America for making such a big deal about a figure that is so profound in Christian History.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
    • AC

      LOL. Snow White in the desert. What a joke. Morrons.

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

      That is not talking about his skin color. It's speaking about his purity.

      This is the last couple of paragraphs from the article above – I think the writer of this article nailed it when writing this:

      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.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • sqeptiq

      Christian mythology, not history.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:30 pm |
    • Volntyr

      Yet you also said it was the King James Version. You do realize that if King James wanted Jesus to be Purple with Green polka dots, he would have been Purple with Green polka dots.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
  2. Dina

    Jesus, if he existed, was of middle eastern ancestry and Jew. Santa Claus is what ever you want him to be.He is mythical.
    The Renaissance made Jesus blond and blue eyed.It really doesn't matter but to insist that these figures are white is racist.Fire this idiot on FOX.Adam and Eve would have been dark skinn also since they represent the first humans who came out of Africa.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
  3. Grey

    Thank you for how you ended this article.
    Our current society is full of racists (of all colors) – Looking and the outside of a person does not say anything about the choices and ideas the person has. And Choices and Ideas are far, far, more important than a wrapper about which people have almost no control.
    And finally historically Jesus was a Jew of the middle east and most likely looked Jewish/Arabic in appearance, and probably wore a beard. Santa Claus would have probably been a Laplander or Eskimo based on which legends you believe. But the appearance of neither is needed the CONCEPT of loving your neighbor, giving to the children, etc, is what is needed to be embraced. No matter what your or their superficial skin color.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
  4. Charlie

    Mickey Mouse is black.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
    • Bernhard

      LIAR!!!!....oh, wait....your right...sorry. I got caught up in all the useless arguing....have a nice day.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
  5. tom

    Jesus also known as Zeus. Is the worship of the Sun. Sun worship on sundays . You worship the Sun of God aka Sun God. 12 disciples is 12 zodiac signs. Dec 25 is the day the Sun Rises after 3 days of dying(aka winter solstice)Better stop worshiping the Old Age religions and stop eatin pigs. The real Son of God was called Adam(man) ©and Eve(woman) To bad Eve ate her kids Cain N Abel. Cannibals. The forbidden fruit is cain n abel ism. Best kiss your ass goodbye . O ya Africa is much closer the Europe to Jerusalem. No problem yall already knew that.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
    • JD

      Oh please! wise one! tells us more assumptions. I'm agnostic and you sound retarded speaking in such absolutes

      December 13, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  6. ginamero

    Santa and Jesus aren't white but George Zimmerman is – the liberals want it both ways. I think they both looked more like George than Kelly.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  7. Hilarious

    Keep arguing over these things, then find out how many angels dance on the head of a pin.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
  8. Retta

    Only on Faux Fox News would this be "news", LOL, guess they ran out of Dems. to trash!

    December 13, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
    • ginamero

      This is CNN did you forget who were trashing?

      December 13, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
  9. independentlyowned

    Is this really a conversation??? If Christians do in fact believe that Jesus was a real, historical character, born in Bethlehem, lived in Nazareth, traveled the Middle East, then why in the world would he be anything OTHER than the race of Middle Easterners 2,000 years ago??? Unless you believe God created him as an anomaly to his peers because you think the white race is superior, in which case you're a racist.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:17 pm |
    • Aqeel El-Amin

      Well put sir or ma'am

      December 13, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
  10. Aqeel El-Amin

    So, people are fighting about the race of two make believe characters?

    December 13, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
    • Brenden

      Aqeel El-Amin is a fictional character. I'll pray for you.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
  11. dot8

    I call Jesus and Santa humans ... that's all that should matter.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
  12. liz

    Years ago the NYT Sunday Magazine ran a cover of photos of how Jesus is seen in different cultures sadly Megyn missed it but I doubt it would have mattered because you can't fix stupid as Faux Media proves day in and day out.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
  13. Al J Cat

    If this "news anchor" wasn't a racist she wouldn't care what colour of skin they were showed as. It is just a representation, not a portrait, if she didn't have a problem with black people, it would be just as irrelevant as it is to the rest of us

    December 13, 2013 at 12:16 pm |
  14. Charlie

    "Religion is the opiate of the masses" – I don't know who said it. I learned from my father, and I believe it. St. Nicholas was real,. but the Santa in the Macy's parade if fictional. He was invented by Coca-Cola.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
    • quote

      The translation from German (i'm told) is: "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people". – Karl Marx.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
    • Brenden

      It breaks my heart that you are a supporter of Marxism, someday you'll get it. I'll pray for your conversion.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  15. Sunshine100

    Jesus's parents, Joseph and Mary (not their real names), were middle eastern and also were Jewish, ergo Jesus also was a Jew. Christianity was beginning to get organized approx. 100 years after his death. The anecdotes, stories, eye witness accounts, parables, were fabricated or twisted to give legitimacy to the fledging religion as the oral history was put pen to paper by the Catholic Church representatives.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
  16. Buster

    Both Jesus and Santa Claus were from the Middle East. It is possible that both of them could have had a fair skin pigmentation, but not very likely to have been black. Jesus was born in an area where the skin pigmentation varied from stark white to olive in tone with very dark black hair color to light brown. Blue eyes are possible, but not likely. Green or brown eyes are very likely. Santa Claus was from an area of more olive tone skin with dark hair, but blue or green eyes are possible too. I don't know what Jesus looked like, but I think the most accurate portrayal shows a fairish olive skin tone, brown or hazel to emerald green type eyes, long flowing stark black hair that contrasts the lighter skin tone.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
  17. Lucille

    Children can learn to love a kind old loving magical man no matter his colour! Santa is a white fellow with a white beard and a red nose. That's it. And he loves ALL children.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
  18. Mr Everyman

    Jesus, the man, was a first century Galilean Jewish person. Jesus, the Christ, was a revelation of the universal and eternal Spirit of existing in a human. Jesus Messiah is what ever you are because that is the spirit of Life in each person.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
  19. Robert

    Fictional characters can be whatever color you want them to be.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:15 pm |
    • Mark

      St Nick was a real person. Santa is fictional. Where do you come off saying Jesus is fictional? There is so much evidence to prove the Bible is true.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • Brenden

      Poor Robert. Walking shiftless through life spirtually deprived. I'll pray for you.

      December 13, 2013 at 1:22 pm |
  20. sonny chapman

    WWJD ? "Blessed are the peacemakers, they will be called children of God". Matthew 5,9.

    December 13, 2013 at 12:14 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.