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. John P. Tarver

    Not only was Jesus black, but most of the Jews in God's house in heaven will be black; as the tribe of Ephraim has reconciliation in Christ.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • Ken

      Jesus was Jewish. I think Jews may disagree with your assertion they are Black?

      December 13, 2013 at 11:31 am |
      • disabledaccessdenied

        actually ken back then all jews were

        December 13, 2013 at 11:35 am |
      • Xecutiv

        Sorry Ken but Jesus was Black. Jesus was a Jew, but not a Jew by race. To be a Jew is to have a divine covenant with God. That is why he said, those who say they are Jews are not. He was not takling about bloodline. Jesus was was refering to being obediant to God. Who is the people on the planet that have "hair like wool, and feet like brass burnt in an oven?

        December 13, 2013 at 11:39 am |
        • Ken

          Never seen a Black Jew. Jews and Arabs all came from Abraham, biblically speaking, and makes them pretty much the same "Race" and Arabs don't look like Black people either.

          December 13, 2013 at 11:41 am |
        • Ken

          Of course, does it really matter? No

          December 13, 2013 at 11:42 am |
  2. CommonSense

    Ignorant American fake "Newcasters" with plastic surgery argue about the impossible to determine appearance of a fictional (fake) character. A character from a poorly written mess of a fictional story.
    In America, the epidemic of ignorance reaches new heights.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • FellowTraveler70

      "Virtually all modern scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed, and most biblical scholars and classical historians see the theories of his non-existence as effectively refuted.[1][3][4][9][1[11] In antiquity, the existence of Jesus was never denied by those who opposed Christianity." from Wikipedia

      December 13, 2013 at 11:53 am |
      • Guinevere

        Yeah, and there was probably some guy who really existed in England as the basis for the King Arthur legends too.

        December 13, 2013 at 11:56 am |
        • FellowTraveler70

          Probably. Your point?

          December 13, 2013 at 12:23 pm |
  3. HotAirAce

    Perhaps after jesus' skin color is established believers can move on to more important attributes such as proving his alleged divinity.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:25 am |
  4. MarieErics

    Uh…Megyn Kelly….St. Nick ACTUALLY doesn't exist. It is so past time for you to grow up girl and get over your childish Santa Claus phase….and oh, by the way….your xenophobia is showing….

    December 13, 2013 at 11:25 am |
  5. Matt

    Neither Santa nor Jesus ever actually existed so arguing about their ethnicity is moot.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:25 am |
    • mike

      couldn't agree more.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • Brandon Murphy

      Santa is a personification of St. Nicholas, so, yes he did exist. The existence of non-existence of Jesus cannot be fully proven one way or another. Unless you are the world's leading historian in the realm of Palestine and Israel, you can't speak with such authority.

      Oh, wait, this is the internet. You get to hide behind a screen. Troll on my brother!

      December 13, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • Brandon

      Zing! Good point, Matt

      December 13, 2013 at 11:30 am |
    • FellowTraveler70

      "Virtually all modern scholars of antiquity agree that Jesus existed, and most biblical scholars and classical historians see the theories of his non-existence as effectively refuted.[1][3][49][10][11] In antiquity, the existence of Jesus was never denied by those who opposed Christianity." From Wikipedia

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

    America is maturing as a Nation among with common beliefs from past generations that is being dismissed as so many untruths.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:24 am |
  7. Scott

    Actually Jesus's name was Joshua in Hebrew. He was called the Messiach Y'shua to his disciples of the time. Let's get some context here...The Bible is clear that he was a 1st century middle eastern Jew. I'm sure he didn't "look" like modern day paintings as over 6', blue eyes and light skin...point being what he "looked" like has no relevance to what he "did".

    December 13, 2013 at 11:24 am |
    • John Sharp

      So you say.

      But claiming him as white sure seems really important to some people.

      December 13, 2013 at 12:00 pm |
  8. Yuck

    Joseph was jewish and Maria,the mother of Jesus was from Palestine,so what does that mean?it means that the power of love will conquer all evil including lies from people.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:23 am |
  9. travisgentry

    We might as well start saying that Ancient Chinese emperors were white too. Why not?!? How egotistical and naive can you be? Hold on, I'll just turn on Fox News and find out.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:23 am |
  10. Jim

    His feet were of copper and his hair was of wool. Bible, idiots. Somethin' you whities can't deal with!

    December 13, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • Will

      im intrigued...where does it say that?

      December 13, 2013 at 11:24 am |
      • Scott

        Revelation 1:14
        "The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire,"

        December 13, 2013 at 11:28 am |
  11. Hello

    Omg, why are people so obsessed with color? Get over yourselves. No wonder why kids are so screwed up these days. The past is over with, DONE! It is up to YOU to make the change. Just stop STOP STOP.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:21 am |
    • Randy


      December 13, 2013 at 11:35 am |
  12. FellowTraveler70

    1st) Caucasian and White are interchangeable. All whites are Caucasian and all Caucasians are white. The people of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East are mostly Caucasian/White.

    2nd) Many pale skinned/blonde whites of Europe don't like to be associated with the brown/olive skinned people of Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. That's o.k. because...

    3rd) The darker skinned North Africans, Southern Europeans and Middle Easterners don't want to be associated with pale skinned Europeans either.

    4th) Jesus was a Jew, born in what is now Israel. He would most likely have been brown/olive skinned like most everyone around that area.

    5th) Of Course none of this matters compared to Jesus' message.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:21 am |
  13. ThaGerm

    OK first of and (Spoiler Alert) Santa isn't real. And while I could and often to argue the same for Jesus, the fact is that he was born in and lived in the Middle East. How many white folk do you suppose lived there 2000 years ago? Go there now and look at how many white people live there and you can bet there were FAR LESS 2000 years ago. So ironic that she would make the argument that "just because it make you uncomfortable doesn't mean it has to change"; while I agree with that sentiment, why do you suppose we have a white Jesus? It's because crusty old white men were uncomfortable worshipping a non-white PERIOD.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:20 am |
  14. Will

    lets just agree that he was tan?

    December 13, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  15. someguy

    At its essence, it really doesn't matter what color Jesus was (leaving aside the argument whether he existed or not). It only became relevant when he was cast as white and then that whiteness used to justifiy one race's superiority over all others. That and that in and of itself is the only relevance to this conversation. Perhaps if this root cause is address and then dismissed, the residual discussion can be done away with in its entirety. Jesus was not white, and whites are not inherently superior as a result. End of story. *drops mic, walks off stage*

    December 13, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  16. LeRoy_Was_Here

    You tells 'em, Megyn!! And iff'n English was good enough fer Jesus Christ, it oughtter be good enough fer EVERYWON!!!

    December 13, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  17. DK

    I like how the author tells us not to obsess over his skin color, but wrote a book called "The Color of Christ".

    December 13, 2013 at 11:19 am |
  18. eric

    Call Jesus real, expect a vigorous appeal!

    December 13, 2013 at 11:18 am |
  19. Jeremyguy

    May not be entirely relevant. But God is not a white man.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:18 am |
  20. Mike in SS

    Jesus was Jewish. Go look at the people of Israel and see what they look like. Yep...that's what Jesus looked like.

    December 13, 2013 at 11:18 am |
    • mick

      The people of Israel are of mixed colour.

      December 13, 2013 at 11:21 am |
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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.