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. Wes

    I saw jesus in my dream and he was black (I'm White)

    December 13, 2013 at 9:08 pm |
  2. action

    Religion is primitive. It makes us have stupid debates like this.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
    • politimom2

      Religion doesnt make people do anything people choose to do and say dumb things

      December 13, 2013 at 9:09 pm |
  3. politimom2

    She is right though Santa must be white because he has a race of enslaved elves

    December 13, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
  4. jimbo

    And the Easter Bunny is white, and Obama is half white, and the Tooth Fairy is kind of pink but mostly white, and can we get a blood test of Megan to make sure she doesn't have a drop of the human stain in her? I mean how could we ever trust a Fox hostess who wasn't pure?

    December 13, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
  5. Dale S

    When the world is still mourning Nelson Mandella, why would a public figure on a major new network make such caustic and divisive comments? I have lost all respect for Megyn Kelly.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
    • Larry

      Did you ever have any to begin with?

      December 13, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
    • No one

      When/why did you ever have respect for her?

      December 13, 2013 at 9:05 pm |
    • Ponyboy Garfunkel

      Because it interests pawns like you and me. Our righteous indignation is fun!

      December 13, 2013 at 9:10 pm |
    • Troy

      Not sure what Mandella has to do with it? The color of Jesus, certainly similar to all the others that inhabit that region (call it white, beige, brown, whatever), has no relevance what so ever to Mandella.

      December 13, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
    • Saturn7

      i bet most the world already forgot that 10 minutes of crap.

      December 13, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
  6. Juan

    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!!!!
    ˛ °_██_*˚°。°/ ♥ \*˚°。°*。°*★*˚°。°*。°*★*˚°。°*。°*★
    ,˛. (´• ̮•)*.。*/♫..♫\*˛.*˛_Π_____*˚°。*。°*❤*˚°。°*。°*★
    ,,.°( . • . ) ˛°./• ‘♫ ‘ •\.˛*./______/~\*˚°。°*。°*°*❤ ˚°*★
    ,,*(…’•’.. ) *˛╬╬╬╬╬˛°.|田田❤|門|╬╬╬╬╬*

    December 13, 2013 at 9:02 pm |
  7. Get In My Spirit!!!


    December 13, 2013 at 9:02 pm |
  8. Jib76

    Look at how Akiane painted Jesus which Todd Burpo said upon being resessitated was how Jesus appeared in heaven.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:02 pm |
    • Larry


      December 13, 2013 at 9:06 pm |
  9. Troy

    I don't think there were too many of what we call "white" (germanic tribes, Nordic, celts, slavs, etc) inhabiting the region at that time.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:02 pm |
  10. Jib76

    Let us look at the skin colors of different middle eastern leaders to decide about Jesus's skin color: Benjamin Neteneyu, King Hussein, Hafas El-Assad, the supreme Ayatolla of Iran, Egypt's president, etc. I am sure that each would self describe themselves as white.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
    • AttyFam

      Really? Just how sure are you? In America, Jews were not considered white before World War 2. And anyone from around the Mediterranean used to be considered "swarthy". And we are talking about 2,000 years ago, when there was very little interaction of people from the Nordic world with people from the mideast. And what was that about the Jews coming "out of Egypt" (assuming that myth has any validity)?

      December 13, 2013 at 9:14 pm |
  11. toddito

    In a couple of thousand years I hope an argument erupts over whether Martin Luther King was black or white. Too bad none of us will be here to enjoy it.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
    • jimbo

      Jesus wasn't a King in the current middle East. You haven't got the first clue what his skin color was.

      December 13, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
  12. Tim Jackson

    Jesus was the same colour that the rest of the Holy Land. A brownish shade. If he was completely white, he would sand out like a sore thumb. As well, Jesus spoke Aramaic (spelling), the common language at the time.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:59 pm |
  13. No one

    Just wait another ten years, they'll call Martin Luther King Jr. white too.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:58 pm |
    • tarura

      Next CNN will call Washington a black with a pigment defficiency

      December 13, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
    • .

      Your white fright is showing.

      December 13, 2013 at 9:09 pm |
      • Saturn7

        we are the masters of fright, trust me it's not fright.

        December 13, 2013 at 9:14 pm |
  14. nisroc00

    Call Jesus or Santa black nobody bats an eye. white people seems to be the most discriminated race on the planet these days.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:58 pm |
    • politimom2

      Awww poor white people.... boo hoo... ever heard of karma why so surprised

      December 13, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
      • nisroc00

        I am not racist why should i deal with your discrimination. I do not care what color skin he had. why is this even an issue?

        December 13, 2013 at 9:07 pm |
        • jimbo

          Ask Megan. Apparently it's really important to her and Fox News.

          December 13, 2013 at 9:09 pm |
    • realoldguy

      Oh cry me a river for the oppression of Nice White People. Pretty soon they'll be singing spirituals.

      December 13, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
      • nisroc00

        Tell you what, go cry your own river. if Jesus was black, white, native american, asian, arabic great! if he is Jewish, Catholic, Islam, a Buddhist great. We see Santa as white in xmas cartoons, see him white at malls etc but Santa is a myth. If you want a black santa make a black Santa. I suppose tooth fairy was white too? hey if the tooth fairy was green oh well. What about the easter bunny want a Black Easter Bunny too? I got no problem.. GO CRY YOUR OWN RIVER

        December 13, 2013 at 9:12 pm |
  15. veritas

    This stuff just blows me away.....as a race how do we continue to believe in these ancient religions. I am at a lose that educated people believe in this......

    December 13, 2013 at 8:56 pm |
    • veritas

      Man....I M HIGH.....

      December 13, 2013 at 9:10 pm |
  16. John

    Albeit one is myth, and the other an Aramaic- Jew, neither Jesus or Santa came from sub-Saharan Africa or the Caucasus Mountains. Lol I love Megyn Kelly, because she is both pretty and stupid. The way god intended her to be.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:56 pm |
    • AttyFam

      It seems you see the world in stark black and white, but there are an infinite variety of shades of skin, and none of them are stark white or black.

      December 13, 2013 at 9:17 pm |
  17. TG

    That Jesus was a real person is established by ones such as Tacitus (born about 55 C.E.), considered one of the world's greatest historians.

    In the account about Nero’s blaming the great fire of Rome in 64 C.E. on Christians, he wrote: “Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.” (Annals, Book XV, 44)

    The details of this account match the information regarding the Jesus of the Bible, who died on a torture stake because Pontius Pilate exchanged the seditionist and murderer Barabbas for Jesus, setting free Barabbas during the reign of Tiberius Caesar in 33 C.E.(John 18:39, 40; Luke 23:18-25)

    December 13, 2013 at 8:56 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Still doesn't make him God.

      I'm quite sure that Mohammed, Confucius, Lao Tzu and he Buddha were all real people too.

      December 13, 2013 at 9:03 pm |
  18. Tony Rocky Horror

    I got a chuckle at the image of a black Santa breaking into homes in the middle of the night to give gifts.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
    • Saturn7

      hands down the funniest response of the day! maybe ever.

      December 13, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
  19. 1rdd

    What does it matter if he was white or black? It doesn't make any difference!!

    December 13, 2013 at 8:54 pm |
  20. Robert Brown

    Luke 4
    Authorized (King James) Version (AKJV)
    4 And Jesus being full of the Holy Ghost returned from Jordan, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 being forty days tempted of the devil. And in those days he did eat nothing: and when they were ended, he afterward hungered. 3 And the devil said unto him, If thou be the Son of God, command this stone that it be made bread. 4 And Jesus answered him, saying, It is written, That man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.

    December 13, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
    • Robert Brown

      5 And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time. 6 And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it. 7 If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine. 8 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.

      December 13, 2013 at 8:52 pm |
      • Bob

        Robert Brown, before we get into your Satan nonsense in more depth, how is it again that your omnipotent being couldn't do his saving bit without the whole silly Jesus hoopla? And how was Jesus' death a "sacrifice", when an omnipotent being could just pop up a replacement son any time with less than a snap of his fingers? Pretty pathetic "god" that you've made for yourself there.

        Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement.
        Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.

        December 13, 2013 at 9:00 pm |
        • Robert Brown

          Maybe he'll tell us Bob when we leave time and enter eternity.

          December 13, 2013 at 9:10 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.