By now most people have seen Megyn Kelly declare on FOX News that Jesus and Santa were white men. I could barely get through this segment as I watched it on YouTube because…I actually feel stupid trying to explain why it was so embarrassing, as well as infuriating, watching these panelists on FOX make fools of themselves. The discussion was in response to an article in Slate, written by an Africa-American woman named Aisha Harris, describing the confusion and shame some non-Whites experience when Santa is always portrayed as a White man. Harris proposed Santa be made into a penguin and presented a detailed argument for this transformation. The article was actually quite heartfelt and made the idea of a Santa Penguin sound reasonable. I am personally indifferent to Santa on a whole; we do not promote nor condemn Santa in our household. Apparently FOX’s Megyn Kelley is not indifferent and insisted Santa was a real person, just like Jesus was a real man, and was white, which according to her is a verifiable historical fact. Unsurprisingly, this blunder by (the professional journalist?!) Megyn Kelly went viral with most commentators focusing on the issue of Jesus’ ethnicity.
Let me quickly reiterate how silly Megyn Kelly’s statement about Jesus and Santa’s whiteness is. She did offer an explanation of her controversial remarks and I will give her the benefit of the doubt that her saying Santa was a real person was “tongue in cheek” and she obviously does not believe he is, or was real—even though Santa is based on a real person named St. Nicholas who was a 4th century Bishop from Asia Minor, or modern-day Turkey. That’s fine. Jesus on the other hand, was a first century Middle-Eastern Jew who probably had dark skin, brown eyes, and dark brown or black hair. Not white, not black, not even a penguin. There is no way to know exactly how dark or light-skinned he was and thank goodness, his skin color and ethnicity means absolutely nothing. Or does it?
After reading a few articles blasting Megyn Kelly’s remarks, I found myself equally annoyed with how our society is so completely ignorant about the issue of the depiction of Jesus in art and pictures. The Atlantic posted an article by Jonathan Merritt called, Insisting Jesus Was White Is Bad History and Bad Theology. I had no problem with most of the piece and agree with the premise of its title. There is one passage that struck a nerve though:
The myth of a white Jesus is one with deep roots throughout Christian history. As early as the Middle Ages and particularly during the Renaissance, popular Western artists depicted Jesus as a white man, often with blue eyes and blondish hair. Perhaps fueled by some Biblical verses correlating lightness with purity and righteousness and darkness with sin and evil, these images sought to craft a sterile Son of God.
What Merritt does not realize is this statement is every bit as ethnocentric as the remarks made by Kelly. We live in a world shaped through the actions of Western Europe; our history is seen through the eyes of Western Europe. It is easy to come to the conclusion that every piece of art or literature that we refer to as classical, and thus worthy of reverence, is how the rest of the planet views the world around them. “The myth of a white Jesus” does not have “deep roots throughout Christian history”; it only has deep roots throughout Western European Christian history. This is not due to “some Biblical verses correlating lightness with purity” though I am aware this argument has been used to feed racist ideas in the past. No, the “white Jesus” we see in all of our history and art books is white because every one of those artists was white as well. If you take a look at Christian art from outside of Western Europe, you will see a different looking Jesus for every region where Christianity is present. Why, because the closeness that people feel with Christ moves the artist to depict the visage of Jesus similar to their own. It is not a vast racist conspiracy of the Church, it is just a natural tendency of humans from different cultural backgrounds. It is historically inaccurate as well as possibly damaging in a multi-ethnic society, and we should recognize this fallacy, but we should also be aware of how exactly the “white Jesus” came about.
The problem is, we as a culture are so completely focused on race and appearance in general, we cannot move past this discussion on what Jesus looked like. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite of the Washington Post also wrote a response to Megyn Kelly called, It’s Wrong to Worship “white Jesus”. In it she says:
When you say the “Son of God,” that is, Jesus, is white, you are implying, theologically speaking, that God is white.
This is only an issue in a culture which is hyper-sensitive to race. Remember, Jesus was actually a Middle-Eastern Jew; by stating this fact am I alienating all non-Middle-Eastern Jews because I am implying God is also of this ethnicity? No, because the race of Jesus is not intrinsic to who He is; just like our own race is not intrinsic to who we are. If people, while praying, hold a picture of God in their head that looks similar to their own face, let them. As long as they do not insist this image is “verifiable historical fact” and then use this falsehood to perpetuate racism, who cares? Can we really claim we have moved past racism if seeing Jesus depicted in art with a different skin color then our own causes a National controversy? People like Megyn Kelly need to be corrected, but do not get carried away with notions about the racism of Christianity and whether or not God’s ethnicity matters. Just try to remember the advice we give to our young ones: “We are all God’s children.”