Last week Slate blogger Aisha Harris challenged our tendency to make whiteness our cultural default by going to heart of our mythical lore. Harris took on that jolly white object of our collective childhood dreams and icon of capitalism—Santa Claus. Harris didn’t like growing up thinking that black Santa wasn’t the real Santa, so she proposed that maybe Santa should be a penguin.
In response, Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly infamously declared that Santa was white and buttressed her argument by asserting that Jesus was white as well: “Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean it has to change. You know. I mean, Jesus was a white man, too. It’s like we have, he’s a historical figure. That’s a verifiable fact.”
Soon after Kelly’s proclamation about Jesus, my Twitter feed, which includes voices of many irreverent reverends, became populated with the hashtag #megynkellyxmascarols, reclaiming classics for the talk show host:
“I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” @FrozenSparrows
“Joy to the First World” @scottagunn
“O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out dark skin & enter in, be born in us today.” @FatherTim
Megyn Kelly subsequently explained that she was just joking and that people are humorless (which comedians also jumped on). Kelly also conceded that what she learn from the controversy was that Jesus’ whiteness was a point of debate that was “far from settled.”
But how did a Middle Eastern man become so white in the first place? Kelly was not the first to bestow whiteness on Jesus. Walk into many churches in our country and you’ll see the smiling face of a Caucasian Christ looking down from stained glass windows or looking up from the pages of our children’s Bibles, and we see the pink flesh peeking out from our hay-strewn mangers.
Have people done exactly what Kelly accused Harris of? Were the verifiable facts surrounding Jesus changed because they made white people feel uncomfortable?
The race of Jesus played an important part in the history of the United States, as Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey detail in their brilliant book Color of Christ: the Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. Blum and Harvey explain how we use pictures of Jesus to teach the story of Christianity and that Jesus has had countless makeovers since those early images.
Christ had handlers who tried to rebrand him—like the time when fundamentalist Christians inspired Warner Sallman to paint the Head of Christ (right) so that we might have a more “manly” Jesus, and the revered headshot became the most reproduced piece of art in history.
Later, people would cringe at the Head of Christ because Jesus looked too feminine with his linen skin and golden hair. Jesus has since been recast for commercial success and hyper-masculinity, as in the pumped-up Lord’s Gym Jesus, bench-pressing the sins of the world while giving peach-fuzzed youth group boys a real savior in whom they could trust.
So what happens in our culture when the Christ images that surround us are not only icons painted for cathedrals but muscle shirts manufactured for malls? What happens when the marketplace has the power to manipulate holy images? What happens when our market goes unchecked, and the divine becomes complicit in our wretched racial hierarchies?
Theologian James Cone takes a liberating approach to these questions. Frustrated by the ubiquitous white Jesus and by what it did to kids growing up in urban centers for Jesus to look like the people who victimized them, he proposed that, “God is whatever color God needs to be in order to let people know that they’re not nobodies, they’re somebodies.”