Just last night on Fox News the host of the show, “The Kelly Files,” Megyn Kelly, declared that not only is Santa Claus white, but that Jesus was, too.
“Jesus was a white man too. He was a historical figure, that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa — I just want the kids watching to know that.”
This incredible (as in you-are-shitting-me-right?) exchange is in response to Aisha Harris’ article on Slate.com, wherein she explores the impact of having an imaginary figure, like Santa Claus, be assumed and widely depicted, by default, as white. Harris writes from her experience as an African American former-child-now-adult who experienced exclusion based on the implicit insistence that the correct, and really only, way to envision this fictional character, was as a white person.
Implicit insistence until Megyn Kelly declares it explicitly: that there’s no way for Santa to be anything but white, no matter how sad (or excluded) it makes anyone (of color) feel.
Today, Harris responded (because she’s willing to be in dialogue, even if the producers at Fox do not invite her to be a part of what was four white people talking about this topic).
And yet Kelly and her guests not only say repeatedly that Santa is real and definitely white, they also equate him with Jesus, who, historians generally agree, was a Jewish man who grew up in Galilee. Was he white? Probably not. But the truest answer is that we really don’t know. Also, whiteness is a historical construct. And, again, Santa isn’t real.
Why enter this ridiculous Fox-news racist fray? Why enter when the truest answer is that we don’t know and the next truest answer is: kinda unlikely that the olive-skinned Jewish carpenter would win full-out white award in these modern times?
So the progressive, open-minded, yes: even liberal answer is that Jesus wasn’t white.
Except when he is…
In my final New Testament Survey class, which was earlier this week, my professor, Dr. Shanell Smith, who is a post-colonialist, womanist African American New Testament scholar, provided a final aphorism to end the semester-long course. We were discussing the historical Jesus, the centuries of scholarship around this elusive topic. She said,
The Jesus one seeks is the Jesus one needs.
Dr. Smith is also Reverend Dr. Smith – she is an ordained Presbyterian minister – and there is a pastoral message there. When Christians seek comfort, Jesus is the comforter. When Christians seek mercy, Jesus is the granter of mercy. It’s beautiful.
But it doesn’t end there. When Christians seek vengeance, Jesus is there with sword in hand (see Book of Revelation).
There is a socio-political post-colonial analysis as well: when we go looking for Jesus, all too often, we see what we want to see, see what we’ve been told to see, what will give us comfort or, more to my point, validation. It’s like when Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, writes,
“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
This means we see Jesus as a white man. And you don’t have to be white for this to be true. We’ve been taught it like it’s in the water, like it’s natural and beyond dispute. Ask Megyn Kelly. And if we don’t see it quite so narrowly, it means we’ve done a helluva lot of unlearning, because nearly every damn image and message tells us that Jesus is a white man.
Even with that active unlearning, and with that awake quality we each need to bring to the world, it’s an uphill battle.
Nicole Wilkinson Duran, an independent New Testament scholar who identifies as white, would agree that Jesus is white, but she would not likely find herself in agreement with Megyn Kelly over at Fox. Duran describes the Jesus most familiar in the usAmerican landscape, the one that Ms. Kelly would likely recognize:
Probably the most popular western Jesus has been our reading of John’s Jesus. The Jesus my students know and love is sweetly mystical, self-proclaiming, forever delineating his own position in relationship to God and humanity. Kind, patient, spiritual, perfect, distant, ephemeral, nice, he shows up in church pictures and stained glass with titles like, “The Good Shephard,” and “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” His kingdom is not of this world, thank God. He does not tell us what to do with our money or who our neighbor is, but murmuring mysticism goes quietly, with dignity, to his painless cross, and we let him go gratefully, with satisfaction – it is finished.
In the same article as quoted above, Ms. Duran later invites the reader to imagine Jesus as less privileged, less innocent than this over-saturated one. Duran invites us to see Jesus in proper context: (Her article was published in 2004, so the numbers are likely inaccurate nearly this decade later.)
What if we were to imagine him from the perspective of my own nation, in which two million people are imprisoned in conditions ranging from grim to horrifying and in which over three thousand prisoners are currently awaiting execution?
I read Ms. Duran’s article the same week that Nelson Mandela died, and could think not just of Jesus the political prisoner, but Mandiba, the political prisoner and beloved leader of South Africa. We are in a moment in history (and given our short attention spans, it won’t last long) when we are encouraged to remember Mandela fully, rather than just the white-washed version that allows right-wingers to praise him as a peace seeker and laude him as world leader when their fingerprints still cover the orders that kept Mandela on the official U.S. list of terrorists until 2008.
I remember when I first saw a Black Power depiction of Jesus. I am no Christian now and back then, I was a dogmatic atheist hostile to the whole religion enterprise. And still, it blew me away. It upended me. More accurately, it upended invisible assumptions and presumptions and defaults I had no idea were in operation in my life or in society in general.
One of my spiritual tasks – the primary one – is to be awake. Over and over, I think I am awake and then find myself wiping my sleepy eyes, or dozing, or full out snoring. (Actually that last one is not a metaphor. My husband recently informed me, much to my chagrin, that I now snore.) One of my current favorite authors, the Buddhist UU minister James Ford said it well:
What we don’t notice about ourselves is the most dangerous part of who we are.
In recognizing that whiteness is a social construct (as Harris reminds us above), to the question, “So is Jesus white?” I say that the question is far more interesting than the answer, and the answer is less – much less – about Jesus than it is about who is asking and how they are asking it.
Badash, David. “Fox News Host Megyn Kelly: It’s ‘a Verifiable Fact’ Jesus was White,” thenewcivilrightsmovement.com, December 12, 2013
Duran, Nicole Wilkinson. “Jesus: A Western Perspective,” Global Bible Commentary, Abdington Press, 2004.
Ford, James. “Karma, Rebirth & Finding a Real Life,” in If You’re Lucky, Your Heart Will Break, Wisdom Press, 2012
Harris, Aisha. “What Fox News Doesn’t Understand About Santa Claus,” Slate.com, December 12, 2013.