Jesus, Santa and Whiteness

Megyn Kelly declared that both Santa and Jesus were “white” and she set off a storm of ripostes against her claims, ripostes fueled in part by political correctness, by raw politics and some desire to get history straightened out. All mixed into one little brouhaha. (She now claims, to control the damage, her comments were an “off-handed jest.”)

There are about fifty things to say, but I will limit myself to the patience of you my readers. My major idea concerns co-opting Jesus for our agendas, or colonizing Jesus into our own kind, and in so doing destroying the fabric of Jesus’ identity in his own world. So here goes:

First, I don’t give a rip about Santa and he has nothing to do with the big picture. I suppose Santa is a German, but he now evidently hails from the North Pole, which from the angle of this writer, means he’s a Canadian or a Russian or perhaps a Greenlandian — North Pole is in the Arctic Ocean so he’s an Arctician. Well, as it turns out, a friend just told me it all began in Turkey with a generous bishop named St Nicholas of Myra. So there, he was Turkish. But others may think he dwells elsewhere, so I hand that over to Santa Claus scholarship.

But, second, I do care about Jesus, and Jesus was a Jew. I don’t know what whiteness means to folks like Kelly, but I don’t think it is either historically defensible or wise to make Jesus a northern European. Jews are not simply white; it is hard not to ponder skin color in the ancient world, and from what we know it is just as likely that Jesus was olive colored or much like today’s Middle Easterners, which is not I suspect what most mean when they say Jesus was white. Which leads now to a more important discussion, ethnicity and race and what whiteness means.

Over to an expert, namely, Korie Edwards, The Elusive Dream. “Race,” she observes, “is a social system that hierarchically organizes people in a society based upon physical characteristics” (8), i.e., skin color. “Ethnicity is largely about claims of shared culture, history, or common descent” (9). She also pins this to her board: “Whiteness is a social construction” and “what it means to be white is to be not some other race” (9).

If that is what Kelly meant, she just ruined the Christian story. The Christian story is the inclusion of all races and ethnicities and colors and ideologies. Under Christ, to be sure, but if whiteness means othering others (which it does), then she just danced where she shouldn’t be dancing.

There’s more here in her all-very-common claim: whiteness consists of white structural advantage (the white person’s dominant status in the hierarchy called American social relations); white normativity means white people and black people and brown people experience American social relations as “normative.” But this leads to the most important thing we have to observe: “white transparency is the tendency of whites not to think … about norms, behaviors, experiences, or perspectives that are white-specific” (11). Think about what Megyn Kelly said if this is what whiteness actually accomplishes in American discourse.

Let’s call it what it is: white transparency is blindness to non-whiteness; white transparency is the belief there is no racism; white transparency sees no hierarchical advantages. African and Latin Americans cannot experience white transparency because they experience whiteness as social boundaries and social exclusion and social limitation. They cannot be blind to transparency while whites are largely blind to whiteness. It is a “lack of racial consciousness” (11). “Whites are unaware that their race has consequences for their lives” (11).

So, in my estimation, by not recognizing Jesus’ Jewish race and ethnicity, not to mention a probable darker skin complexion, we make a fundamental mistake.

Now let’s take this one step further, and here I rely on the important work of Kameron Carter at Duke: Jesus’ Jewish flesh, his very particular reality, is at the core of the gospel and the Bible’s Story: God chose Abraham and from him descended Israel, Jesus — the Jew — and from him Paul and Peter — Jews — and into the church, where inclusion is rooted as well in particular ethnic identities. In Christ, ethnic identities and races and colors and languages are not obliterated; they are embraced. To embrace Jesus the Jew at the core of our Story, in other words, is to embrace diversity as the way of God in this world.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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