Editor’s note: Edward J. Blum is a historian of race and religion at San Diego State University. Paul Harvey is a history professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and runs the blog Religion in AmericanHistory. They co-authored “The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.”
By Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, Special to CNN
Did you ever hear the one about Jesus being Mexican? Well, he was bilingual; he was constantly harassed by the government; and his first name was Jesus.
Or, perhaps Jesus was Irish? He loved a good story; he never kept a steady job; and his last request was for a drink.
Or maybe it’s possible that Jesus was Californian? He never cut his hair; he was always walking around barefoot; and he started a new religion.
You may not have heard these Jesus jokes, but you’ve heard others. They represent a comedic trend that has animated the United States since the 1970s. More and more comedy gimmicks hit on Jesus, his ethnicity and his relationship to politics. Laughing with (and at) the Lord is now fodder for major motion pictures, barroom comedy tours, graphic novels, t-shirts and bumper stickers.
How is it that a figure sacred to so many Americans has become the punch line of so many jokes? And why is it acceptable to poke fun at Jesus when other sacred figures are deemed off limits or there is hell to pay for mocking them?
The explanations are as numerous as the laughs.
Immigration shifts from the 1960s changed the ethnic and religious faces of the country so no tradition dominates today. The Christian right made such a moral spectacle of itself that it practically begged to be mocked. The emergence of “spiritual, but not religious” sensibilities left many Americans willing to denounce or laugh about traditional faith. The public rise of agnosticism, atheism, and secularism led to aggressive mockery as a form of persuasion.
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If we pause to consider why we’re laughing, we find that the comic bits delve into some of our thorniest and unresolved problems. The jokes reveal much more about us than they do Jesus. They speak to how our society has changed, how it hasn’t, and what we’re obsessed with.
The first public jokes about Jesus were heard in the 1970s. There had been religious jokes before this, but none about Jesus had become widely popular because organized Christianity held such authority. As the economic recession and problems of urban decay collided with civil rights exhaustion and new immigration, however, some Jesus jokes emerged.
Archie Bunker on “All in the Family” was the white racist and misogynist you loved to hate and hated to love. On one occasion, his son-in-law challenged Bunker’s rampant anti-Semitism with the claim, "Jesus was Jewish." Archie shot back immediately: "Only on his mother's side."
The “All in the Family” spin off “Good Times” featured a black family that lives in an inner-city housing project, probably Chicago's infamous Cabrini Green. On the show's second episode, the oldest son J. J. astounded everyone by painting Jesus as black. The younger son loves it, and says he learned all about Christ’s blackness from the local Nation of Islam.
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As the family debates whether this black Jesus should be hung on the wall in place of their white Jesus, they “miraculously” receive $140 from the Internal Revenue Service. Feeling blessed, the family placed the painting on its living room wall, and the elated J. J. shouted his tagline, "Dyno-mite!”
From the 1980s to the present, the number of prominent Jesus jokes has multiplied like loaves and fishes:
• In “Talladega Nights,” Ricky Bobby and his family debated which Jesus to pray to (“baby Jesus in golden fleece diapers,” “grown-up Jesus,” “ninja Jesus”). Their overall hope is that Jesus will help them continue their extravagant lifestyle.
• “South Park” featured Jesus as a weak-kneed host of a local talk show who boxes the devil.
• “Family Guy” had Jesus perform magic tricks that wowed his ancient audience.
• “The Colbert Report” placed a gun in Christ’s hand and had him defend conservatives against the liberal “War on Easter.”
• “Saturday Night Live” let Jesus chastise Tim Tebow for using the Lord’s name in vain and ended the bit by declaring that the Mormons have it right.
One unforgettable scene in the rather forgettable recent film “21 Jump Street” may explain why Jesus has become such a joke.
Before Jonah Hill’s character returns to high school as an undercover cop, he prays to a small, crucified “Korean Jesus.” Down on his knees, he says: “Hey Korean Jesus, I don’t know if you only cater to Korean Christians or if you even exist, no offense. I’m just really freaked out about going back to high school. It was just so f***ing hard the first time. … I just really don’t want to f*** this up. Sorry for swearing so much. The end? I don’t really know how to end the prayer.”
The hilarity of the moment only makes sense in our time. Hill's character is unchurched and agnostic, but wants spiritual power to guide him. We can laugh at how agnosticism and being “spiritual, but not religious,” leave him uncertain of what to say, how to say it, and even how to end.
We can also laugh at how ethnic factors color his approach. By wondering if Korean Jesus cares only about Korean problems, Hill pokes fun at the issue which was made a media spectacle in 2008, when the Rev. Jeremiah Wright could be heard preaching that “Jesus was a poor black man” as part of his support for Barack Obama. What good is a God who only cares for those who look like him?
The Jesus jokes not only reveal how tangled our religious, racial, economic and political positions have become, but also how many outlets there are for the jokes. In these tense times, when presidential hopefuls point fingers at one another and families unfriend one another over political and cultural differences, laughing may be one way to talk about the problems without killing one another.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey.
Tea Party Patriots like to charter a bus and head over to the Barbed Wire Museum in LaCrosse, Kansas. It's their dream vacation.
Religion is comprised of conspiracy. Each religion requires an earthly loyalty to earn some obscure reward or avoidance of obscure punishment.
It is not crazy to be aware that humans do indeed conspire to manipulate the masses. Insanity is thinking you know the truth. Especially when that truth contradicts the evidence.
Be brave and accept that the world is round and try to grow from there.
Good writing there still seems to be a voice of reasoning.
No need to look for complex explanations. We laugh at the idea because deep down, we all know is silly.
Thanks, I enjoyed this article and the humor it presented. These are not, IMHO, meant to be deprecating jokes, but lightheartedly compare aspects of Jesus' life to various ethnic characteristics.
Yeshua will get the last laugh.
or possibly another of the myriad of gods invented by man.
My invisible pink unicorn prefers Zeus, but that's ok.
The problem is that the religous leaders don't lead the flock but wants politicians to do it. They forget that in a multi-religous society politicians represent all citizens and not just evangelicals or muslims.
This proposal that the Church runs the State is not a new one. But there is a reason free societies reject it.
Not only Jesus, but anybody who believes in invisible man and talking snake should be mocked.
muhammed eff'd little boys.. disgusting pervert
Yeah and mo-hammed was a prophet ya idget.
Tea Party Patriots love to get together, charter a bus and head over to the Barbed Wire Museum in LaCrosse, Kansas. It's their dream vacation.
Jesus is kinda cool
Obama and the Democrats have been drinking way to much of Michael Jackson's "Jesus Juice".
there has been popular jesus jokes for far longer, many within old newspapers all the way to the roman age and before.
religious nuts never take the time to actually do research on the ignorant dumb vomit they spew.
Thats ok people mock all you want God and Jesus loves all of you. Say all the things you want mock make fun of him. But he will still be waiting for you with open arms. Even though the flock will stray the shepards always finds his flock.
My invisible pink unicorn loves you too.
We will be sent to a fiery pit where there will be screaming and wailing and nashing of teeth forever and ever and ever. But, he loves us?
If you are going to reject science you must expect to be ridiculed by the explorers who risk sailing off of the end of the world.
That picture of the Euopean Jesus is just priceless. The look on the lamb's face is also priceless. Is Jesus giving the lamb a rectal exam?
No, he's going to eat it!
You would think that the gullible when they are on their knees mumbling out "The Lord is My Shepherd" might clue into the fact that the churches regard them as sheepies ready to be sheared. Faith=stupid in most cases.
john – not sheared, but fleeced.
Okay – this is a visual – use your imagination.
Why was Jesus so popular with the ladies?
They heard he was hung like THIS!
[are you picturing the arms spread out? Very good!]
I'm going to church in a few hours to worship Jesus because I believe he died for my sins and is the son of God.
And you're proud to admit that?
He died for your sins? Hang on a sec: an all-knowing, all-powerful god sends a tiny piece of himself inhuman form to earth – Jesus. God knows in advance that this little piece of himself will be born, live, get killed, then be resurrected 3 days later, then go back to heaven to rejoin god. That's no sacrifice. That's like Bill Gates lending you a penny for a second, knowing in advance that he's going to get the penny back. No sacrifice.
@MagicPanties.....that analogy is so spot on.
I'd like to share, too. I'm going to my services tonight to honor Krom because HE really really suffered much more grievously than even Jesus for my sins which were much more terrible than yours and I know it's all true because it's right there in my Very Good Book plus I am filled with Krom's Holy Truth which means I'm right and you are wrong for Krom is pure Love and I want to put Krom's Laws in our courts and allow prayer to Krom in our schools. OK with that?
Matt, you worship only one God, but you follow Jesus. Read the bible just don't listen to your priest
I don't get it. What's the punch line?
Yes Matt. Listen to Ravi, a good Christian and try to not do it all wrong. Ravi knows more about Jesus than you, and you know more about Jesus than me, and we haven't even touched on Islam. Say – been to any good holy wars lately?
@allynom: I think you supplied it.
jesus was at best a decent philosopher whose life was grossly embellished or a complete work of fiction.
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.