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.
This belief blog is a delusional joke.
All these jokes about Christian demonstrate ho truely tollerent Christans have become. Over the past three decades the Athiests have become increasingly angry, probably because Darwin has been falsed, along with the big bang.
you are illogical.
Deut. 28: 27
May the Lord strike you with Egyptian boils and with tumors, scabs and itch for which you will find no cure.
Mr. Tarver, please provide the evidence of your claim
sybaris-Angry Athiests are in evidence all about this blog.
Relativity proves that Time is Independant of Space, elimintating the scientific basis of the big bang notional hypothesis.
The Global Geological Record and Dr. Gould's work prove Species occur rapidly following a mass extinction, eliminating the scientific basis of Darwin's "Origin of Species" notional hypthesis that Evolution is the means to species.
Tarver – that's about the dumbest post I've seen in a long time.
Apparently you don't tolerate science.
john – thankfully education in the "westernized" world has relegated christianity to little more than a social club.
MJA-what I wrote is the science our modern technology is based on. I am a scientist and Einstein was a scientist and Gould was a scientist, but Chrles Darwin was a racist.
Evolution is not only a fact, but the fact of all lifeforms origins.
You can keep telling yourself that Darwin has been proven incorrect but it doesn't change that it is a real operation of the universe.
If you are really a christian then you should be ashamed to know that by denying Evolution you are committing a sin by lying.
Looks like your stuck now, can't keep not believing and can't keep your bogus beliefs. Check and mate sir.
Snow-The problem with the education NEA provides is that the science is not true and has made the USA 78th in the industrialized world in science and math. The ignorance of the Athiest has a basis, but that basis is outdated nonsense. Evolutinists are today's flat earthers.
J.t. You are not absolutely correct about those topics. I don't think evolution or the big bang are correct, but I know one thing there was never a god or a jeebus.
Mickey-You don't seem very angry either.
Mikey-By the way, Relativity and Quantum Mechanics require a sentient being outside the universe to make the universe real. John Bell proved Probabilities are not Deterministic, eliminating the scientific basis of the Multi0Universe alternative to a Creator.
john – it isn't atheism or evolution that has set back american education. it is a consumptive society with a delusion of american grandeur.
Snow-It is the fairy tales our teachers present as science that has set back American Education. The bigotry against Christians demonstrated by the unceasing jokes has it's roots in science class. The problem is that K-12 science in America is a Social Democracy driven political agenda supported by NEA.
john – that is pure selfserving nonsense. you seem intelligent, i would never have thought you would fall for the christian persecution syndrome.
"Darwin has been falsed"?? With reasoning like that it's no wonder you are a Xian.
Deut. 28: 22
May the Lord afflict you with a wasting disease and recurrent fever, ague, and eruptions with drought and black blight and red and may these plague you until you perish.
Ever heard the one about a society that openly begins to target a specific religion with ridicule, disrespect, and blame them for their societal problems?
Me too... More than once throughout history... Only it never seems to end with a chuckle. I appreciate that the author is acknowledging this acceptable bigotry that's seeped into the mainstream of American life. I'm by most people's standards only slightly religious and grew up in an atheist household, but I have also made this disturbing observation... I do notice that the author seems less disturbed and more just mildly curios about this brand of bigotry. Most people that I've ever tried to point it out too, seem determined to have no idea what I am talking about.
Think of this, we have a musical on Broadway right now that ridicules Mormons, imagine the outrage if it were about Islam. Now, I passionately believe that we should protect the right to speak this ridicule if one chooses, but I also hope that next time you're about to crack a joke or snide comment about Christianity, you have the self awareness enough to acknowledge that you are participating in socially acceptable bigotry, and maybe that's not so cool after all.
I would imagine the family members of the tens of thousands of dead innocent Iraqi civilians had wishe US citizens had ridiculed Bushs faith a little harder.
After all, why did Bush invade Iraq? Because he believed his god told him it was the right thing to do.
We really don't need powerful people determining the fate of millions based on the whispers from imaginary beings.
You have the right to be offended , you don't have the right to 'not' be offended....get over it.
jm – ridiculing religion is not bigotry.
Deut. 25: 11-12
When two men are fighting and the wife of one of them intervenes to drag her husband clear of his opponent, if she puts out her hand and catches hold of the man by his privates, you must cut off her hand and show her no mercy
Deut. 23: 1
No man whose testicles have been crushed or whose organ has been cut off may become a member of the assembly of God
Deut. 15: 16-17
If, however, a slave is content to be with you and says, "I shall not leave you, I love you and your family," then take an awl and pierce it through his ear to the door and he will be your slave for life. Treat a slave girl in the same way.
All the slaves went free every 7 years and all debts were forgiven every 50 years.
When we can tell jokes about Mohammed then we will have arrived.
What's stopping you?
Post a Muzzie joke right here.
Q. What is the difference between the Prophet Muhammad and Michael Jackson?
A. One is a pedophile child rapist and the other recorded six platinum albums.
Feel better? The reason we focus on christianity in this country is contrary to the writers information christianity is the dominate religion and therefore is the one we focus on. But I don't have any issue blasting any other supersti.tion.
overheard at a Muslim suicide bombing class: Okay, class – I'm just to show you this once.
If the regilous right would believe and live as they chose AND just shut up about trying to foirce their beliefs on everyone else, we would be doing well.
It is not the humor that annoys them.
It is the defiance of their perceived earthly authority that peeves them so.
Deut. 2: 34
We captured all his towns at that time and put to death under solemn ban everyone in them, men, women, and dependents. We left no survivors
Numbers 15: 35-36
The Lord said to Moses, "The man must be put to death. He must be stoned by the whole community outside the camp." So the whole community took him outside the camp, where he was stoned to death as the Lord had commanded Moses.
Please don't quote that horribly written antiquated guide to living life in 0 A.D.
It bears absolutely no authenticity or weight, just a bunch of silly stories written by people creating a silly made up religion.
Umm, John – I think that's akka's point – he's posting some of the more horrific, immoral sections of the bible, to show that the god of the bible is a rather nasty, murderous, jealous monster.
Great another Sunday and another article of a Christian crying the country doesn't give his organization enough love, you don't see Tom Cruise on here weekly with an editorial on Scientology but I'd bet it'd be a laugh riot. Besides isn't Jesus a turn the other cheek guy. I mean if presidents, movie stars, and so on could laugh at themselves I'm quite sure even "Jesus" would have a sense of humor.
who was cain's wife?
Mormons believe he married an ape and that's where black people came from. The black skin is the mark of Cain. (Their belief, not mine)
Leviticus 25: 44
Such slaves you have, male or female, should come from the nations around you. From them you may buy slaves.
Prooftexting Dolt? btw Put in that light bulb it's getting dark in here.
Hey loser, I thought you would have been recovering from being dragged over the coals yesterday, I guess your ego is just to large to suppress. Are you not going to bring in some obscue arguement not related to the topic of the article, but please not Madison again.
Last paragraph of article
I wonder if anyone read and understood it?
Leviticus 24: 16
Whoever utters the name of the Lord must be put to death. The whole community must stone him whether alien or native. If he utters the name, he must be put to death.
Quoting Bible verses again.... Dolt? Just like a Fundy would.
Nobody condones Jesus jokes. How could these writers be so ignorant to view themselves as victims? Stop whining. Jokes of all kinds are used on every religion and every ethnicity group. Just because there are more Christians, doesn't make Jesus jokes more wrong than other 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?" Jewish jokes? Catholic jokes? Black jokes? Muslim jokes? For every ten of those, I may hear or read one Jesus joke. So stop acting like the world is out to get Christians and Jesus. I'm sure the narrow-minded writers of this article have NEVER made a religious joke in their entire life because they're such perfect Christians.
Leviticus 21: 18-20
No man with a defect is to come, whether a blind man, a lame man, a man stunted or overgrown, or with misshapen brows, or film over his eyes, or discharge from it, a man who has a scab, or eruption, or has had a testicle ruptured
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.