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.
the idea of jesus is a joke
Why do u say that?
The Jesus myth is a spoof joke
IF, there is anything out there, I'll say that god is at best an absentee landlord. We are just an experiment, a petry dish for his entertainment. Too much bad stuff going on. Why do babies die? why do young children get abducted, tortured, then violently killed. if there is a god, why does he not stop the most evil acts we hear about on a daily basis? Why does he allow pain and suffering on a global scale?
Free will– look at all the hateful things being said on this website.
You mean like people telling women they have no right to control their own reproduction, SOC?
You're right. That's unconscionable. Stop it.
I don't buy it. That's a cop out. It's selfish.
Bad use of most valuable thing, called Choice, in hinduism, denial of truth absolute. It is called Mayhem, Karma, hindu, ignorant.
@Catholic Soldier, free will does not exist. Your god fails again.
You want the most logical explanation? God doesn't exist. It's as simple as that.
Free– you sayin' your not free? Do tell??
you say free will. how come we have retarded children that can't take care of themselves, people with cancer, and all other horrific diseases. That's not free will, so how do you explain your god creating those situations?
I think that if the christian god truly does exist, he is terribly weak. Heck, the majority of the population of the earth doesn't believe in him.
@Catholic Soldier, I'll present you with a simple problem so that you may understand the contradiction when talking about free will like you mean it:
If your god is omniscient, and it knows the future etc, doesn't that mean that your future has already been predicted/decided? If your god knows everything about you, if you have free will and decide to do something that he did not expect (taking advantage of your free will), does that prove that your god is not omniscient?
Fred– In all seriousness, because I've seen all those things you describe working in the city of Detroit–kids and pregnant women being shot, etc. I've come to the beilef that bad things are allowed to happen for a pre-ordained greater good. Christ became human to fully empathize with human suffering to the point where he cried on the cross– "my god my god, why have you abandonned me". On our liturgical calendar easter sunday is alway preceded by good friday. There are horrific things that happen in this world due to free will, but also just due to no reason at all. I realize there are no facts that can make anyone on this page believe in God– bottom line is, it all comes down to faith. But for any reading this post– if you ask to know God better, that prayer will come true and will always be answered.
Why would anyone want to do that, when morons like you continually threaten any and all with eternal damnation if they don't believe EXACTLY as you do, SOC? Why would anyone want to know a god that kills innocents and punishes people for an eternity simply because they doubt his existence?
Why would I want to commune with a petty, vengeful, nasty being like that? I wouldn't be friends with someone like that. Why would I worship a being with those traits?
for the free will question– apply the same scenario (God and human) to a parent and a 7 year old. The parent knows the child will do certain things– but, allows them to learn on their own out of love.
Tom Tom– read our bible and catechism and the story of the good thief next to Christ during the cruxification. There are many paths to salvation– and not only thru the catholic church.
The parent of the 7-year-old doesn't throw the kid into a lake of fire for not believing in Santa Claus.
actually– people throw themselves into that lake of fire, not God....
Pure bullsh!t. No wonder people leave the church.
it's simple– turn away from the light, enter darkness. period.
Human, does anyone know what prophet Mohammad was going with his male goat in mountains of Mecca?
typo – prophet Mohammad was doing with his male goat!!
Heaven is wonderful place to look forward to. The number of pre-Christian dead outnumbers the all the Christian dead and living by around 1000 to 1. That should make for some interesting eternal conversations.
Are you basing your eternal destiny on a human calculation?
The hordes of hell sure come out in droves when they have the chance to
mock the name of Jesus.
you're being overly-dramatic
Oh, shove it, Boob. You're not that special.
Poor drama queen Bob. The whole freedom of speech thing must really burn his britches.
It gripes his skinny white ass.
Look, insult my beliefs if you wish, I won't hold it against you. But if I don't try to force my religious beliefs on you, don't force your religious beliefs on me. That means that all the militant atheists on this forum, give people a break; they're not going to give up God and become atheist just because you say they're stupid for believing in Him.
Well, I don't say they're stupid, I just say that they aren't honest with themselves.
"Oh please no more confronting me on my delusions.." Sure... XD
Expect nothing better from a hindu atheist, filthy self centered, they always hind, stink as their hindu filthy cousin pig, secular.
First Amendment, Dan. Learn it. Embrace it.
So you're OK with separation of churh and state, and teaching science and critical thinking in schools, and stopping all the other intrusions in our lives. Oh and give up that nonsense about blaspemy.
shut up Eliminated goat banger, like you are coming from some tolerant society.
My Take: More and more people are opening their eyes to the reality that ALL religions are nothing more than fairy tales.
You are absolutely correct.
How can judgement be far behind with all these blasphemous comments?
One can only hope that you get sh!t-canned right along with everyone else, you shrill little dweeb.
That's a loaded question, Bob. A question you should ask yourself is, does my god actually exist?
The only judgement comes from the sheep that believe in imaginary beings.
Don't worry, Bob. We can always count on you to "cast the first stone."
The only beings that judge are human beings. Beyond the universe there is nothing and within the universe the supernatural does not and cannot exist. Of all deceivers who have plagued mankind, none are so deeply ruinous to human happiness as those impostors who pretend to lead by a light above nature. Science has never killed or persecuted a single person for doubting or denying its teachings, and most of these teachings have been true; but religion has murdered millions for doubting or denying her dogmas, and most of these dogmas have been false.
What do you get when an Arab and a Mexican have a baby?
A child too lazy to blow himself up.
Why do most Muslim ra-pes go unreported?
Goats can’t testify.
Thesedays Muslim is the worst religion
You mean Islam...
Why doesn’t Jesus stop the wars in the Middle East?
He doesn’t like Muslims either.
Wow reading these comments really show how divided this country has become. I was reading this article and felt disappointed to get to the final paragraph. It's asking us to accept the laughter and ridicule that we as Americans have grown to accept. In other countries it is highly offensive to mock Muhammad. I'll welome the attacks that I know will come, but I am offended when people mock and joke about Jesus. I am thankful we live in a country were we can expressed our beliefs and not fear death. With that being said, As for me and my house, We will serve the Lord.
get a sense of humor.
I feel bad for your kids, since they don't get a choice.
Your right, they don't get a choice. It's called structure. When they are adults, then they can have a choice
It's YOU'RE, you moron. I wish you'd spend more time teaching your kids the value of education and less time preaching nonsense. The nation would be in far better shape if parents like you got an education before they started breeding.
I kind of agree, the really disappointing thing though is the jokes aren't even funny. I have noticed that the token christian jokes tend to outnumber the islamic jokes 4:1, must be the writers don't have the nads to write islamic jokes... too afraid of the consequences...
You're right, thanks for pointing out my mistake. I guess I'm not perfect.
Gee, what a concept! No one would guess you recognized that fact from your post. To hear you zealots bray, your sh!t doesn't stink and your turds roll uphill.
Mohammed is so ugly he makes makes Arabs commit suicide
Why Catholic priest pratice boy abuse?
because it is a holy tradition practiced by hindu santan, filthy goon man gods of hindu's, ignorant s.
Why do Muslims blow themselves up? Because they're psychopaths.
say what? Man, you GOTTA work on your punchline and delivery.
The prophet Mohammed heard one of his wives was leaving him, so he rushed home where he found her on the carpet in front of his tent. He sat down beside her and said, “Why are you leaving me, wife?”
“I heard one of the other wives say that you are a pedophile!” she answered.
Mohammed thinks for a minute and responds, “That’s a mighty big word for a 6-year old!”
I recommend you not joke about Jesus. You should have respect.
Respect a zombie.. sure.
I switched to Mohammed. Is that OK?
why, because otherwise I'll go to hell?
Q: What's the difference between Jesus and a vâgina?
A: A vägina is still good after a couple of nails..
Why, sunny? Because you don't have a sense of humor? Because you are afraid you will be punished by a god for which you can't provide any evidence? Why should I respect the imaginary figurehead of a religion that has gone out if it's way to harm those who don't share their beliefs?
Respect is earned. Your religion has not earned it.
tallulah13, Jesus is not a religion. Jesus is God.
sunny, I don't believe that. Why should I have respect?
Whats white, sticky and moves across the sky at a thousand miles an hour?
The coming of the Lord.
why hindu's child of incest pratice hinduism, incest as a holy tradition?
because their hindu filthy man god RAM married his sister.
More hindus.. less muslims.
Why does Mohammed make his wives wear veils?
Because he gets jealous when they have longer beards than him.
enough said, you go there one more time, and I will have goats all over your Mo.
What’s the difference between a Muslim woman and a basketball team?
The basketball team showers after four periods.
hinduism, absurdity of a hindu, ID thief.
go blow dead dogs, original Mohammad A Dar. You cross limit, and I will hang you by the balls.
Hell hindu, ID thief you are already hanging from the bolls. like you hindu filthy god ram.
like your goat banger Mohammad?
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.