In today’s guest post, Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, authors of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, discuss Jesus jokes in the twenty-first century.
The battle of Armageddon began in the American West. It was televised and lasted only a few rounds. The day began when a new three-grade student arrived at South Park Elementary School in Colorado. Jesus was in South Park too, as the host of his own public television show, Jesus and Pals. He was white skinned, brown eyed, and had straight brown hair that fell below his shoulders, a direct reflection of a Jesus image conjured up and popularized first in the antebellum era, and made globally universal in the twentieth century. Thin framed, Jesus wore a simple white robe and couldn’t get through a sentence without using King James biblical words like “thou” and “thee.”
In the episode, Jesus accepts a challenge to fight the devil. Everyone believed in Jesus, even one little Jewish boy who off-handedly asked Jesus for a favor “if” he won the fight. “What the hell do you mean, if I win the fight?” Jesus reacted.
The mood changed when Satan appeared. His skin was red, his horns were yellow, and his physique was tremendous. “Holy crap,” one little boy exclaimed, “Satan is huge.” The frightened Jesus shook in his sandals and the people wondered if they had backed the right superpower.
Satan pummeled Christ in the opening rounds and the crowd cheered thunderously. Jesus withstood blow after blow, and Satan mocked, “C’mon you little wuss. Fight! Throw a punch!” The prince of peace just couldn’t do it. He refused to hit back. In a twist, Satan grew angrier and angrier that Jesus refused to punch. In between rounds, a local boy offered words of courage to the battered Jesus, “Don’t try to be a great man, just be a man.” Liking this motto, Jesus asked, “Who said that?” “You did,” the boy responded, as if the words came from the Bible.
Inspired by his own supposed scripture, Jesus landed a weak blow on Satan’s midsection. The devil fell to the mat and was counted out. He had thrown the fight. “Hay-zeus Savior-r-r-r-r-r-r-r Christ” prevailed, and Satan had outwitted everyone with ironic brilliance. He returned to hell a far richer devil for having been the only one who bet on Jesus.
When Comedy Central aired this farcical animated apocalypse in 1998 as part of the cartoon South Park, it showcased a new approach to Jesus and race. Jesus at the turn of the century entered the culture of comedy, and the jokes revolved around conceptions of his race. Within jokes about his physical appearance were a host of other references to race, gender, the body, sexuality, geography, nationality, age, the media, and technology. In South Park, the jokes about Jesus were plenty, and they only made sense in light of the long story of Jesus representations in American history. His image and body were malleable.
The white Jesus became a joke in American humor in the 1990s and 2000s, often used to mock political and social conservatism. As a cartoon figure, for instance, he has been a regular figure on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, which pictured an animated Jesus emerging from behind his tomb and shooting a gun at the camera in its 2006 reporting on the liberal “War on Easter.” In these bits, the animated white Jesus used his Second Amendment rights to protect his holiday from liberal and progressive encroachment.
When twenty-first-century black Americans deployed jokes that referenced Jesus as white among black communities, they often turned to concepts of generational differences. Known at one time as the “angriest black man in America,” Aaron McGruder gained notoriety for his cartoon series Boondocks, about the raucous adventures of two inner-city African American boys who move to the suburbs. In one episode, the main character, named Huey Freeman after the famous Black Panther Huey Newton, brought liberation theology to his anti-conservative politics: “Jesus was black, Ronald Reagan was the devil, and the government is lying about 9/11.”
Designing a suitable flag for the new state of “Blackland,” the creators shocked the residents by choosing a white Jesus as the focal point of the new flag. Blackland’s new flag had a tri-colored background of red, black, and green rectangles–the colors “back-to-Africa” proponent Marcus Garvey had hoped would unite Africans and their descendants. In the center of the flag was a white-skinned, blue-eyed, and bearded Jesus. “The most creative people in the world, and they came up with that?” one young female character wondered in amazement. “Hey, it was mostly old people at the Nation Time meetings,” her boyfriend responded. “You know how old black people feel about Jesus.”
Poet Langston Hughes once wrote that black Americans “laugh to keep from crying.” It appears that in the twenty-first century, this is what so many Americans do when it comes to issues of race and religion. The laughter stops the tears . . . almost. The jokes about Jesus’ race may be on us, because the laughter may mask more pain than it heals. No matter how much we laugh about Jesus in the racial sagas of America, the violence was and is too great. It’s been too deep and too persistent.
Jesus has had a long, exciting, funny, and painful life in America. From the slave ships of the Atlantic Ocean to the Hollywood sets along the Golden Coast, from the visions out of Indian country to the artwork of children, from the firing of bullets to the construction of billboards, Jesus has been born, crucified, and resurrected in America’s racial sagas. Those of the twenty-first century laugh because there is so much to cry over.
One biblical story that rarely gets painted may be the most apropos for these American sagas. It’s a poignant story that contains the shortest verse in the Bible. After learning that his friend Lazarus had died, Jesus went to join those who mourned. In but a few moments, Jesus would raise Lazarus from the dead. He would transform sorrow to joy. But before that, “Jesus wept.” The lesson may be a simple one for Americans, but hard to enact. To experience the miracle, we must first cry with those who cried. And maybe, just maybe, our tears will wash away the white Jesus.
Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey are the authors of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America. For videos, teaching materials, reader-submitted stories, and more, visit colorofchrist.com. You can be a fan on Facebook and follow the authors on Twitter @edwardjblum and @pharvey61.