Comedian Samantha Bee said this about Jesus' body: “He wore a fleshly pressed robe all the time, but you knew He had a great ass and could have pulled off a pair of jeans and worn-out cowboy boots, even if you weren’t sure why you would want that.” I laughed at that, then felt slightly guilty. Why do we joke about Jesus' body parts and race?
In their new book The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America, historians Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey help us understand a whole host of vaguely sacrilegious fixations on Jesus' body, including Bee's. And maybe yours. --JKR
by Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey
How did we get to the point where religion is both the most divisive and the most hilarious part of our culture? Open the New York Times or watch FOX News and we find religious beliefs blamed for everything from holding back same-sex marriage to blowing up buildings. Then turn to Fox or hit the theater and we watch Homer Simpson cast as Jesus for the Springfield Passion Play (much to the chagrin of Ned Flanders) or Mormon missionaries having comedic misadventures in Uganda for the award-winning Book of Mormon: The Musical.
At the center of much of the division and sidesplitting humor is the body of Christ. And by “body,” I mean discussions and images of the physical body of Jesus. In 2008, before Barack Obama became America’s first “black president,” sermons that featured a “black Jesus” almost derailed his candidacy.
But at the same time, jokes about Jesus being black have been with us since the 1970s. (Good Times was the first popular venue to have fun with Christ’s blackness.) In Kevin Smith’s wild film Dogma (which begins with an explanation that “even God has a sense of humor”), the caustic comedian Chris Rock starred as Christ’s thirteenth disciple -- the black one who had been written out of the gospels. He shocks the audience by explaining, “Jesus wasn’t white. Jesus was black.” Rock concludes:
“White folks only want to hear the good s**t: life eternal, a place in God's Heaven. But as soon as they hear they're getting this good s**t from a black Jesus, they freak. And that, my friends, is called hypocrisy. A black man can steal your stereo, but he can't be your Savior.”
Jokes about Jesus’ body aren’t just about race. They’re also about our modern obsessions with beauty and sex. On South Park, when Jesus is about to box the devil (literally) for the fate of the planet, television producers digitally alter the skinny Jesus to look ripped. They give him a six pack and a cut physique. In the campy film Hamlet II, a theatrical play about Jesus has a sexy Christ in skinny jeans. He sings, dances, grinds, and appears to oppose only one sin: smoking. The ladies swoon over him like girls did in the 1970s over John Travolta in Grease.
And then there is comedian and Daily Show correspondent Samantha Bee. She remembered being surrounded by Jesus icons in her Catholic childhood. In her memoir, she tells of fantasizing that her Jesus was a sexy God-man:
“He wore a fleshly pressed robe all the time, but you knew He had a great ass and could have pulled off a pair of jeans and worn-out cowboy boots, even if you weren’t sure why you would want that.”
Why do we joke about the body of Jesus so much?
Perhaps it’s the same reason religion has become so hostile and divisive in America. Because it matters. And because it has helped change so much of our nation and has left so much unchanged. The civil rights movement was powered, in part, by faith, and it altered America. Institutional, public, political segregation died. We not only have a black president, but also black Congressional representatives, black mayors, and black television hosts. But, as we all know, race and racial hostility are not gone either. Conservatives’ anger toward Obama sometimes carries subtle (and not so subtle) anti-black sentiments. And then there is the Trayvon Martin case. Enough said.
And, of course, America’s problems and comedies move well beyond black and white. Especially since immigration reform in 1965 and the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the faces of America and the hatreds of America have changed dramatically. We look drastically different; we sound drastically different. There are not only new faiths in abundance, but new forms of traditional faiths (Asian American evangelicals; Latino Catholics).
The jokes have kept pace. In the silly recent film 21 Jump Street, just before the lead character played by Jonah Hill is about to go undercover into a high school, he bows before an Asian-looking Jesus and prays: “Hey Korean Jesus. I don’t know if you only cater to Korean Christians or if you even exist, no offense. I just, I’m really freaked out about going back to high school.” His strange, yet heartfelt prayer, is interrupted by his boss (played by Ice Cube) who shouts: “Hey! Hey! Stop f**king with Korean Jesus. He ain’t got time for your problems. He’s busy with Korean s**t.” In this case, the confusion and the comedy are based upon the shocking display of a white man praying to a deity in an Asian form and whether gods only help those who look like themselves.
There are lots of reasons we laugh … and perhaps part of it is because we know what can happen if we don’t. In 1857, Mormon settlers in Utah massacred a group of non-Mormons moving through Utah. In 1890, white soldiers killed Native American Ghost Dancers. In 1963, four little girls died when white terrorists blew up Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and in the process blew out the face of stained-glass white Jesus in the black church. In 1968, Reverend King was assassinated. In September 2001 … well, we know and sigh.
Perhaps today the laughter helps us vent at, with, and about God, race, Jesus, and our own frustrations. At least I know it helps me do that.
For more on Jesus, race, horror, and comedy throughout American history, see the authors' new book, The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.