About Those “Zombie Jesus” Jokes
Posted on April 19, 2014
Warning: the following probably makes me a fuddy-duddy. (Then again, I believe using the phrase “fuddy-duddy” automatically makes you one.)
So, I’ve read and watched a LOT of zombie literature. It’s a favorite genre of mine. Because of this, I’m kind of opinionated about what is and isn’t a zombie. When someone today references zombies or tells a story about them, they are almost always referring to two basic storytelling elements:
- Zombies are the undead.
- Zombies consume human flesh.
In pretty much all contemporary zombie literature, these two elements are equally important to the definition. The Walking Dead, The Living Dead franchise, 28 Days/Weeks Later, WWZ, Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, Warm Bodies, etc. They all function according to this definition.
There are very few popular culture reference to zombies that don’t use this type of zombie. The older definition, which relates to folklore from Haiti in which dead bodies are reanimated through magic or witchcraft, is seldom used in popular culture. When someone says “zombie” in contemporary culture, they’re talking about dead bodies that are trying to consume living bodies.
So that brings me to the idea of “Zombie Jesus” jokes. I posted earlier this week about my desire not to be a rebuttal blogger, and to only express disapproval of an idea if I have something to add to the conversation. Because of that, I refuse to ridicule people who have posted these memes or made these jokes–this isn’t about making people who have posted zombie Jesus jokes feel bad or attacked. I do want to address this, though, because I think these jokes are misguided in two ways: First, they don’t make sense as references to zombie literature, and second, they target the wrong thing about religion.
First: the idea of Jesus as a zombie doesn’t fit the zombie narrative.
Every year at Easter, I see “Zombie Jesus” jokes. At first, all I can figure is that people making zombie Jesus jokes have either a misunderstanding of what zombies are, or a MAJOR misunderstanding of the story of Jesus. Then I remind myself that no, it’s probably neither. People are just going for an easy joke that can, in fact, be pretty funny. But zombie Jesus jokes would only be truly funny if the Christian narrative involved Jesus coming back to life AND EATING HIS DISCIPLES. As a person who loves literature–especially zombie literature!–I feel like the zombie Jesus jokes are missing the point. It feels like someone calling a Star Wars fan a Trekkie.
Second, jokes like this target the wrong parts of religion.
My friend Nina Sabak, a fiction writer, wrote this today in a conversation we were having about Zombie Jesus-style jokes.
The thing is that I get that impulse, because so much truly horrible stuff has been done in the name of religion, so many people killed or made to suffer. And not even world-historically, this is still happening, people are still dying. So yes, of course you would want to punch up. If there’s a monolith looming over you, you get your slingshot out and start firing.
But the difference for me (and I mean that, “for me” – this is what I have chosen to believe, and I am privileged to believe it) is the one between religion and faith. There is so much wrong with any one branch of faith, and I personally would like to hire a really good translator and give Patriarch Kirill hell. People fuck things up. Anything people are in charge of is going to be the worst at least 10% of the time. In this case, like 80%. I’m from a Southern Baptist/megachurch area, I’ve been prayed at, it’s not a fun time.
The actual holidays, though, and the figures, whether or not you believe in them, those are about love. Especially Pascha/Easter. The Good Friday service is basically just about Mary losing her son, and the resurrection is this joyous and beautiful thing about the impossible being made possible, and of love carrying the day. And that’s…I don’t know, there’s something about that. And if you subscribe to that kind of faith, then it’s something sacred and wonderful.
I guess what I’m trying to say (“trying” being the operative word) is that I think that taking the symbols and iconography and self-declared miracles as a target is understandable but misguided. Those aren’t the parts that deserve the scorn, because at worst they’re the creations of a people trying to be better than they are. And at best, they’re proof that that attempt is possible. Whatever my issues with the church are, they have nothing to do with God and everything to do with the people who decide what he’s like.
I love what she said here. I love the idea that yes, religion should be the target of humor, especially the parts of religion that are harmful to people. But religious icons and symbols, and religious stories that bring people hope and peace and comfort during suffering–these are not the things that should be targeted.
Let’s target religious bigotry with our humor. Let’s target religious hypocrisy. Let’s point out logical fallacies and bad policy and unchecked power and cults of personality.
I don’t get offended by Zombie Jesus jokes, and I don’t want this to come across as defensiveness for a religion that needs defending–Christianity is doing just fine without me defending it. However, I do think we should be careful not to ridicule people’s sincerely held beliefs, so long as those beliefs aren’t hurting people. A long time ago, I laughed hard at the Mormon episode of South Park, but then I got to know some Mormons. I went to some Mormon church services. The Mormon missionaries in my town helped me pack up my apartment so that I could move across the country. I still think the episode is funny–it’s well-written comedy!–but I don’t let myself target people for their sincerely held beliefs anymore. Will I criticize the Mormon church’s support of Proposition 8? Will I look at the church’s racist past and express disapproval? Will I stand up and say that the fundamentalist sects of the religion are hurting women and children in the name of their religion? Absolutely! But I won’t make fun of them for believing Joseph Smith was a prophet, even as I reject that belief entirely.
The same goes for other religions. I will criticize and ridicule Muslims who use their faith as a way to oppress women or support child marriage or promote terrorism. I will not ridicule them for believing in their prophet and praying daily to Allah.
I grew up judging other people’s religions in a hardcore way. I was taught to think poorly of every single belief system except my own. Ridicule Mormons, fear Muslims, pity Atheists, be skeptical of Buddhists, pray for Hindus, and so on. I grew tired of that kind of self-righteousness that I was taught to embrace. Zombie Jesus jokes remind me of my fundamentalist upbringing, and of making fun of anything I don’t agree with.
I won’t do it anymore. I won’t make a Zombie Jesus joke because I don’t buy into the idea that the best way to get a religion to change is to make fun of it.
If you have laughed at a zombie Jesus joke, that’s fine. If you think they’re particularly funny, that’s okay. If making a joke about Jesus helps you process your distaste for organized religion, that makes sense. But even though I’m generally a pretty irreverent person, these are jokes I’m not going to be approving of any time soon. I hope you understand why I can’t laugh when you make them. It’s not because I can’t take a joke; it’s because some jokes just make me feel bad.