Can Jesus Jokes Get You Fired?

Do you remember that part of the New Testament when Jesus hands out marijuana joints to the poor, destitute, and ailing? If you do, then you were probably smoking at the time. If you don't, that's because there was no such story in the Bible: it was a retelling of the biblical story by a student in a creative writing class at a Rio Rancho public school in New Mexico. And although the story sounds more like a gag in a South Park episode than a legitimate literary submission, it caused such a scandal at Cleveland High that it put the teacher who assigned it, Kristina Guarascio, out of a job

Here's what happened: Guarascio charged her class with the assignment to take a well-worn fable and update it. One student decided to take the Biblical story of Jesus passing out bread and fish to the homeless and swap the bread and fish with pot. Then in a peer review session, another student caught wind of the story and felt offended, and complained to her parents. After disciplinary hearings, Guarascio says she was "targeted, harassed and forced to resign" because of the controversy. 

So, a creative writing teacher issued an assignment to, um, be creative, and one student was, and another student felt wounded, and now a teacher is out of work. What's wrong with this picture?

And now, what's wrong with this picture?

Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions. And these opinions need to be shared and brought into dialogue with each other. I'll try and do that right now, politely, and without rage. Whichever student wrote the paper presumably held the opinion that in today's society, pot can be just as effective as food or drink or coin. The student who felt offended at the satire presumably held the opinion that the Holy Bible is a sacred text that can't be satirized, lampooned, reduced, reimagined, reworked, or made fun of in any way. Guarascio presumably held the opinion that in a creative writing class, or a class in general, students should be given ample room to stretch their imaginations. 

Emotions and feelings run high when dealing with religion. For those that believe in the tenets of Christianity, Jesus Christ is the Son of God (and God Himself), and a mark against Him is a sin. To the offended student, the hunky-dory essay constituted a grievous aggression against her belief system, and may have even caused her to feel harassed. So much so that she felt the need to discuss the day's events with her parents.

How much does Jesus love you? This much George Pickow / Hulton Archive

Woah, woah, did I just say harassed? I don't know if this student actually felt harassed or unsafe, but usually when an official is fired it means something substantial has happened. That raises the question: can freedom of speech (i.e. making fun of a religious text or belief) actually be considered an attack on personal safety? Depending on how severe and frequent the comments are, yes, actually. At least this is the case in the workplace when "behavior or communication [that is] pervasive, lasting over time...and hostile" can actually contribute to what's called a hostile (go figure) environment

A hostile environment has to "disrupt the employee's work" for it to be serious. I'd hate to think that this student made frequent comments mocking Christianity, because that's just in poor taste. Believe me, there are plenty of things to make fun of out there, and you don't have to look long to find them. Nobody should have to feel persecuted or singled-out because of what God they choose to pray to or what to call It. 

That said, if the student's essay was a remark on the Bible, a good-spirited commentary on the Bible and a light-hearted reimagining of it, have at it. Let's have more of that, shall we? And from what I've read, it doesn't seem like Jesus was doing anything wrong. Perhaps he had a medical marijuana card, was aware of the health benefits of marijuana, and wanted to spread the love. 

The point is, the story the student wrote seems like it was a one-time thing (so not long lasting), was not disruptive, and was not pervasive. So what was it? It was a JOKE! A single, solitary, pretty benign joke. It didn't paint Jesus in some heinous light, he didn't go around murdering people and peeing in public and shooting up drugs. He was handing out Thai stick to some transients "“ still charity, still charity. What exactly is the assault against religion here? 

I can understand if someone gets bullied at school for their religious beliefs, their practices, their ideas. If they get called denigrating names and slurs for going to church, a synagogue, or mosque. For getting ostracized for their creed. These are, without a question, offenses of gross violation, and need to be arrested so as to promote equality across the board.

Keep 'Em Comin'...

At the same time, however, we need to be able to crack jokes about historical figures (and above all Jesus is an historical figure) in books, otherwise, yes, freedoms of speech will be surely infringed on. It is fundamental to our liberty that not only can we disbelieve a prevailing religion (i.e. Christianity) and that which it stands for, but also to chuckle about it. Is it right to make fun? The answer to this question is irrelevant. It is a protected right. 

Jesus is no longer among the living, which means that libel and slander laws do not apply to him. Even if they did, there are special exceptions made when dealing with creative works of art. The fact that this teacher felt so bullied because she encouraged artistic expression that happened to take the form of a religious joke that she had to resign is infuriating. She wasn't pushing an agenda, she was fostering a welcoming and accepting environment. 

Let her termination not be in vain. Let this be a reminder that, though opinions should be respected, they can also be available for questioning, challenging, mockery, and jabs. Institutional bullying as was perpetrated here is akin to grand-scale oppression and coercion, and cannot be tolerated. Speak up, speak out, and let's look forward.
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