In This Episode
Phillip Picardi: From Crooked Media, this is Unholier Than Thou. I’m your host, Phillip Picardi. After one month of playing Kelly Clarkson’s Wrapped in Red Deluxe on repeat, that special time is almost upon us: Christmas Day! And while we may know the true heir of Christmas as Miss Mariah Carey, it is a lesser known fact that the holiday originally started to celebrate the birth of someone named Jesus Christ. I know, I was shocked too. As we’ve explored on this podcast for many episodes, the story of Jesus has been so twisted, so turned, so manipulated that it’s hard to get a grasp of who the guy really was. For example, did you know that historians mostly agree that Jesus, a Middle Eastern Jewish man, was not blond and blue eyed, as all that Renaissance art depicts? Go figure! Help me set the record straight—and I do not mean that in a homophobic way—I’m thrilled to welcome my friend, and the host of The Undistracted podcast Brittney Packnett Cunningham. Brittney, welcome to Unholier Than Thou.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Thank you, Phillip. I’m so, so glad to be here with you.
Phillip Picardi: Likewise. Now, one thing I know for sure about you is that you love Jesus. Is this true?
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: This is true. This is true. I do love Jesus very much. I was raised by two people who love Jesus, so much so that they were ministers. My dad was a pastor, my mom is a minister and my brother is a minister and went to divinity school and followed in my dad’s footsteps on that. So yes, I believe that Jesus is the lover in my soul and I am so grateful to be loved by somebody who wants my liberation here on Earth just as much as he wants it for me in heaven.
Phillip Picardi: OK, wow, you didn’t have to show off. I mean, that was a lot about the pedigree of how much you love Jesus. So I am excited today because I’m hoping we can talk about Jesus in a way that he’s not often talked about. And also, I’m hoping we can do so by playing a little game. Are you down to play a little game about Jesus with me?
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: I’m always down and play a game. Let’s do it.
Phillip Picardi: OK, I hope that your minister family is listening because this might be a little embarrassing and sacrilegious. Everybody, welcome to a special Christmas edition of a game I am inventing as we speak. It’s called Jesus Christ, Social Justice Star! Pause for applause. [applause] OK, Brittney, here are the rules of the game, I’m going to name some statements that I have here about Jesus and your goal as the contestant of this very real, very official game show, is to tell me whether or not what I’m saying is true, and why or why not. Are you ready?
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: I’m absolutely ready.
Phillip Picardi: OK.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Wait, is there a prize?
Phillip Picardi: Yes. I will reveal the prize at the end of the game.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: OK, deal.
Phillip Picardi: OK. Great. Statement number one, Jesus Christ was a person of color, true or false?
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Absolutely true. I actually didn’t know who Jesus was when I first saw him. I was very confused. Because every image I ever saw of Jesus before that was the bronzed skin that the Bible said he had, the wooly hair that the Bible said he had. When you actually look at Jesus’ lineage and where he spent his childhood, and his life, it was not in Europe. [laughs] It was in what is a place where brown people reside. So, yes, Jesus is a person of color. And the quicker we can get away from this Jesus who looked like, I don’t know, like a Midwestern cowboy, the sooner we can get to talking about the real Jesus and what he really wants us to do.
Phillip Picardi: Absolutely. OK, that brings us to part two: Jesus Christ was born an asylum-seeking refuge. True or false?
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Absolutely true. And listen, that little manger that people like to put out in front of their house like it’s mere decoration—his family was rejected, right? They were not people who were, well, well-heeled. They were not people who had all of the bells and whistles. And Jesus absolutely was a brown-skinned, wooly-haired refugee.
Phillip Picardi: OK, and let’s also talk about the asylum seeking part, right? Because Mary was literally in the middle of the desert. She had to put her baby in a manger because there was this king who was trying to kill firstborn babies, right?
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: That’s exactly right. And that’s what asylum is. Literally when the government of a nation is trying to persecute a certain group of people because of their lineage, their background, their race, their station in life—that is what causes people to seek asylum. Both now, today and in the time of Jesus Christ.
Phillip Picardi: OK, part three: Jesus Christ was a feminist. True or false?
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: This is one of my favorite ones. It is absolutely true. That is, if you understand what feminism actually is.
Phillip Picardi: What is feminism?
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Feminism very simply is the belief that people of all gender identities, the plural, not just binaries, but people of all gender identities, should be treated equally under the law. Period. End of story. Right? You can continue to expand that when you look at woman-ism, when you bring intersectionality into the conversation. But most fundamentally, it is that. And Jesus was somebody who was deeply committed to the idea of justice here on Earth. You can tell by what he said, by who he spent time with, and by the sacrifices that he made. So Jesus is absolutely somebody who’s going to stand for all people being treated equitably. Yes. Including women, gender-nonconforming people, people who aren’t men.
Phillip Picardi: And it also should be said that the first people that Jesus appeared to after the resurrection were women.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: They were women. And to be very clear, they were women that society would have cast aside. Right? You have Mary Magdalene, who was thought of as a harlot. You have Mary, his mother, who gave birth to him by immaculate conception. And you know how other people talk when they hear rumors of people giving birth out of, quote, unquote, “wedlock.” So not only did he first appear to women when he came out of that tomb, he first appeared to women who exemplify so many of the things that we cast out and marginalize in society right now.
Phillip Picardi: Yes, OK. And not just as a society, but as a Christian society, I would point out. So there’s a lot of irony here. OK, we’ll be right back after this.
Phillip Picardi, narrating: All right, now back to Brittney.
Phillip Picardi: My next one. Are you ready?
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Yeah.
Phillip Picardi: Jesus Christ was a messy queen who lived for drama.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: [laughs]
Phillip Picardi: True or false?
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Oh, my gosh. Phill, you— [laughs]
Phillip Picardi: The clock is ticking Brittney.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: I’m going to say false.
Phillip Picardi: Ah!! You’re wrong. But go ahead. I’ll let you explain why.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Here’s, here’s why I say so. Now, there are plenty of dramatic things that happened in the Bible. There were plenty of dramatic characters.
Phillip Picardi: Looooved drama.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Including the disciples of Jesus Christ. Right? We often like to talk about Judas, but Peter was messy. All of them were messy because they were human beings.
Phillip Picardi: Yeah.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: But Jesus urged us to live by the fruits of the spirit, and the fruits of the spirit of the opposite, of being a messy queen that loves drama. What I will say is that Jesus was never afraid to get into our mess with us. And that’s part of the reason why I love a brown-skinned, wooly-haired feminist refugee Jesus, because he doesn’t judge me for my own mess and is helping me to exit my mess whenever possible.
Phillip Picardi: OK, so what do you then say to the various folks on TikTok, the good Christian folks on TikTok, who have made memes recreating the Last Supper as though it were a dramatic scene from The Real Housewives?
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: I mean, I think it’s hilarious. You can’t tell me that Jesus walked this earth and did not have a sense of humor. It would be impossible. To see all of the things that he saw in his lifetime and not point at humans and be like, what are you all doing? This is hilarious. I think they’re hilarious. I personally love Easter memes. I really love resurrection Sunday memes. I send them to my mom all the time and she’s always like, Oh, Brittany, I don’t know if I should be laughing at this. And I’m like, but you are, because it’s enjoyable.
Phillip Picardi: [laughs] What is the resurrection meme Brittney?
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Yeah. So like there’s this, there was this picture of—again, a white Jesus so it doesn’t really count—but he was talking to this group of kids and he was like, yeah, so I like, you know, I went to hell or whatever, and I was like, I don’t think I’m going to stay here so three days later, I was out. Like that, those are very funny to me.
Phillip Picardi: Like a little time out.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Or like the ones that are like: I’m back! Yeah, those are great. I love them. I think, I think Jesus memes are fun. And listen, if a meme on TikTok is going to help somebody say, oh, let me actually investigate this thing in a real way? I’m all about it.
Phillip Picardi: That’s heartwarming, actually. That’s a really nice way of looking at it. I would also point out that there was that whole episode where Jesus Christ flipped over the table in the temple and Teresa Giudice famously flipped over a table in The Real Housewives of New Jersey. So unfortunately, your assessment that Jesus Christ was not a messy queen who lived for drama? Yeah, better luck next time.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: OK, but listen. OK, wait, wait, wait, wait.
Phillip Picardi: OK. OK.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Wait. I have a point of order.
Phillip Picardi: Contesting the results of this, of this game.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: I would like to, I would like to appeal this one because when he was flipping the table, he was flipping the table in the name of what justice. He was actually saying to wealthy people who wanted to prioritize money over people, that not only is this not OK, that I, as your savior, I’m not going to tolerate it. So in my opinion, that’s not a messy queen who loves drama. That’s exactly the kind of table flipper I want to be.
Phillip Picardi: OK, all right. OK, I will consider your appeal, and lay down my verdict at the end of the game show.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: OK.
Phillip Picardi: Thank you. Number five: Jesus Christ believed everyone deserves health care. True or false?
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Absolutely. It’s Proverbs that says he who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their maker.
Phillip Picardi: Whooo!
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Jesus’s father made it pretty clear that if you are kind to the people in need, whatever that need is, then you honor me. You honor God. If you don’t, you show contempt for me. These are the things that are really simple in the instruction manual, if you happen to read it, if you bother to read it.
Phillip Picardi: Yes. And Jesus is famous for healing lepers, going to people who were living with leprosy, making sure that they did not feel like they were outcast by him or by his father. I think that all of those things add up to someone who believes that everyone deserves health care and also quality health care and compassion from the world, AKA. Jesus Christ would be wearing a mask if he were walking the earth today.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Yep.
Phillip Picardi: OK. Next up: Jesus Christ was an anti-establishment activist. True or false?
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Oh, absolutely true. This is my favorite. This is why I tell people I didn’t recognize blond-haired, blue eyed Jesus, because the Jesus that I was raised on, was a liberator. My parents, my father was a scholar of liberation theology, which is a set of scholarship by a man named James Cone that was specifically targeted toward Black folks in the Black church, but is applied in lots of ways. When we understand again that Jesus was a liberator, Jesus was somebody who existed outside of the system to fulfill the law, right. So he took on all of the injustices that the law put forward for the sake of the people who chose to follow him. Now, what we really fundamentally have to understand is as an outsider, it required that he spoke truth to the powers that be. That’s why he was flipping tables. And it also required that he spent time with the very people that society marginalized then and now, right? So like you said, people who were very ill, people who were cast out by society, people who were poor, people of color, people who were not the wealthy tax collectors, but when the wealthy tax collectors came and said, I actually want to live a different life, he accepted them too. So, absolutely, he was anti-establishment. He was countercultural. He was an activist. He was a liberator. He was a freedom fighter. And all of my inspiration for what I try to do, so much of it comes from Christ’s example in that way.
Phillip Picardi: Yes. Yes. Oh, gosh. I could stomp a million times to that. OK, well, in a slightly more somber tone for the next one, I have that Jesus Christ was an incarcerated person who received the death penalty. Is that true or false?
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: It’s absolutely true. That is what The Passion of the Christ was. It was him walking that long road to that hilltop, being strung up on a cross. As Christians we center so much on the fact that he made that ultimate sacrifice to save us from our sins, but ultimately he was doing so because in that time and in that era, that’s what the law called for and the law was deeply unjust. So he was absolutely incarcerated. He absolutely faced the death penalty. The good news is that his power outweighed all of that. But that doesn’t mean that what was done to him or to any of God’s people in that way was right.
Phillip Picardi: Right. And that’s what makes this recent string of heartless executions of folks on death row by the Trump administration even more confusing, because it is said that those recent executions are another deliberate appeal to a Christian evangelical base. And that just, I mean, to anyone with common sense that is so confusing and so disheartening.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: It is. It’s frightening. It’s scary. It’s sad because it is a fundamental misreading of precisely what the Word says. I remind people all the time and Bryan Stevenson talks about this all the time. Right, and he is famously somebody who has been fighting the death penalty for a very long time. But you know, Micah 6 8 says the Lord requires that you love mercy, that you act justly and that you walk humbly. Like it’s so clear in black and white, you do not have to misinterpret this. And there’s nothing just about deciding that we are judge and jury, right, Matthew talks about, in the New Testament, talks about the fact that we are not here to judge other people. That is only God’s job. Which means that I cannot declare somebody unfit to live in this world. It’s not something we should be taking within our hands. And it’s certainly not the kind of country that I want to live in that would do that, and certainly that would speed it along to appeal to people politically. It’s sick.
Phillip Picardi: Absolutely. On a slightly higher note, your final question has arrived: Jesus Christ ceded his throne to Mariah Carey, the rightful queen of Christmas. Is this true or false?
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: You know what, I’ll say it’s true. It’s fine. It’s true.
Phillip Picardi: Yes! OK. Congratulations!
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: It’s true. She’s the queen of Christmas. You can’t give it to anybody else.
Phillip Picardi: It’s true.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: She was placed here on Earth to make us jolly.
Phillip Picardi: To bring us Christmas joy.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: To give us something to sing about. To bring us cheer. To bring glad tidings and good news to all of the boys and girls and all of the people during this beautiful season. So I think that’s true.
Phillip Picardi: Yes. Archangel Mariah Carey, the archangel of Christmas. She has a voice of God. No one can deny that. Congratulations, Brittney Packnett Cunningham, you have won this game. Would you like to hear what your prize is?
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Absolutely.
Phillip Picardi: You have won me a prize of taking Dr. Darien’s credit card to the Prada store. Thank you so much! Yay!
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: OK, so here’s my only request. Can you just slide me something? I mean? Thanks, Dr. Darien, for our Christmas gifts.
Phillip Picardi: Yes, I’m going to have to talk to your husband about that. I have some ideas. I will send him some links. But before I let you go, I would be remiss to not talk about, and we’ve already kind of hinted at it, this immense irony of the celebration of Christ’s life that exists in our world as we know it. And I will make the distinction here that obviously you talk about your coming from a Black Christian church. And I grew up in white Catholicism, so I know a very different Jesus than the one that you got to know your whole life. But how do you think that these different factions of Christianity have, I guess, shaped the American political system that we’re living in now? And how do we even begin to heal if so many people don’t really understand who Jesus is?
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Yeah, I think this is the fundamental question, right? I grew up actually doing a lot of interfaith work, so we, growing up would go to services at synagogues and Jewish folks will come over and have church with us. And, you know, I spent time in mosques growing up. And it was a, a reminder that the world is much bigger than my block, my church, the dominant religion of my country. And to recognize that if I fundamentally believe that God is love and that God created all of these different kinds of people who believe all of these different kinds of things, then it can’t be my job to stand as judge and jury of all of them. It has to be my job to actually focus on making that love come to pass through all of the ways that people are impacted, through the systems and structures and institutions that people can either experience love or oppression. And so many of our institutions are perpetuating the very oppression that I believe Christ stood against. I think that you’re asking the fundamentally correct question. And if we think about God as love and Jesus as a liberator, then I think we can get on the right path. I think it’s also important to really recognize, though, that even in the difference between all of these sects, nobody’s gotten it all the way quite right. It’s a Reggie, my husband and I, about a year to find a church that was culturally Black and believed in liberation theology, and that also affirmed LGBTQ people. And it was really important to us to do that because we didn’t want to be hypocrites saying one thing and then giving our tithes to support something else. And a lot of Christian folks of all backgrounds, of all racial backgrounds, are far too comfortable believing political rhetoric that people have mistaken for religious rhetoric and thinking that our LGBTQ family and siblings do not belong in the body of Christ, are not people of value and beautiful humanity. So there is a lot of work for all of us to do, all of these different sects and denominations. But what I think it ultimately comes down to is us doing our own reading, doing our own research and having conversations with the creator, because all of that stuff will be made clear. And at the end of the day, if it isn’t made of love, it’s not the thing we should do.
Phillip Picardi: Right. You know, it’s funny you say that, especially about the interfaith work, because the person who initially framed Jesus in this way for me was a Muslim woman, Linda Sarsour. I was doing a panel for Muslim Women’s Day at Twitter headquarters, and Linda asked me about my own religious background, and I scoffed and I made a really rude comment about Catholicism, as I’m known to do, and Linda said, Isn’t it funny that someone like you would be so turned away from Christianity considering who your messiah is? That’s not a direct quote. It was the sentiment of her quote.
Phillip Picardi: Sure.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: And then she was the one who said Jesus was an asylum -refugee with a radical politic, who was an activist. And so she was the one who pushed me back towards Jesus, not in a way that was like go to church again and all that. She just, like, encouraged me to do a deeper and more critical reading. The same way that I was doing a deeper and more critical reading of everything else in my life, whether that was about my sexuality or my gender politics or my affiliations with different political parties, you know/ And so that idea that we allow religion to go less discovered or we accept the word as it’s preached just by pastors or by priests or by popes, and that we don’t find what religion should and could mean for each of us, is obviously something that has led to doing this podcast and figuring out how faith can better inform a more equitable world. And so I see you doing that with your work, and I find it very inspiring
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: I appreciate that.
Phillip Picardi: And I love that that faith is at the heart of your work, and not in a way that scares me. Do you know what I mean? [laughs]
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: I do know what you mean. I know what you mean. Because sometimes I look at other people who say they read the same Bible I did and they scare me. So I understand. I try to read the Bible every night before I go to bed, and I’ve been deep in the Psalms. Like I’ve just been reading them one by one by one. And it’s interesting because people think of that as a book of praise and adoration to God, and it is. But the writers in the book, Hezekiah, David, all these other writers, they are so honest about why they are praising God. They’re like the enemy encamped me and God saved me, right. These people, this nation, this entire nation tried to oppress me and my people, and God rescued us, Right? So, like, we have to actually remember that fundamentally it comes down to what one of the psalm says—I think it’s 103, Psalm 103, it says, The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. Like that is God’s function, right? That the expression of love that God gives us through Jesus Christ is to work righteousness and justice for everyone who is oppressed. If you understand that fundamentally, you don’t have to be one of these scary folks out here who are taking rights from people, you can actually be somebody after God’s own heart, somebody who doesn’t have contempt for God, who doesn’t grieve God, but somebody who actually tries to model yourself after Christ, whether you believe in him or not. That’s a, it’s a beautiful opportunity to have the privilege as human beings to do that for one another and to do that for our communities. And I’m hoping that more people take that call seriously.
Phillip Picardi: Yes, it can seem that history does not favor the oppressed in so many different ways, right, but it is a good reminder that every empire that built itself off of oppressing people has fallen.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: That’s right.
Phillip Picardi: And there’s nothing to say that our modern empires, the empires in which we live and the systems and institutions in which we live and operate and uphold, there’s nothing to say that these are also not fragile enough to fall.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: That’s right.
Phillip Picardi: By focusing on this ancient wisdom, whether or not you believe in the spirituality of all of it obviously is anyone’s individual journey and choice, but by focusing on the ancient wisdom that lies at the root of, as you pointed out, many different faiths, that if you center the people who are marginalized, you will find happiness and liberation, whether you believe that is spiritual liberation, access to heaven, or just a better and healthier relationship with yourself and your loved ones in your own life. I think that is what the wisdom of Christmas Day is trying to impart on all of us.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: I love that. Couldn’t agree more.
Phillip Picardi: Brittney, thank you so much for joining us. Merry Christmas. I hope you get everything that you asked for.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Thank you.
Phillip Picardi: Trump is already being pushed out of office, so that’s one gift we can cross off the list.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: There’s definitely a good gift. And let me know what we’re getting from Prada.
Phillip Picardi: OK, I will definitely, absolutely, 100% keep you posted on that. Let me go get Dr. Darien’s wallet as we speak.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: All right. Sounds like a plan. Thank you, dear.
Phillip Picardi: Love you, Britney. Thank you.
Brittney Packnett Cunningham: Love you, too.
Phillip Picardi: We’ll be right back after this.
Phillip Picardi: Attention, my sweet sinners, saints and loyal subjects, next week will be the last episode of the first season of Unholier Than Thou. That’s right. We’re ending Season 1 on Christ’s birthday. What a way to go out. We’ve had an absolute blast making the show with Crooked and of course, all of you. So make sure you’re following us on Social for alerts on what’s coming next. I’m an absolute delight if I do say so myself on Instagram, so you can follow me, my cats, and my unwilling fiancé at atPFPicardi. Don’t worry, we’ll drop the links in the episode description. And of course, we’re leaving you on a high note. Next week’s episode answers the age-old question Was Mary a virgin who can’t drive? Give me the ultimate Christmas gift by subscribing, leaving a review, and rating the show five stars. It’ll help us face off against those dastardly conservative Christians. Stay safe, stay blessed, and I’ll see you next week for our Last Supper. Sorry, stupid joke.
Unholier Than Thou is a Crooked Media production. Brian Semel is our associate producer, Sidney Rapp is our assistant producer, with production support from Reuben Davis. Veronica Simonetti is our sound engineer and editor. The theme song is by Taka Yasuzawa, and the show is executive produced by me, Lyra Smith and Sarah Geismer. Thanks for listening.