The ‘Piss Christ’ & the Glory of God

The Pangea Blog does not endorse this “art.” Source: Wikipedia


Written by Lawrence Garcia

The Edward Tyler Nahem Gallery in Manhattan recently managed to transform itself into a neo-Golgotha with the public display of a denigrated Christ submerged in human urine. This is Andres Serrano’s infamous Piss Christ, a photograph taken in 1987 of a crucifix baptized in the artist’s own widdle. Of course, the disclosure is on the heels of heightened global tension between Christians and Muslims giving rise to an outcry of protest across the nation. Moreover, the public airing of the photograph sharpened a host of sociopolitical differences surrounding free speech, hate crime, and religious freedom between Liberals and Conservatives and those in between. Of particular interest for this author was the Christian reaction; a quick survey of the backlash will yield statements like:

—“ANYONE who would WANT to desecrate our LORD in this Manner is a sick soul…”

—“AND, how about “Piss Mohammed?”

—“Let’s riot and burn somebody’s embassy…”

—“Now, more than ever, Christianity is under attack from without and within. We need your help to stand for Christ…”

It is, of course, perfectly natural if one is a follower of the Christ to feel a deep disgust, a churning of the stomach over such wanton sacrilege. And before we know it, we are being driven headlong on a crusade to ‘defend,’ ‘protect,’ and ‘avenge,’ the Lord’s public honor. John Calvin’s famous words seem particularly applicable, “A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.” And yet, the emotive desire to shield Jesus from any and all disgrace, though admirable, may stem from a deep seated theological misunderstanding about the nature of the crucifixion itself.

Have we forgotten that crucifixion in the ancient world was the servitutis extremum summumque supplicium—“the supreme and ultimate punishment for slaves”—according to Cicero?[1] And no, crucifixion did not occur in a dark corner, it was carried out in crowded-public areas as empire’s deterrent against would-be rebels. Emaciated bodies, broken bones, torn flesh, exposed organs, public defecation, impaled private parts, bodies creatively strewed this way and that according to the executioner’s fancy were all features of the spectacle which is crucifixion; and such is what Jesus of Nazareth considered his hour of “glory.” “What should I say,” Jesus says about his impending crucifixion, “‘Father, rescue me from this hour?’ No, for it was this reason I came to this hour!”

How can we ever, in a thousand lifetimes, hope to disgrace such a person?—one who so claims that all that is shameful and ghastly and nauseating in the world are now and forever taken up into his own passion! We could even say—dare we say?—that David’s Rightful Heir willingly chose to be the “Piss Christ”—the loving king who for three agonizing and humiliating hours became the world’s commode. This is what Paul meant by the “scandal” of the cross, that a basin-throned Jew was now Lord of the world and that one day the refuse of society would inherit the earth along with him. Who would ever believe that?! Therefore, we need not get angry, vindictive, or even necessarily disgusted with the photograph, but rather stand in silent awe and wonder that it manages, in all of its profaneness, to capture a momentary glimpse of our Lord’s paradoxical “hour of glory.” I’ll end with words from William Willimon:

“Everything about Jesus is cruciform, shaped like a cross. The cross was not just an unfortunate event on a Friday afternoon at the garbage dump outside Jerusalem; it was the way the world welcomed the lover Jesus from day one and still does today… From his very first sermon at Nazareth, the world was attempting to summon up the courage to render its final verdict upon Jesus’ loving reach, ‘Crucify him!’”[2]

Glory be to the King who was willingly and figuratively pissed on for you and for me.

[1] Hengel Martin, Crucifixion: In the Ancient World And the Folly Of the Message Of the Cross (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 51.

[2] Willimon William, Why Jesus? (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010), 109.


Lawrence is the Senior Teaching-Pastor of Academia Church in Goodyear, Arizona. He is a pastor devoted to the educational growth of his congregants, and the raising up of a new generation of disciples, who will think, tell, and live out the Christian story. Lawrence is currently attending Liberty University.

  • Kassie

    Wow. I cringed as I read, but it would be dishonest not to acknowledge the truth of this. Thanks for the insight.

  • AmyS

    Good work.

  • Simon


  • Pat68

    What more can the world do to Christ that hasn’t already been done? That’s the message that I take away from this.

  • Karen Spears Zacharias

    I was disturbed when the so-called artwork was first revealed and am equally as disturbed in this post, which was written I suspect to cull readers in the same fashion the original art was intended to cull viewers. I understand that in the culture of social media there are no rules of propriety and the value of any one post is only equal to the numbers of those who read it but still I admit to being sorely disappointed.

    • Lawrence Garcia

      Well, honestly, no it wasn’t written to “cull readers” at all. It wasn’t as if I scoured the internet looking for something sensational to blog about so as only to gain readership. On the contrary, the post was sparked on the heels of mass outcry at the recent display of the photograph; until then I was unaware of the work. However, once it had been brought to my attention, by less a gracious of an appraisal, I began to reflect on the nature of the work as an actual entry point to the crucifixion of Jesus itself. Having studied the sociological realities of crucifixion in the ancient world I realized that it actually managed to capture the dishonor that Jesus regarded as his “glory” and the scandel that a crucified messiah figure created among Jews and Greeks—precisley because it was not proprietous!

  • Dan Martin

    When this “artwork” was originally exhibited I was disgusted, not by the act of desecration itself, for really, you cannot desecrate anything that is not first sacred…and whether crucifix or flag, to the extent we hold the material object to be sacred, to precisely that extent it has become an idol to us. Rather, I am disgusted by the notion, common to proponents of “free speech” and “art” that such things only enjoy full expression in the deliberate and premeditated causing of offense. Those who defend Americans’ “right” to burn a Qur’an or caricature the prophet Muhammad, better not talk to me about their objections to flag burning or “Piss Christ.”

    But in response to the original post–which is excellent–I am struck by a lesson we have been learning in my church Sunday study of the gospel of Mark. Repeatedly in the first few chapters we have observed that Jesus touched and engaged with the “unclean,” and counter to law and culture, rather than being demeaned, contaminated, or sullied, the force of Jesus’ purity cleansed the event or person. Even the shame of the cross could not withstand Jesus’ cleansing influence. Perhaps, though Serrano certainly intended offense, in some Jesus-like way “Piss Christ” is actually an icon…

    • Lawrence Garcia

      Thanks Dan, your words are much appreciated (as I’m a big fan of your work).

  • facebook

    My first reaction was anger and it should have been Lord, ”forgive them for they know not what they do.” I am only interested in people being free to worship God in peace. I do not support worship by a group of people or support the value of any worship toward a God that calls for violence. This ”art” is supported by taxpayer money and this is what I am angry about. Yes this ”art” is supported by the 1st amendment and should be but not my tax dollars. Corky Riley

    • Lawrence Garcia

      Sure, this seems, to me, to be another issue altogether. I wasn’t really interested in the wider socio-political issues surrounding the photograph, merely the theological truth about the crucifixion that can be, so to speak, gleaned from it. I don’t support the writer, or the action, or the photograph, but I think if one examines the awful realities of which crucifixion is (and that Jesus chose that as his paradoxical hour of glory), then one can see the picture as part of the larger rejection and shaming of Jesus that was witnessed at the cross. Thanks for reading!

  • Proud MassWhole

    You’re going to learn to live with “free speech” if you want to continue to live in America, that’s how it works. I bet he just wanted to see the reaction it created and originally put it in honey or amber…..the title is what gets people upset which I find hilarious. “I AM CHRISTIAN, I AM MAD!” *stomp stomp stomp* like a cave man.

  • Brandi Nuse-Villegas

    I am an artist and feel like those who put the word in quotations, “Art”, don’t fully understand the purpose of art. Art is a journey by the artist to bring their questions into a exploration using physical media. It gives an opportunity for the artist and other who engage it to the opportunity to understand reality, then more deeply, to see. Sometimes, that exploration involves a subject, like a portrait and in that, the artist and viewer have the opportunity to know and see the woman or man more deeply. Same with the mentions of exploring- art materials and styles continue to be discovered. But if something has already been explored or a question already asked by the same means, why do the same? So there will always be a something new and not seen that challenges our understanding of what is art. People reviled Van Gogh’s work.
    Art tends to shock us because it challenges what we know.
    It is hard for me to grasp what it’s like for Jesus to be carrying the sins of the world, in all of its profanity.
    This piece was and continues to be the most powerful mean by which I am able to understand a little more deeply. More than any great writing or depiction of the crucifixation or description or reading.

    • Dan Martin

      While art may indeed “shock us because it challenges what we know,” that does not mean that shock qua shock necessarily brings this value. Far too many who claim the title of “artist” seem unable to comprehend that “offensive” alone is insufficient to define or validate expression. Serrano, the Danish cartoonists, and the Westboro Baptist Church all make this same category error.

      Perhaps to say it more directly, truth is often offensive, but much that is offensive is not true. This distinction is all-too-frequently lost on both artists and fundamentalists.

  • Disableme

    Lawrence thank you for the the thoughtful article. I wrote an article several months ago concerning evangelical piety and art or pop culture.