A purposely inflammatory film, “Innocence of Muslims,” sparked protests across the Muslim world recently. In the chaos an affiliate of the terrorist organization al-Qaeda is believed to have launched the attack in Libya that killed an American diplomat and three other embassy staffers (it should be noted that many Libyans apologized for the attack and rejected the violence done in their name). As for the film, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the actors were duped into performing for it, and that the anti-Islam material was dubbed in after the fact. It has also become a football for politicians who want to make a sweeping statement about the Muslim world, and a point of debate over free expression in the United States. Now, a Catholic advocacy group is using the turmoil and debate over this film to demand the federal government also condemn the 1987 photo “Piss Christ” by Andres Serrano.
“[Bill] Donohue [president of the Catholic League] and many others have condemned the piece as unnecessarily offensive to Christians, and some say it has helped uncover hypocrisy in the White House. Those outraged by the photograph suggest President Barack Obama’s administration has shown bias by condemning “Innocence of Muslims,” the anti-Muslim film that mocks the Islamic prophet Muhammad and sparked Muslim protests worldwide, but not “Piss Christ.”
Michael Grimm, a Republican congressman from New York, bashed the president and his administration in a statement late last week for their “utter lack of respect for the religious beliefs of Americans.” “As a Catholic, I find ‘Piss Christ’ to be vulgar and offensive, just as many in the Islamic world found ‘Innocence of Muslims’ to be highly offensive. Like most Americans, I condemn both yet remain tolerant as the First Amendment demands. Unfortunately, this administration has yet to echo these views in regards to the religiously offensive ‘art’ here at home,” said Grimm.”
It seems bizarre that a photograph from more than twenty years ago, one that was extensively debated in our culture at the time, should now be given equal billing to this current incident. All it took was a retrospective at a private New York gallery that features the piece for it to once again become a symbol of liberal decadence and hypocrisy. Yet the hypocrisy of Christians who claim Muslims get “special treatment” while the artist and those who show “Piss Christ” receive multiple death threats, and the work itself is attacked by Christian vandals seems to never get mentioned by groups like the Catholic League. Indeed, while there are no Catholic mobs attacking embassies, Church officials have used their political and cultural power to ensure the work is kept away from the public. Often these public battles are followed by acts of vandalism, just a quieter sort than what we see on the “Arab street.”
So with everyone talking about “Innocence of Muslims” and “Piss Christ” I guess the question has to be asked: should we allow the gods (and prophets) of our religions to be mocked? When an artist creates an inflammatory work, should religious communities go on the offensive? I should also point out that this isn’t simply a problem among monotheists, as some artists have received death threats from Hindus over artwork that certain groups found offensive or blasphemous. Even the Pagan-friendly company Sacred Source here in the US received death threats from angry Hindus over erotic statues depicting their gods. So this is a phenomenon that I believe affects any religion that accumulates enough power and influence. They all reach a point where they think mockery or blasphemy should not be tolerated, and work to discourage, or even violently control, images that unbalance their position or perceived status.
I fear the day when modern Pagan religions reach that point, and I hope that it never comes. I don’t think I could stomach knowing that a co-religionist was sending death threats to an artist or trying to vandalize their work, or working to intimidate galleries and museums from ever showing a piece that mocked our faith or gods. If you want to boycott the New Yorker because you didn’t like their Witch cartoon, fine, go ahead. If you want to write an editorial because something offended you, please do. But I feel that boycotts, petitions, and a healthy public debate should be the end-point not the beginning of tactics when a piece of art offends. Overreacting to ugly or offensive art betrays a vulnerability that is telling, it says that our gods are so weak, and our faith so small, that a painting or picture or movie is enough to harm both. The day when Paganism rises up against art is the day I part company with our movement. However, that’s just my perspective, I can’t claim to be a moral arbiter for modern Pagans, and no doubt there are those who envy the Catholics, Muslims, and Hindus their power and influence in these matters.
So what do you think? When a piece of art offends should we go on the offensive? What are the acceptable limits to voice our displeasure? Is it enough to simply give our opinion a voice, or should we apply social and political pressure to silence voices we don’t like? Should a Pagan “Piss Christ” be hounded for all time by angry adherents, or do we simply acknowledge that we can’t control the world and those who might offend us?
Please keep discussion on this post on the topic of how we should respond to art that offends, derailing comments that merely bash one religion or another will be deleted.