As much as I think Andres Serrano, the person behind “Piss Christ” is a jerk, and not a very inspiring artist, I’m glad that he wasn’t stoned to death.
I’m disappointed, however, in how some people reacted to his creation. Did you know that he, and people exhibiting his collection received multiple death threats? In America, no less.
Did you know that, in France, Christian protesters vandalized a copy of this specific picture beyond repair while it was on display?
It seems that the desire to control what other people say – especially about religion – is a timeless and powerful urge. Many people, in many times and places, have succumbed to this idea.
Here is something else that may surprise you. Look at this list of nations which have laws against blasphemy. There are some civilized places on that list. I was surprised and depressed when I read it. Sure, Iran and the usual backwards places are all present and accounted for — most of them with death penalties. But even the “civilized” nations of Europe tend to have laws against blasphemy.
Religious tolerance is much less common than you may suppose. For instance, did you know that Switzerland banned Catholic monasteries and convents until 1973?
As Americans, we are exceptionally lucky to live in a place where free speech — critical, offensive and hurtful speech — is protected. Our culture and our laws must reinforce each other on this topic. Neither culture, nor law, by itself, is sufficient to maintain the free society we have come to expect. History on the American continent gravely records the times when our society and our laws did not sufficiently separate church and state. Even if we do not recall the details, we were all taught of the Salem Witch Trials, and vaguely know what cautionary warning it provides to future generations who must shape and refine society. We are taught of the ugly times when unpopular opinions were not sufficiently protected by those who wielded power and influence. We were taught this history so that we might not repeat it.
As much as I don’t like Piss Christ, history suggests that a society that disallows it is a much worse place to live than one that does.
The undertone for this article is motivated by the terrible killings in France this week. France has a tremendous socio-political problem on its hands. I previously wrote about the challenges of multiculturalism, and France is squarely in the middle of that fight. It’s going to get worse, and there’s going to be more violence. The nations of Europe spent hundreds of years fighting religious civil wars that had nothing to do with immigrants or Islam. The increasing twentieth century secularism of the indigenous European population largely absolved them of having to settle these issues of cultural identity. The immigrant influx is reopening the wound.
As Americans, we have been given the gift of a society and a legal system that purposefully tolerates offensive speech. It is our obligation to protect this gift and to deliver it to our children. We must grudgingly tolerate speech, ideas, and art that we find distasteful, because the cost of not doing so is too high.
Today, there isn’t much domestic pressure to suppress criticism of Islam. It will come. It’s an old problem; the places, people, and settings change, but the underlying issue never does.
How do we pass on our gift to our children? We must challenge efforts to limit speech by public institutions. A current battleground in the US seems to be the public University System; if you want to help but aren’t involved with education, you can support organizations like FIRE.
When you meet people with different ideas about free speech and religious criticism, be understanding but firm about American law and American values. The law and the people must reinforce each other; neither alone will preserve our rights. Be unoffensive while advocating that people must accept sometimes being offended.
Challenging someone’s deepest convictions is difficult, awkward, and unpopular — especially here in the midwest. In rare circumstances, it might even get you killed.
But the alternatives are worse. What could be worse than getting killed?
Wasting a full measure of life on this earth, having never really lived.