Pourquoi “je ne suis pas Charlie”, mais j’ètais le Piss Christ

(That’s as much French as I’m writing.  None of my former teachers would be proud. Not even my grandmother.)

Please be absolutely assured, I am not condoning the actions of murderous terrorists against the cartoonists who produced the offensive images which it was their right to draw. Just as I did not, in the late 1980s, condone the vicious protests and vandalism committed against the American photographer Andres Serrano’s controversial Piss Christ.

However, I’d be far happier to identify with Serrano than with the victims of the murder in Paris last week.

Paris, the rest of Europe, and much of the rest of the world mourns and grieves–and that is entirely right.  Nobody should die–least at the hands of fanatics who set themselves as judge, jury, and executioner–for juvenile “humor” (and let’s face it, the images were not sophisticated satire, but adolescent images produced by superannuated children whose talents have reached their limits).  Protecting people’s right to say stupid and offensive things is one of the foundational concepts of a free society.  There are inevitable consequences–someone is inevitably going to call the “artist” or “thinker” on having said or drawn something stupid and offensive.  Death, especially when imposed through extra-legal means, should not be among those consequences.

I want the freedom to produce stupid and offensive words and images, and to do so without fear of imprisonment, bodily harm, or economic disadvantage. Those who take away that right without having followed a publicly acknowledged legal process are guilty of infringing on the freedoms of others.  That deserves accountability and proportional punishment. People objected both to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, and the Serrano photographs, with that intent.  Varying degrees of violence (and, please remember that the objections to the Piss Christ were also from religious fanatics) erupted in both instances.

And that is where the similarity ends. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons claim to be satire–a form of mockery and ridicule that might motivate some level of (individual or collective) self-examination and facilitate change for the better, to overcome weaknesses and shortcomings, correct error and failure.  In many cases, it is directed upward–from (or on behalf of) those who suffer from the weaknesses and shortcomings of a corrupt person, system, government, to those whose privileged position needs the indicated improvement so that a more just society might be realized. Satire tells the reader/viewer what the writer/artist thinks–but does not demand that the reader/viewer come to the same interpretation.  Satire respects the intelligence of the recipient.  Satire creates space for change.  It might not achieve change, but it creates the opportunity for a sharing of ideas, for a lively exchange of perspectives.

The Charlie Hebdo cartoon concerning the Prophet Mohammed (and I will admit, I have only viewed a few of them) do not rise to the venerated level of satire.  At the very best, it is a much lower form of commentary, the lampoon. Lampoon’s purpose is primarily to ridicule, embarrass, shame–it has next to no potential to inspire the kind of self-critique which might lead to positive change.

The real effect of these cartoons is to tell a growing minority of religious “others” what their place is, and that they had better accept that place without protest or comment. That is called bigotry, and while it’s your right to be a bigot, you can expect that it won’t be met with a big sloppy welcome in the name of free expression.

Christians should stand against murder. Christians should stand against repression. But the Charlie Hebdoe event is also aligning Christians with religious bigotry. That is problematic.

Bigotry does not deserve death at the hands of thugs, but there is a certain element of irresponsibility in thinking that hate speech–even under the guise of satire (which, as I’ve said above, the cartoons do not rise to that level)–is going to go unremarked and unavenged.  A right has a corresponding responsibility; in the case of free expression, there seems to be a duty to think through and anticipate possible responses to the images and ideas you present.  Then you weigh carefully the risks and rewards of putting those ideas forward.  It seems to  me that the corresponding responsibility that accompanies the right of free expression was not adequately exercised. They were screwing around with things more powerful than either they understood or cared about, and ignored possible consequences.  When that happens, tragedy is almost inevitable. And that would be true even absent the massacre.

And so, “je ne suis pas Charlie.”

Mais, j’ètais le Piss Christ.

Serrano, raised a Catholic and still professing to be a Christian, is a part of the group most likely to be shocked or offended by the images he presents.  He is “punching up”–his work may shock people in power in the church hierarchy (and it has done so), but it can hardly serve to keep someone lower than Serrano himself in their proper place.

Good Christian people protested (sometimes violently) venues where Serrano’s work was displayed. Some of his photographs have been irreparably vandalized. By Christians.  People who had only heard about the image, without having seen it for themselves, started campaigns that were too nearly successful to decommission the National Endowment for the Arts because it hand funded some photographs reputed to be upsetting.

Americans need to remember the Piss Christ episode before we put ourselves out there as unconditional champions of free expression.

While some Catholics and other Christians find the Piss Christ offensive (and the intent may have been exactly that), the image speaks to each viewer for itself. Some will see it as saying “piss on the church”–an expression of disrespect, saying “I am done with this institution/way of life/system of beliefs”.  In the  years since the image first went public, it has dawned on some church leaders that a fair number of people have said exactly that, and it might be time to think about what it means for the future of institutional Christianity. (That is happening, but nobody does it very well.)

Another interpretation–perhaps the more enduring one–is that the Crucified One is not so much pissed on, but in the piss  with those  who have been been ill-treated by society, and even by the Church itself.  It is a sublime satire:   that which gave offense to those in power and authority in the Church (at least the Roman Catholic Church), now seems to be inspiring Pope Francis, who is more aligned with the needs of the pissed on than with the preservation of ecclesiastical power and luxury.

And that must be pissing off a few people.

Serrano’s Piss Christ offended and shocked–and made people think. Good freedom loving Americans worked hard to remove it from public view. But it has a potential to provoke thought and inspire change that the Charlie Hebdoe cartoons lack. It allows a range of interpretations and creates openings for discussion and debate that the images from the Paris “satirists” do not.

And for that reason, je suis le Piss Christ.

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