Ants & Blasphemy

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Left Field by Patricia Nell Warren

As the recent censorship of an AIDS-themed film reminds, the separation of church & state is a thin line.

David Wojnarowicz, A Fire In My Belly (Film In Progress), 1986–87, Super 8mm film, black and white & color, silent, TRT: 00:13:06/A Fire In My Belly Excerpt, 1986–87, Super 8mm film, black and white & color, silent, TRT: 00:07:00. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W Gallery, New York, and The Fales Library and Special Collections/New York University
By now, most of the world knows that David Wojnarowicz’s short film A Fire in My Belly was blasted by religious righters at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery LGBT-themed exhibition in Washington, D.C. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), wasn’t explicit about his religious motives, complaining merely that the film was an act of “arrogance” with taxpayer money (though the show was privately funded). Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Georgia), member of the House Appropriations Committee, was a bit more explicit, spluttering that AFIMB was “in-your-face perversion.” William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, was more explicit yet, calling the film “hate speech pure and simple.” But it was enough. The Smithsonian buckled, and yanked AFIMB from the show.

The artist’s intention was actually to express the torment of slow AIDS death—of a new and terrible isolation for the dying, within a society made callous by prejudice, poverty, and violence. Made in 1987, the same year that AZT was approved, the film draws its haunting images from Wojnarowicz’s helpless anguish at watching his lover, Peter Hujar, die of AIDS. But ultraconservative Americans see it differently—especially eleven seconds of a crucifix lying on the ground with ants crawling over it. Out there across America, in religious-right blogs and bulletin boards, Catholics and Protestants alike are condemning AFIMB with a single explosive word: “blasphemous.”

Ah, blasphemy—a good old-fashioned word, straight out of the Bible. But what does this 2,000-year-old word really mean? Right away, discussions started. The Boston Globe wondered about “the line separating blasphemous from acceptable imagery.” Rev. Barry Lynn, ordained minister and executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, wanted to know this: “Blasphemy laws—[are they] alive and well in the U.S.?”

In 1990, when Wojnarowicz was still alive, he was already finding out that Protestant anti-blasphemy attitude was alive and well. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association called his work “blasphemous” and “pornographic” in a pamphlet that reproduced some images. The artist sued AFA for copyright infringement and distortion of his work—and won. That same year, the Rutherford Group filed a federal suit against the National Endowment for the Arts, asking for an order barring the NEA from giving grants for “blasphemous and sacrilegious hate material.” The lawsuit was prompted by a grant to Wojnarowicz for another film, Tongues of Flame. Two years later, age thirty-two, Wojnarowicz died of AIDS.

Today, however, it was noticeably Catholics who manned the barricades against Wojnarowicz’s work. Since Catholics cherish their physical icons, and regard the crucifix as a core iconic property, some of them missed the point that the artist was identifying intensely with the dying Jesus. He was making the point that dying of AIDS is like being eaten alive by ants for years and years. But Catholic conservatives didn’t get it. Typical was the reaction of America Needs Fatima, whose mission is “to oppose blasphemy in the public square.” As ANF roused its membership to try keeping AFIMB off YouTube, the organization used that fight word “blasphemy” obsessively over and over.
As I understand the definition, “blasphemy” can be an action, but it’s usually verbal—something that’s said in the moment. It ranges from a simple curse word (like OMG ) to a conversational jab at somebody’s key belief (the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, the truth of Scripture). According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the word means, “To speak of (God or a sacred entity) in an irreverent, impious manner.” It comes from Late Latin blasphemare, from Greek blasphemos.

Why is shooting off your mouth considered such a dire deed? Because already in ancient times, some Western civilizations, including Persians and Greeks, had hardened into massive state religions. On their golden thrones, rulers realized that they had to ensure absolute respect and obedience for that sole religion allowed by their government. Any spoken disrespect towards the religion was deemed an offense against the state, because it could bring the wrath of gods and goddesses down on everybody. In other words, blasphemy equaled treason. And treason was—and still is—a political crime, punishable by death.

Sometime before 1000 BCE in the Middle East, Hebrew tribes who called themselves “descendants of Abraham” adopted a code of law that included a prohibition on cursing (“not taking the Lord’s name in vain”). They punished the crime with death by stoning. Evolving into a kingdom with a state religion, Jews used the stark spectacles of blasphemy execution to enforce conformity in their own society. Interestingly enough, there was no Hebrew-language equivalent of the Greek blasphemos—this word was adopted later as the Jewish people became Hellenized by conquest and adopted a broader hatred of “speaking irreverently of anything sacred.”

This started a deep, dark ripple in world religion that is still rolling along today. The two other religions that branched from that Abrahamic tradition—first Christianity, then Islam—ran with that idea of policing what came out of the mouth. Though Christianity split noisily into Catholicism and Protestantism, both sub-branches clung to that Old Testament rigor on blasphemy. In each emerging empire or nation with a state religion, civil government was tasked with enforcing it. In post-medieval Britain, mouthings of the moment were taken so seriously that you could be burned at the stake by Catholic authorities, or hanged by Protestants for the most trivial comment.

In North America, Anglicans and Puritans who ruled the thirteen English colonies took a similarly draconian view at first. Four colonies levied the death penalty—Virginia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut. Only a few people were actually executed—Quakers hanged in Boston in 1660 because they spoke about their beliefs in defiance of Puritan government. More usually, as in Virginia, a blasphemer merely had his ears cut off, or his tongue pierced with a hot iron.

Today, blasphemy is still a serious crime in fundamentalist Islamic countries—and the punishment is still stoning. In Israel, as Jews in that country grow less secular and more conservatively religious, blasphemy can be hammered as “insult to religion” (three years in prison).
Meanwhile, in the U.S., Wojnaro-gate is a spooky reminder that the thump of that Boston hangman’s trap still echoes in the air. Blasphemy laws remain on the books in some states. In some conservative municipalities, you can actually be charged with public swearing under certain circumstances. That ancient dread of “verbal irreverence” has been expanded to cover broadcast media and public arts. Since the nineties, FCC leverage on no-no speech is reaching beyond the classic “seven dirty words” to the point where movies, TV, and radio routinely bleep or cut any “disrespectful” slang for divine names—even a mild “jeez” or “damn.”

For the moment, the U.S. Supreme Court’s take on the First Amendment means that any formal blasphemy conviction would probably be struck down as “establishment of religion.” Given the rightwards drift of SCOTUS, that could change. Meanwhile, today’s zealots push for other legal routes that let them attack—like “vilification of religion,” or “religious insult” or “hate speech.” But now and then—as in this case—they start shrieking about straight-ahead “blasphemy.” That’s when you feel them yearning for the good old days of state religion, when they could light the fires under living human feet at a row of stakes—or drag some poor loudmouth outside the gates and give him a Stone Age battering. Way in the back of their minds, blasphemy is still treason.

Perhaps the ultimate word on AFIMB came from a post at Free Republic, which damned it as “faggot blasphemy.” As if “disrespect” for the crucifix was double bad when coming from a gay man—and triple bad if he had AIDS.

As I write this, the Smithsonian apparently has yet to realize how pathetic it looks, having publicly peed its pants when a gang of preachy politicos said boo to it about an eleven-minute video. SI issued a statement with their lame spin: “We removed it from the exhibition Nov. 30 because the attention it was receiving distracted from the overall exhibition.” Really now. Can this once-hallowed national institution go on being viewed as a defender of scientific integrity and courageous historical achievement? I wonder.

Meanwhile, the politicos’ attack has backfired, rocketing AFIMB into global viral celebrity. Wojnarowicz’s film is now celebrated on hundreds of Web sites, is posted multiple times on YouTube, and has gotten millions of views. It sparks rants, rallies, editorials, and new exhibitions of the artist’s work. Along the way, it gets across that message of compassion for people with HIV/AIDS.

A Fire in My Belly (version censored by the Smithsonian) at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=RM_80zif-5w

Author of fiction bestsellers and provocative commentary, Patricia Nell Warren has her writings archived at www.patricianellwarren.com. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]

Copyright © Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.

February 2011