Is the State a Religious Actor in Deeming Teen’s Crotch-Rubbing of Jesus Statue Illegal?

This week, controversies emerged involving both a statue of Satan and a statue of Jesus, a “tale of two statues” that raises interesting questions about how objects come to be regarded as sacred, and the role of the government in maintaining distinctions between sacred and profane objects.

In Vancouver, a guerilla artist erected a statue of a red, nude Satan (complete with a thorny phallus) atop a pedestal that formerly featured a statue of Columbus. City workers removed Satan, breaking a leg off in the process. However, a petition to return Satan to his original place has already gathered 1,000 signatures.

In Everett, Pennsylvania, a teenager is facing up to two years in juvenile prison for grinding his crotch into the face of a kneeling statue of Jesus. Police discovered images of this obscene performance on the teenager’s Facebook page and charged him with “desecration of a venerated object.” Pennsylvania law defines desecration as:

Defacing, damaging, polluting or otherwise, physically mistreating in a way that the actor knows will outrage the sensibilities of persons likely to observe or discover the action.

Atheists have already taken to the blogosphere to decry the absurdity of Pennsylvania’s desecration law, which carries a substantially heavier punishment than criminal mischief. Hemant Mehta points out that the statue was not physically harmed or defaced by the teen’s actions.

The legal contexts of these stories are quite different: The statue of Satan was placed on public property without the city’s consent, while the kneeling Jesus statue was on private property. But sociologically it is striking to see one statue of a religious figure casually broken and thrown in a truck while another is protected as a “venerated object.” The juxtaposition of these cases begs the question: What does it mean for an object to be “venerated?” How does one statue gain a status such that it must be legally protected from “pollution,” while another statue is itself regarded as polluting?

Mircea Eliade noted that anything could become could come to be regarded as hierophany—a manifestation of the sacred. He wrote, “Indeed, we cannot be sure that there is anything—object, movement psychological function, being or even game—that has not at some time in human history been somewhere transformed into a hierophany.”

More recently, Ann Taves, in her book Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things describes the process of “singularization,” the process by which people deem certain things special and set them apart from others. Thus, sacred objects exist on a continuum with other “special things” deemed special and distinct, including such objects as knick-knacks we cannot throw away because they have sentimental value.

Some Christians clearly were upset that a teenager “mistreated” a statue of Jesus, even posting violent threats online. But for others, it was likewise upsetting to see a statue of Satan broken by careless workers. For the 1,000 people who signed a petition, the guerilla art installation has significance because it was clever, pointed out the bureaucratic absurdity of an empty pedestal, and because it was art! If the statue was not a “venerated object” it was clearly “special” and set apart from similar images of Lucifer that might be found in Halloween decorations or hot sauce labels.

To return to the arguments presented by atheists such as Mehta, the tale of the two statues reveals why laws that present “venerated objects” as a legally significant category are untenable. Venerated by whom? For what reason? To paraphrase Taves, there are no venerated objects, only objects deemed worthy of veneration.

As others have pointed out, defacing property is a crime and simulating sex acts on a statue of Jesus is offensive, intolerant, and idiotic. But to afford certain objects the legal status of “venerated” is a form of hegemony that inevitably privileges certain perspectives over others. At worst, it is not citizens but the government itself that is selecting which objects are ordinary and which must be set apart and guarded against physical and ritual pollution. Bestowing this status onto an object is a process that some scholars would deem to be religious.

10 Comments

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    This does open up the possibility of a new internet fad, posting desecration pictures. It doesn’t have to be real. You could also photoshop desecrations. The photos would be judged by how upset people get.

  • gregp@unm.edu' Gregory Peterson says:

    Since the statue of Jesus looks like my Norwegian self back (way, way back) when I was in college, perhaps I should be suing the church for using my image without permission?

  • jeffj@cruzio.com' Jeffrey G. Johnson says:

    I understand and acknowledge how rubbing a crotch in the face of a revered object could upset people, and also that far more people would be upset by insults to Jesus than insults to Satan.

    But let’s not forget that there is a commandment against idolatry. Christians who are serious about the Trinity and who revere images of Jesus are being hypocritical by making statues of God, unless they are abandoning the Ten Commandments.

    But closer to my heart is the violation of the sacred First Amendment by this Pennsylvania law. The youth was engaged in religiuos expression, albeit in a very negative sense. But freedom of religion does not mean freedom to choose from among religions with a requirement that you choose at least one. It includes the freedom to reject and to criticize religion. Free speech is of course subjected to limitations by SCOTUS precedent in the time, place, and manner, and perhaps this is a case where free speech has infringed upon freedom of religion for those who venerate this image of their God.

    But even if we ignore all constitutional issues, a punishment of two years for an act of rudeness is beyond all reason. The constitution protects minorities from the tyranny of the majority, and if this young person is given two years of detention as punishment for this act alone, it is a form of religious tyranny. At most he should have a few days detention or some community service, but a severe criticism and a lesson about respecting others even if you disagree with them sounds like a more apt punishment to me.

  • tojby_2000@yahoo.com' apotropoxy says:

    Christianity teaches that sexual congress is a profound act of love. Perhaps this young may was only expressing affection?

  • frjesusgaylord@yahoo.com' FrJesusGaylord says:

    I enthusiastically endorse this product or event.

  • Dennis.Lurvey@live.com' GeniusPhx says:

    I question if this law could withstand constitutional scrutiny at least in the way its being applied. this statue is on private property so why was the city involved at all? this kid may be guilty of trespassing but the area is not fenced off or marked. the statue was not damaged at all so there is no vandalism.

    this act only violated christian sensibilities, in the same way a picture of Allah violates muslims. It’s an opinion and we dont lock people up for having an opinion.

  • john.harvey@verizon.net' SgtCedar says:

    Having read the law I think a competent lawyer should be able to get this case thrown out of court. Did the young man do something stupid. Yes, but that is the definition of youth, someone without the maturity to make adult decisions. I find it interesting that the church where the statue is located is not filing the charges.

  • elizavieta@gmail.com' eliza says:

    I worked in an office with someone doing that with photos of his co workers.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    Did anyone get upset?

  • iu_denden@yahoo.com' Labataille says:

    What I have not understood in this story all along, is that there was not damage to the statue, therefore, where is the crime? It is distasteful. Immature. It is not criminal. Without the pictures that the idiotic teen posted, no one would know anything had happened in front of the statue. If I walk by the statue and give it the finger, it is the same thing and I could be prosecuted? Crazy! Like living in Pakistan!

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