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.