Back in 1999 artist Chris Ofili smeared elephant feces and pasted pornographic photographs on an image of the Virgin Mary and hung it in the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It caused a firestorm of protest. Ofili's detractors were outraged at the sacrilege. His defenders retorted with the predicable arguments citing freedom of expression and artistic autonomy but avoided any serious engagement with the real meaning of the piece.
Ofili's desecration is nothing new. In recent years we have seen "Piss Christ" where a crucifix was submerged in a jar of urine, Neonazis painting swastikas on synagogues, even Madonna simulating sex acts in a set designed as a church.
Shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin ordered soldiers into Russian villages that resisted the imposition of the Communist yoke. Lenin discovered that religious faith informed much of the resistance. Especially troublesome was the teaching that the statutes governing human affairs were subject to the higher judgment of God. It repudiated the Marxist denial of the ideal and everything it implied including the establishment of the state as the final arbiter of all human affairs.
Religious faith was a grave threat to Marxism and Lenin knew it. The soldiers struck at the heart of this faith by striking at the symbols that defined it. Churches, when not burned, were turned into the village dump -- a kind of lasting testimonial of desecration. Soldiers urinated in chalices and defecated on altars. Almost all priests were killed. The offense caused by this desecration ran deep. It proclaimed that a new way of ordering the universe -- a new faith -- had entered the world.
The word symbol in the Greek means the place where two realities come together. Religious symbols have a particular power because religion speaks of the higher unseen things like meaning, purpose, value, and destiny, and thus represent a moral comprehension about how the universe is ordered and how man ought to live within it. In fact, the symbol itself can be said to contain this view. The symbol in other words, functions as a placeholder in space and time of eternal and timeless truths.
Religious symbols bind an individual to a religious community and testify to the sacred inheritance of that community. They represent the body of teaching and instruction inherited from the past that directs how the community ought to live today. This tradition shapes the culture of the community so that the tradition itself can be passed on to the next generation. The symbol identifies the community by what it believes and how it lives.
Desecration is more than the destruction or misuse of the symbol itself. Desecration is sacrilege; the use of the symbol in ways hostile to its meaning and in ways that the tradition considers profane. By desecrating the symbol, the desecrator not only defiles the symbol, he also denies the legitimacy of the community to whom the symbol belongs.
Secularists are unaware of the turmoil that desecration can cause because they have acculturated the Marxist denial of the ideal even though many may not realize it. The secularist perceives transcendence as social universals expressed in the language of "rights" and applied through politics. He regards the state as the final arbiter of truth and falsehood, justice and injustice, good and evil, all the constituents that shape culture, because the state is both the source and end of political life.
There no Moses and no Paul in the secular tradition -- no sense of eternal or timeless truth. Rather, the secular prophets like Rousseau, Marx, Lenin, Hitler, Sanger, Gramsci, Alinsky, and others, reduce transcendence to social utility and thus establish the state as the guarantor of heaven on earth. Today this secular view dominates public discourse and explains why most discussions about the desecration of religious symbols address only their political and legal ramifications. The cultural ramifications seldom show up on the radar screen and when they do, the secular censors are quick to dismiss them.
Religion is not the product of culture, religion is the source writes philosopher Russell Kirk. "It's from an association in a cult, a body of worshipers, that human community grows...when belief in the cult has been wretchedly enfeebled, the culture will decay swiftly. The material order rests on the spiritual order."*
When the dominant religious symbols in the culture are desecrated, the beliefs and values that define and shape culture are weakened and can be overthrown. The overthrow of culture is why Lenin destroyed churches and Hitler destroyed synagogues (and why the Taliban blew up a 5000 year old Buddha). This is why a crucifix was submerged in urine and an icon of the Virgin Mary was smeared with feces.
There is contempt of the past, a senseless denial of any possibility of enduring meaning, in desecration art. Desecration art functions like the parasite; it destroys the heritage from which it draws its meaning. Ofili's piece illustrates this. The icon gives the piece meaning, yet the icon is what the piece seeks to destroy. Destroy the meaning of the icon and the meaning of the piece is destroyed with it like the parasite that dies with its host. The artist is vandal and the museum the gate to this cultural barbarism.
If the artist succeeds in destroying the heritage of western culture, the precepts that give his desecration meaning will die along with it. He follows the same path as the Marxist soldiers sent in to quell rebellious villagers: destroy the enduring truths to prepare the way for a Utopia that will never arrive.
*Russell Kirk "Civilization without Religion?" The Heritage Foundation Report (July 24, 1992).
This article was published on Front Page Magazine website under the title "Desecration as a Political Weapon."
Copyright © 2002 Johannes L. Jacobse. Rev. Jacobse is a priest in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.