Juxtaposed Desecrations

Two interesting and unfortunate things happened in Western Europe in the last two days; two famous works were attacked: Andre Serrano’s “Piss Christ” was stabbed in France and the sacristy of Antoni Gaudi’s Basilica of the Sagrada Familia was lit on fire in Spain.

I learned about these two acts of vandalism from two very different blogs: Pharyngula by the atheist PZ Myers  and American Papist by the Catholic Thomas Peters.

Myers was horrified that Piss Christ was attacked, and likened it to the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan.  That seems like a stretch to me. One is stabbing a photograph, the other blowing up an ancient irreplaceable archaeological site. Stretch.

He then claimed that such an act meant that he was no longer going to listen to Catholics about his destruction of a “cracker” a while back (not that he ever did).  He didn’t mention his burying of a Bible and Quran in his yard either, which I suppose could be offensive too.

Peters was horrified the Sagrada Familia was attacked, and didn’t compare it to anything other than burning churches, which, of course, is exactly what it was. This is more like the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, if one is looking for an analogy, but the basilica can be repaired – the fire did not progress far.

Destroying other people’s property is wrong, period.  Both of these acts of vandalism were wrong.  No one has the right to decide who gets to keep their property and who doesn’t.  But – and this is perhaps the most interesting part to me (with regards to the blogs, not the vandalisms) as an observer of human responses to violations of ethics – Myers used the first incident to justify his own odd antics, while Peters was simply shocked and saddened by the second incident. As an ethicist, I get to call who responded properly to these unethical acts.  Peters did, not Myers.

If your first reaction upon hearing about the destruction of something is to defend your own past behaviors, you have problems.

It is remarkable that things like this are quite rare in the United States and when they do occur they are all over the news and get extensively denounced.  We think we are a nation that is polarized and fraught with “culture wars” and so on.  And we, of course, do have some problems.  But we aren’t storming museums or lighting major churches on fire. Or blowing up ancient Buddhas, for that matter.  Instead we read the internet and write blog posts, I suppose.  Imagine that, Americans being relatively reasonable and calm compared to other places in the world.  I like it!

So to look on the bright side, when it comes to religious tension, we’re not the worst.  I know we have lots of problems, don’t get me wrong.  But other places seem worse or at least “different.”  Do you have any ideas why?  Please leave a comment, I’m interested to know.


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