Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Art, Censorship, and the Scandal of the Cross

by Patrick S Cheng

In late November, the Smithsonian Institution ordered the removal of a four-minute video clip from an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery about same-sex love. The video contained, among other things, images of ants crawling on a crucifix.

The video was taken from the film A Fire in My Belly, which was created in 1987 by the late gay artist David Wojnarowicz as a tribute to his fellow artist and lover who had died of AIDS. The film also expressed Wojnarowicz's anger at his own HIV diagnosis, which at that time - nearly a decade before the availability of life-prolonging antiretroviral cocktail medications - was tantamount to a death sentence.*

Over the last month, the art world has been in an uproar over this act of censorship by the Smithsonian Institution. The removal of the Wojnarowicz video occurred after complaints by the Catholic League that the video of the crucifix and ants constituted anti-Christian hate speech. A number of members of Congress also complained about the clip, which undoubtedly hastened the demise of the video exhibit.
This is not the first time that controversial images of Jesus and the cross have resulted in public outcry and censorship. In 1987, the artist Andres Serrano created a work called Piss Christ, which was a photograph of a crucifix submerged in the artist’s own urine.

In 1997, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Melbourne unsuccessfully filed suit to prevent the display of the photograph in Australia at the National Gallery of Victoria. Shortly thereafter, several people physically attacked and tried to remove the photograph, which led to the cancellation of the show.
Recently, an exhibit of a six-foot tall chocolate statute of a nude crucified Jesus Christ by Cosimo Cavallaro was cancelled after outcries by the Catholic League (which described it as “one of the worst assaults on Christianity sensibilities ever”) and other religious groups. The anatomically-correct exhibit, called My Sweet Lord, was scheduled to be shown in a New York City art gallery during Holy Week of 2007.

How should we react, as persons of faith, to these admittedly offensive works of art? In my view, one of the redeeming functions of these works, theologically speaking, is to remind us of the deeply scandalous and offensive nature of the crucifixion.

As St Paul writes in his First Letter to the Corinthians, see 1 Cor 1:23, the cross is a “stumbling block,” or skandalon in the Greek, to non-Christians. In other words, who could believe that the Messiah, the savior of the world, would be tortured, executed, and die a shameful death as a common criminal?

As Christians, we have been desensitized to the horrors of the cross. Instead of understanding the cross as a state-sponsored instrument of execution, the cross has been turned into sentimental jewelry and pious artwork.
Instead of seeing the cross as a reminder of God-with-us in the flesh-and-blood sufferings of the world – a theologia crucis – the cross has been turned into a sanitized symbol of victory and ecclesial triumphalism – a theologia gloriae.

God is perfectly capable of redeeming the horrors of cross; that’s what the Resurrection and Easter Sunday is all about.

Unfortunately, the well-intentioned but misguided belief that Christians are the exclusive “owners” of the cross – and are required to protect it from profanation at all costs – is what often results in incredibly cruel and horrific persecutions such as the Crusades and the Inquisition.

God doesn’t need Christians to act as intellectual property watchdogs. Rather, God calls us to remember – through the cross – all those in the world who continue to suffer in the flesh and blood, whether through hunger, poverty, disease, sexual violence, hate crimes, or state-sponsored torture and executions.

* AZT, the first antiretroviral used was only introduced in 1996.

+ The Reverend Patrick S Cheng is the Assistant Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His book, Radical Love: An Introduction to Queer Theology, published by Church Publishing and available on Amazon, will be released in March 2011.


  1. I enjoyed the piece. I think the artist is making a theological argument about Christ. In a sense, he develops a body theology through the marked body of Christ. The piece reminds me of M. Shawn Copeland's book Enfleshed Freedom in some ways. Great post, Patrick!

  2. I believe that the conservative Christians got so upset about the Wojnarowicz video precisely because it equates Jesus’ suffering with queer / LGBT suffering -- and they do NOT want us to be identified with Christ at all.

    There are many more examples of crucifixion art that has been censored, such as the female “Christa” by Edwina Sandys, the black androgynous “Jesus of the People” by Janet McKenzie, and the gay Jesus “Ecce Homo” photos by Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin. I wrote about them in my book “Art That Dares.” These and other gay Jesus and woman Christ images can be viewed in the online gallery at:

    Thanks for an insightful essay. I especially love this line: “God doesn’t need Christians to act as intellectual property watchdogs.” Amen!