Robert Callahan, a former American ambassador to Nicaragua, published an op-ed in Wednesday's Tribune addressing the problems France has had assimilating its large and growing Muslim population. Perhaps France's Muslims don't want to be assimilated, Callahan mused; perhaps they're unwilling to make the kind of compromises of religious principles that assimilation requires.
"That's one of the burdens of living in a free and pluralistic society—you must tolerate all manner of opinion, even if you find the opinion offensive and insulting," Callahan writes. He's ready with an example: "Imagine what Christians thought when a self-proclaimed artist, using public grant money, took a photograph of a crucifix in a jar of his urine and displayed it in museums.
This was the Piss Christ of Andres Serrano, which won a prize in a competition cosponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and caused consternation when it went on exhibit in 1989. Serrano submerged a small plastic crucifix in a yellow liquid he identified as his own urine. To quote Senator Jesse Helms: "Serrano is not an artist. He's a jerk." Senator Al D'Amato called Piss Christ "a piece of trash." Wikipedia tells us, "Serrano received death threats and hate mail, and he lost grants due to the controversy. Others alleged that the government funding of Piss Christ violated separation of church and state. The work was vandalized at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, and gallery officials reported receiving death threats in response to Piss Christ."
Callahan compares Piss Christ as an affront to the "odious" and bogus Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which he observes is "still available online and in disreputable bookstores." He writes, with an air of celebration, that Americans "have no choice" but to put up with such insults. "They begrudgingly accept urine-soaked crucifixes and anti-Semitic tracts. It's all about many races and religions trying to coexist. It's about pluralism. It's about freedom."
That's pretty rosy, but Callahan has a point. Nobody's been assassinated over Piss Christ. In fact, it might be instructive to compare the respective fates of Piss Christ and Charlie Hebdo in France. Four years ago Piss Christ was hanging in a gallery in Avignon when a group dedicated to "re-Christianizing" France made it a cause. They bombarded the gallery with e-mails and spam, and then about a thousand protesters marched on it. Finally, on Palm Sunday, four young people in sunglasses shattered the Plexiglass shield of Piss Christ with hammers and slashed the photograph beyond repair.
Which is a far cry from assassinating the artist and exhibitors.
Now there's a much closer equivalency between religious insults for us to consider. The Associated Press has refused to distribute the Prophet Muhammed cartoons that presumably inspired last week's Charlie Hebdo massacre. In the words of an AP spokesman, "It's been our policy for years that we refrain from moving deliberately provocative images."
Yet the AP website carried a picture of Piss Christ, an archival photo it was offering for sale.