By Patrick Evans
Much has been made in recent days of the decision by the Smithsonian to pull the video installation “A Fire in My Belly” by artist David Wojnarowicz from an exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery. William Donohue of the Catholic League had railed against the piece for an 11 – second segment showing ants crawling over a crucifix, and the usual suspects, faux televangelist Glenn Beck, House Majority Leader-elect Eric Cantor and others made statements decrying this supposedly horrific attack on their (and my) faith.
This is a completely predictable situation, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it weren’t cooked up on one of the conservative/religious right conference calls. The usual “war on Christians at Christmas” tactic mixed with the usual “infidel artist” tactic. Wait five minutes and the next place you’ll see this is in the fund-raising appeals of Cantor, Donohue, Beck, et al.
The truly ridiculous part is that Christian theology teaches that the tortured, abused body of Christ is God incarnate to experience and understand the deepest of human suffering, including the devastation done to bodies by AIDS. Are ants crawling on a depiction of that broken, wounded body really doing worse to Christ than humans did? Really? Ants? Jesus and his followers are afraid of ants on a plaster representation of his body?
The truly blasphemous abomination is the church’s initial reluctance, even refusal to care for, speak out about, and show dignity to literal bodies of real people with HIV/AIDS. The church (Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, most all branches of it) has come a long way in its work of compassion, care and advocacy on behalf of people with HIV/AIDS, but still has much more of its own work to do in ridding itself of bigotry and stigma, which these leaders have just stirred up for their own gain.
The religious and political leaders who used World AIDS Day in this holy season of Advent to cultivate political power and raise money by focusing on 11 seconds of an artistic work by a man who died of AIDS in 1992 would do well to remember the clear and unequivocal words of the savior whose wounds they are so quick to save from crawling insects:
“You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”
The wounds of Christ are the wounds of David Wojnarowicz, and all who suffer in body, mind or spirit. Perhaps Beck, Cantor, and Donohue will consider donating all the funds they raise on the backs of the suffering this season to one of the many church-affiliated AIDS relief organizations. In this waiting time of Advent, we live in hope.
Patrick Evans is associate professor in the Practice of Sacred Music at the Yale Divinity School and the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, Worship and the Arts.