The Catholic “Cracker” Controversy

There’s been a lot of noise going back and forth over this story, and I wanted to make sure a few essential points make it out into the narrative.

I’ll state these three points right up front.  One, is that symbolic violence absolutely constitutes a hate crime.  Second, that the case at hand involved an honest mistake.  Third, that we need to tear down the veil of religious privilege and open religion up to criticism.

The first point comes from one of the fellows who certainly helped inflame tensions (Pharyngula):

Those are just kooks, you might say, but here is the considered, measured response of the local diocese:

“We don’t know 100% what Mr. Cooks motivation was,” said Susan Fani a spokesperson with the local Catholic diocese. “However, if anything were to qualify as a hate crime, to us this seems like this might be it.”

We just expect the University to take this seriously,” she added “To send a message to not just Mr. Cook but the whole community that this kind of really complete sacrilege will not be tolerated.”

Wait, what? Holding a cracker hostage is now a hate crime? The murder of Matthew Shephard was a hate crime. The murder of James Byrd Jr. was a hate crime. This is a goddamned cracker. Can you possibly diminish the abuse of real human beings any further?

Actually, if someone literally held a communion wafer hostage, after that wafer was viewed by believers as being the body of Christ, yes that would be a hate crime.  Imagine if that was done with a Torah taken from the Ark.  Or a copy of the Koran.  An intentional act of violence against a religious symbol that is meant to threaten a specified group of people would be a hate crime.  Smashing an idol or painting swastikas on a wall is no different than urinating on a Eucharist wafer.

However, that is not at all what happened here (Majikthise):

For the record, the student, Webster Cook, didn’t even steal the wafer, it was given to him. Cook is Catholic and is entitled to receive communion.

He says he didn’t intend to desecrate the wafer. He just wanted to show it to his non-Catholic friend, whom he had invited to church, before consuming it. It was an unorthodox move, but hardly a hate crime.

Not the wisest move in the book, but one that you would think would merit sympathy from members of the Church.  Wanting to share aspects of your life with friends is part and parcel of being human, and when your religious practice is a part of that, its perfectly natural to want to share it.  (Its also just as normal for the friend to be curious).  While by no means a Christian myself, I have been to church on two occasions, and was invited to a midnight mass (which I never did make).  Given this, the Church could have taken the opportunity to gently chide with a “You shouldn’t do that”, and use it as an opportunity to invite people to learn more about Catholicism.  I can understand this would be hard to do, they believe the communion wafer is the body of Christ, and it must be disconcerting to imagine it being handled inappropriately.  As hard as it is, sometimes meeting a situation like this head on with rhetorical force just creates backlash, when instead the response ought to spur sympathy and interest.  This could have been handled deftly and with skill.

Which leads me to my final point.  I hadn’t even heard of Religious Privilege until I read this (Pandagon, Manda Marcotte).  But its there, this idea that we ought not criticize believers, and anyone outside the traditional mono-theistic traditions ought to just be quiet and limit their social criticism to those who abuse their power, while ignoring the structural problems.  Which leads to the problem of hate speech vs free speech in a really unique way (Pandagon, Jesse Taylor):

The problem that I have with the Catholic League isn’t that they’re offended.  To people who believe in the transubstantion of the Eucharist, declaring it “just a cracker” is offensive.  But the majority of the world thinks that the Eucharist is just a cracker.

Calling it a cracker, while offensive to some, is the right of all.  Religion shouldn’t be off limits to critique.

Which brings us back to PZ Myers over at Pharyngula:

That’s right. Crazy Christian fanatics right here in our own country have been threatening to kill a young man over a cracker. This is insane. These people are demented fuckwits.

He’s right, they are.  And his colorful “threat” at the end of his post is hyperbole (Majikthise):

PZ was joking about desecrating the Eucharist. In his view, the sheer absurdity of death threats over a cracker called for an equally outrageous rhetorical response. Along the lines of: Oh, yeah, I’ll desecrate ten crackers Live! on the Internets!!!, what are you going to do about it?

It’s called hyperbole, a tactic often used in the these “jokes” the kids enjoy nowadays. Bill Donohue is from an era when any harsh word against the church was punishable heresy. Somewhere there’s an Inquisition missing its Inquisitor.

There is a line between religious hate crimes and the freedom to criticize religion.  Charges of heresy and being burned at the stake have been replaced (in some parts of the world) by charges of hate crime and death threats.  If we want to live in a free society, we need to find the patience and the wisdom to distinguish between critique and symbolic violence.  And we need to understand when symbolic violence, if ever, is allowable under the protection of the 1st ammendment.

What do you think?  Let’s take a look at PZ Myer’s hyperbolic joke:

So, what to do. I have an idea. Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There’s no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I’m sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won’t be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web.

Now, let’s change it around and aim it at another religion:

So, what to do. I have an idea. Can anyone out there score me some Korans? There’s no way I can personally get them — my local mosques have stakes prepared for me, I’m sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won’t be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Koran and watching [Imagine a Muslim who can make the media jump like Bill Donohue does] kick an Imam in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned book), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web.

Do you view it any differently?

Is this kind of speech allowable currently?  Should it be allowable?

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2 Responses

  1. I agree that symbolic actions can be hate crimes, but not because of the action, but because it represents the threat of or incitement of violence against a group. Crossburning is a hate crime. Shouting the n-word repeatedly is odious, but not a hate crime.

    What PZ did was (accidentally) demonstrate exactly why we need to protect speech like his. He mocked people for overreacting, and then they overreacted to a whole new level. If we don’t support the freedom to offend, we’ve lost a lot. I’m a wholehearted supporter of religious tolerance, but I don’t think anyone has the right, or even the reasonable expectation, to not be mocked for their beliefs.

    As a demonstration, imagine if we threatened the jobs of everyone who called atheists immoral monsters who shouldn’t be allowed to vote. I think such claims are incredibly stupid, but I’d never demand someone be fired because they wrote such a thing on their blog–I support free speech most strongly when it is speech that pisses people off, because if we don’t defend that speech’s right to exist, we can’t defend any speech.

  2. Evil Bender,
    That’s a very good way to slice it I think. The question of inciting violence is a very apt one, and a test that shows PZ’s comments don’t fall into that category.

    Speech can be reprehensible but protected.

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