In 1987, Andres Serrano produced an art piece entitled Immersion (Piss Christ). The production was a 60-by-40-inch print of what Serrano describes as a photo of a 13-inch plastic crucifix submerged in a plexiglass tank full of his own blood and urine. As one might imagine, this angered a lot of people.
For some, it was a matter of economic waste. Serrano had received a $15,000 fellowship from the tax-payer funded National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). In addition, the photo was chosen as the winner in the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art’s “Awards in the Visual Arts” Competition.
US Senators Alphonse D’Amato (R-NY) and Jesse Helms (R-NC) led the public outrage campaign against Serrano, referring to the photo as a “deplorable, despicable display of vulgarity.” Serrano received a few small federal grants, so others protested that the funding violated the separation of church and state. Sen. D’Amato wrote, “This matter does not involve freedom of artistic expression — it does involve the question of whether American taxpayers should be forced to support such trash.” This 30-year-old controversy has recently reignited with President Trump’s proposed defunding of the NEA.
I don’t know whether or not it was Serrano’s goal to upset religious people. But he did.
The title Piss Christ seemed to agitate people even more than the content of the photo. People were outraged that these two words were joined together in a sentence. If I rightly interpret what people were (and still are) saying, they think that the word piss taints the title, Christ. Their objection is that the holy idea of Christ is defiled by being next to something so vulgar. They view the whole thing as blasphemous.
This argument is nothing new. The religious elitists have always had a problem with Jesus getting too close to sin and sinners. (For more information on this topic, read your Bible.)
But the question I want to pose is this: Is Piss Christ really all that different from what the real Christ actually did in being born in Bethlehem that night?
Perhaps we don’t know what it means, from heaven’s perspective, for the Word to become flesh and dwell among us. When Jesus became flesh, He submitted Himself to the bodily fluids of blood and urine. My argument is that it is less outrageous to imagine a plastic crucifix being lowered into a tank of urine than it is for the Holy, Eternal God of heaven to become a man, in need of blood and relieving His urine. This is what the Bible means when it says the Word became flesh or He who knew no sin became sin for us.
And on top of that, in order for me to be outraged, I have to presume that my existence is better than Serrano’s tank of blood and urine.
But is my existence better?
There are plenty of times where I’m sure my life is nothing more than a tank full of urine. Not because of what people are doing to me, but because of who I tend to be in and of myself. I have dark times. I deal with sin, depression, insecurities, failures, and fears. But I find encouragement in knowing that I have a God that joined me in the darkness. I have a God that was willing to get Himself covered in the same blood and urine in which I find myself immersed. I am grateful for a God that, though I pissed all over Him and His desires, loved me enough to die for me while I was still His enemy.
One of my biggest problems is that I don’t tend to see my natural condition for what it is: shit. This is exactly what Paul said of his natural condition in Philippians 3:8. He counted everything as dung. The KJV translators got this one right when they translated Paul’s statement using the word dung. For reasons beyond me, modern translators have been trying to clean it up ever since.
I think the supposed moral outrage over Piss Christ was just another excuse for religious people to stay angry and use religion for political power. Because if we were honest with ourselves and viewed ourselves as we really are (and as heaven see us), I think Piss Christ would look more like a selfie.
As previously stated, I don’t know what Serrano’s goal was with this photo. But it leads me to reflect on the humility, love, and kindness of God as revealed by the Baby in the manger.
I love that Jesus joined me in this mess. I’m glad that He joined me in my darkness. I’m glad that He humbled Himself to join me in the tank of urine. I’m eternally grateful.
I’m glad for that first condescending Christmas.