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“Tolerance.”

(image courtesy Ben McCanna @ centralmaine.com)

Riley Harris is a student at the University of Southern Maine. As part of an assignment called “The Introduction to the Visual Book,” Harris made an “art piece” depicting torn pages from the Bible that were colored in red, made to look like flames and images of Satan’s head on Christ’s body.

Harris called the “piece” “Unholy Bible: Very Revised Standard Edition.”

Harris explained regarding his piece, titled called “Unholy Bible: Very Revised Standard Edition”: “I was thinking a lot about questioning authority in general. People question different types of authority, but for some reason religious authority seems too taboo to question, so I thought I would give it a shot.” He stated that the class instructor pointed out that the class assignment, called “The Introduction to the Visual Book,” could engender plagiarism, so Harris picked a book in the public domain.

Harris, who says he is an atheist, claimed that although the Bible and Christianity are “important to some people, a lot of Christianity harms other people.” He added that he understood the negative reaction, then said, “My only reaction to people responding to it negatively is everyone has their own sort of morals and no one’s morals are right or really wrong. Everyone thinks their own way – and not everyone’s (morals) line up … I don’t think my piece is harming anyone. It’s just making people think. I think when it starts harming someone then maybe it should be considered not great.”

The University rents out space to several local community groups, including the Casco Bay Church of Christ. The piece was seen by the young daughter of one Charlie Flynn who brought it to her father’s attention.

Flynn was not happy about the piece:

“This is someone’s sacred text being desecrated, destroyed and displayed in a public place. I couldn’t help but feel no one’s sacred text should be treated that way. I think it’s very inappropriate and repugnant.”

[….]

Flynn concluded, “If I saw a Koran with pig blood on it I would certainly call someone, or a Torah with unclean foods on it. This is a Bible with Satan’s image put over Jesus’ image and around Christmastime. I don’t understand why that would be viewable in an institution of higher learning. This is USM, a school that services the community.”

The school, for their part, declined to take action on the piece saying:

“The policy states that the university supports free speech so long as it does not ‘violate the law, defame specific individuals, genuinely threaten or harass others, or violate privacy or confidentiality requirements or interests. Although the University System greatly values civility and expects community members to share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, demands for civility and mutual respect will not be used to justify restricting the discussion or expression of ideas or speech that may be disagreeable or even offensive to some members of the University community.’”

We agree with the University. Just because something is offensive to members of society does not mean it needs to be removed.

There is no legal justification for that.

However, we are left wondering if the school would have reacted the same way if other topics were the subject of the “artwork.”

What if the book was not the Bible, but the Koran? Moreover, what would Muslims have done in response to the piece?

What if the book was an LGBT flag? Would a torn LGBT flag have been left alone with only comments about the inappropriateness of tearing the flag up?

Somehow we don’t think so. Somehow we believe there would have been protests and violence against the piece itself.

We appreciate and understand the idea that a Christian father would be offended at the piece and what it represents. We appreciate the fact that the man spoke out, exercising his right to Free Speech just like the student who created the art work exercised their rights.

And as we said, we appreciate and are grateful that the University stood up for the rights of students.

We just can’t help but have this nagging feeling from other events that if the piece were made from other books, flags, etc., the result would have been much, much different.



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