The Smithsonian, the Cross and David Wojnarowicz

I remember the first time I read Wojnarowicz. I picked up a collection of writings on AIDS in a bookstore in New York City. The piece that spoke to me most was called "Spiral", by David Wojnarowicz, which ends with these haunting words:

"I am standing among all of you waving my invisible arms and hands. I am shouting my invisible words. I am getting so weary. I am growing so tired. I am waving to you from here. I am crawling around looking for the aperture of complete and final emptiness. I am vibrating in isolation among you. I am screaming but it comes out like pieces of clear ice. I am signaling that the volume of all this is too high. I am waving. I am waving my hands. I am disappearing. I am disappearing but not fast enough."

I memorized this poem as I felt I could learn from Wojnarowicz's work as I sought to fuse art and religion -- both equally important and necessary to me as I tried to make sense of a troubling world. At the time I was attending Judson Baptist Church in the village as a newly interested Christian, and in the following years I began a Masters of Divinity at Union Seminary with Wojnarowicz in my pocket.

I felt, and feel, indebted to Wojnarowicz. His writing challenged me with its mixture of anger and suffering; and his life inspired me as he created mysterious, defiant, beautiful and dangerous art as a response. Wojnarowicz became a symbol of what was important in art and religion. I wanted my work to contain the same immediacy, edge and truth as his. I wanted to name, and by naming somehow redeem, the reality of suffering in the world. If I could not do that, then my theology and faith were not worth having or sharing. In Wojnarowicz I found a radical and surprising voice of compassion in the sense of the word that means to "suffer with."

So it is especially painful to me that Wojnarowicz has been censored from the Smithsonian as a response to pressure from people wearing the banner of religion. The film that has caused all the uproar is called "Fire In My Belly." He made it with the composer and singer Diamanda Galas, who also is known for her "AIDS Mass" and dedicated it to his boyfriend who had died of AIDS.

The film is tough going. There is blood dripping, there are images of skulls from Dia de los Muertos, there are carcasses of meat and there are male body parts. And infamously, there are crucifixes with ants crawling on them, and images of Jesus with blood for tears lying prostrate on the ground. These final images are what apparently drove some Christians to see this art as an offense to religion. By naming these religious images as particularly offensive we have to assume that if the film did not show the crucifix and Jesus that the pious would have held their noses, ignored it and moved on.

But it is exactly the use of these iconic images that makes this art important. It is the use of these images that makes "Fire In My Belly," in fact, Christian Art. For all their anger and frustration with religion -- and remember Wojnarowicz was a gay man living with AIDS in a time when many were (and still are) using their religion to condemn those with HIV/AIDS -- the artists were appealing to the image of Jesus to represent their decay and suffering.

I do not think the artists intention was to gratuitously disrespect religion. Instead, it was to use religious imagery in a new way. To show the figure of Jesus, crucified, bloody, with ants crawling over him, is to vividly portray all those who suffer in the world. The response of the viewer is horror and outrage, which is exactly what the Christian response should be to the world's suffering, including the horror of AIDS and hatred of gays. It is pure irony that the religious bigotry and governmental power that condemned Jesus to die are now employed to remove one man's artistic adoption and interpretation of that same death.

I do not know Wojnarowicz's mind -- I never met him. He may not agree with my interpretation of his work. That doesn't matter. What is important is that Christians should be very careful that we are not so precious about what constitutes "respectful" use of Jesus that we miss the fact that Jesus might redeem others in a way that we cannot imagine. When someone who is mourning the loss of his partner to AIDS finds an outlet for his rage in the suffering of Jesus on the cross, who are any of us to judge?

The image from "Fire In My Belly" that I cannot get out of my head is a loaf of bread that has been broken down the middle. Throughout the four-minute film, hands try to stitch the bread back together. As a Christian, I see that bread broken and I think of Jesus, who, on the night he was betrayed took bread, broke it and said, "Take, eat, this is my body broken for you." In trying to stitch that broken bread back together, I see a life that has been torn apart through sickness and loss that is fiercely trying to make something whole.

The Smithsonian should realize that there are many ways to interpret art and religious respect. The Smithsonian should re-instate "Fire In My Belly" as an act of righteousness and courage -- and make the exhibit whole again.