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The Right To Be A Jerk

by @ 9:13 am on July 20, 2008. Filed under Catholic Church, Dumbasses, Religion

Brad Warbiany writes about a University of Central Florida student who decided to engage in what some would probably call “performance art”:

University of Central Florida student claims that he is getting death threats for messing with something sacred.

Webster Cook says that, instead of eating a Eucharist wafer as he was expected to do during the Sacrament of Holy Communion, he smuggled the blessed piece of bread out of mass.  Once blessed, the piece of bread  is viewed by Catholics as the true Body of Christ

Catholics worldwide became furious.

Webster’s friend, who didn’t want to show his face, said he took the Eucharist, to show him what it meant to Catholics.

What it means to Catholics, of course, is something rather important.

In short, Catholics believe that, through the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the host transforms into the actual presence of Jesus Christ. Call it crazy if you want. Call it without scriptural foundation even. It’s what they believe, which makes their reaction somewhat understandable in my mind:

 “We don’t know 100% what Mr. Cooks motivation was,” said Susan Fani a spokesperson with the local Catholic League.  “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.”

Webster just wants all of this to go away. Especially now that he feels his life is in danger.

Now, personally, I find the entire idea of “hate crimes” to be absurd. If someone threatens or attacks another person, the fact that they did it because of who they are rather than, for example, because they wanted their wallet doesn’t really matter. And I don’t see any objective crime that Webster actually committed here.

That doesn’t mean he deserves to get away scot-free, though.

He did this knowing what the Eucharist means to Catholics with the obvious intention of offending them by doing so. While he may not have committed a crime, he did act like a thoughtless jerk whose actions really aren’t worthy of being defended, as Megan McArdle notes:

Would it be okay if I spraypainted obscenities on your mother’s grave because it’s just a piece of highly compressed igneous rock with some lines chiseled into it? How about if I photoshop your a photo of your now-grown child onto a piece of child porn, because after all, no one’s actually hurt by this–it’s just a piece of paper.

If you reduce symbols to their base physical constituents, then of course it sounds silly to get all excited about them. Nonetheless, you’d probably be pretty damn upset if someone dug up a relative’s grave and desecrated the corpse on the grounds that it’s just some rotting meat.

People do not live without symbols. The fact that you do not share someone else’s symbols does not give you the right to descrate them. Desecrating other people’s symbols is the act of a bully and a boor.

And people like Webster who think they are making friends by acting like boors are the reason that political and social discourse in this country has been reduced to the level of an afternoon talk radio show.

Update: James Joyner makes what I think is a better analogy than the one Megan McArdle came up with:

Perhaps a better example for non-religious folks is the burning of the American flag in protest, an act that so enrages millions that laws have been passed to prohibit it and, once the Supreme Court ruled it to be protected speech, has even sparked calls for amending the Constitution to ban it.  While it’s perfectly legal to do burn the flag — and it’s a very powerful way of making a point — it’s also something that will likely earn you widespread scorn.

Which is something that I said when I first wrote about flag burning way back in 1989.

James also makes another point:

I didn’t think that Western cartoonists were wrong to draw cartoons of Mohammed, regardless of whether others — even a billion others — believed that doing so was blasphemy. Ditto when Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses and earned fatwah from the Ayatollah Khomeini. People have a right to express themselves and others have a right to be offended by that expression; violence, however, is not an acceptable response.

Agreed, and outside of a few people who seem to be as equally boorish and immature as Myers, Webster and their cohorts, I don’t really see any evidence that the reaction to what they did is anywhere near the level of the reaction to the Mohammed cartoons or Rushdie.

We saw he same contrast two years ago when Sony Pictures released a picture that basically stated that Christianity was a millennium-long fraud.

So, yes, those making death threats against the people who perpetrated the Communion “stunt” are wrong, and so are those calling on UCF to investigate a so-called “hate crime”, but that doesn’t mean that recognizing the boorishness of these fools is out of the question.

7 Responses to “The Right To Be A Jerk”

  1. KipEsquire says:

    McCardle’s analogy is mind-bogglingly moronic; once again she demonstrates that she wouldn’t understand a libertarian argument if it came up and bit her on the nose.

    A gravesite is the private property of another; a wafer given willingly as part of a ritual open to the public becomes the property of the recipient (in the absence of any express a priori stipulation to the contrary).

    Contra McCardle, I most certainly have the “right to desecrate” anything I damn well please — once it becomes my property.

    If this is so important to Catholics, then let them require people to sign a waiver before they get the wafer, or post signs or do something that puts people on notice beforehand (i.e., creates a contract or otherwise attaches legally cognizable conditions); I could live with that. Otherwise, they are the ones who in fact have “no right” to demand anything from anyone.

  2. And one could argue that the communion wafer is the private property of the Church given to participants with the understanding that it will not be abused (actually, there are provisions of Canon Law that govern that).

    And I don’t see this as an argument about rights in a libertarian context.

    I see it as an argument about civility. Webster engaged in an action for the sole and obvious purpose of offending Catholics.

    Did he have the right to do it ? Of course.

    Was he right in doing it ? I don’t think so, because I think there is such a thing as civility and common decency.

  3. KipEsquire says:

    “And one could argue that the communion wafer is the private property of the Church given to participants with the understanding that it will not be abused (actually, there are provisions of Canon Law that govern that).

    No, one absolutely cannot argue that at all. I’m not required to know, or even to ask, what the Church’s expectations are. They’re required to communicate it to me proactively.

    (Much as I’m not required to know, or even to ask, whether there is a “saggy pants law” in Flint, Michigan, that might subject me to arrest. The government must communicate unorthodox laws to me in advance or I am, as a matter of constitution law, not subject to them.)

  4. Kip,

    Legally speaking, you are correctly.

    Speaking from the general rule that one doesn’t really accomplish anything by acting like an ass, it’s clear that Webster knew what he was doing, knew that it would offend people, and did it anyway.

    It’s roughly equivalent to marching up and down the sidewalk in front of a synagogue with a swastika flag.

    You have the right do it, and I have the right to conclude that the person doing it is a jerk unworthy of being listened to.

  5. [...] Doug Mataconis begs to differ: “Call it crazy if you want. Call it without scriptural foundation even. It’s what they believe, which makes their reaction somewhat understandable in my mind.”  Further, Myers “did this knowing what the Eucharist means to Catholics with the obvious intention of offending them by doing so. While he may not have committed a crime, he did act like a thoughtless jerk whose actions really aren’t worthy of being defended.” [...]

  6. Levvy J. says:

    I have to give you credit, author, for calling out those who make death threats, but by equating them with Mr. Myers or Mr. Cook, I do think you have unearth an unintentional irony: for some, Myers is actually making a death threat! If taken literally, the piece of bread becomes, somehow, “alive.” Operating under that premise, there is absolutely no objection to the bloviating of one Mr. Donahue; he is entirely right to call the actions of Mr. Cook kidnapping and the yet-actions of Mr. Myers offensive.

    In fairness to you, author, I do not see you making making that argument. From you, I see conversation non-starting pure opinion to which I say: I disagree. So there.

  7. Levvy,

    If I could understand what you said, I’d respond to it.

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