When I first saw the design for the new American Atheists/PANonbelievers billboard in protest of Resolution 535 declaring 2012 as “The Year of the Bible,” I have to admit I cringed a little. Not that I disagreed with the billboard or its message, but after having lived in the area for the past five years I immediately saw the potential for religious detractors to use racism as a means to deflect criticism from religion and the “Year of the Bible” fiasco either through misunderstanding or intentional mischaracterization.
When I read that this billboard was going to be placed at 13th and Paxton in Harrisburg there was a not insignificant part of me that thought “This will be a shitstorm and everyone will miss the point.” This is because 13th and Paxton is in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. Now, I also thought this was potentially positive since it might get people to think about the “Good Book” they hold in such reverence and the intricate role that the Christian Bible played in American slavery. Since an always surprisingly low number of Christians everywhere have actually read the thing maybe someone looks at the billboard and wonders “No! That can’t be right. I have to go look that up.” That would be great!
However, in this instance I am somewhat pessimistic. This is Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with all its surrounding communities and counties; including the Amish and Mennonite. Many of the Protestant denominations around here are descended from these highly conservative sects and there is a significant Baptist population as well. This is not a bastion of progressive values or thought. It is more than conservative, but not quite on the level of, say, Lakeland, Florida. The longer I live here the more I realize how radically conservative Christian a lot of people are. This is where the famous “Intelligent Design” court case Kitzmiller vs. Dover area School District took place and a local pastor, Rev. Ray Mummert, famously stated “We’ve been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture.” This was in 2005. Not 1905.
To kick things off for the local reaction portion of this post let us begin with the current Mayor of Harrisburg, Linda Thompson. When asked to comment on the billboard, she reportedly referred to the American Atheists and PA-Nonbelievers as anti-Christ’s. That preceded the following statement:
"I'll continue to pray for the atheists, that they may find Jesus Christ one day,"
Mayor Linda Thompson
For the record, Linda Thompson is a grade-A religious nutjob with a history of Christian hysteria so this is nothing new. Other reactions however are more disappointing from the perspective that the point of the billboard is, expectedly, being totally missed.
Tiffany Steele of Mechanicsburg stated that “It’s a disgrace and it’s very disrespectful to the black race.” The local online paper that quoted her just had to thrown in that Ms. Steele is from Mississippi and that “She said she never saw anything as racially offensive there.”
Homer C. Floyd, former director of the Human Relations Commission went so far as to say that it was possibly a hate crime.
“It’s offensive…They’re trying to ground it in the Bible, but I think it borders on a hate crime with the slave’s iron around his neck and tongs sticking out, with no clothes on the top half of his body. I’m going to call the Human Relations Commission and see if I can get them to come over and see what we can do about it.”
These are the reactions I expected. The billboard is not a “disgrace” and “disrespectful to the black race.” Further, it is not a hate crime. That is hyperbole and simply incorrect. Of course the hateful quote is tied to the Bible. The quote is from the Bible! It is the Bible that is disgraceful and disrespectful of the “black race” if that is your take on it. Incidentally, we need to come up with a new “Law” (like Godwin’s Law) for when Christians or any religionist gets upset that a direct quote from the Bible (or their scriptures) is deemed offensive and inflammatory. I propose Floyd’s Law. We’ll see if that sticks.
The hate crime accusation is as poorly thought out as it is reactionary and uninformed. What exactly is the crime? The “target” of the quote and the imagery is not the African-American community or Christians. The target is the Bible that has been trumpeted as God’s Word and integral to the formation of the United States as stated in the Pennsylvania Legislature’s Resolution 535. Given the slave trade’s use of the Bible to justify itself in the United States, the use of Colossians 3:22 is legitimate to point out this selective cherry-picking and that the PA Legislature has no business creating a resolution honoring it.
You can bet this billboard will be brought up on Sunday in the pulpit. Most atheists, including myself, will say “Great! That’s what we want!” but again...I’m pessimistic. My worry is that it will continue to only be painted as racism on the part of the atheist groups and not many will consider the religious implications of Colossians 3:22 (not unexpectedly, I suppose). This is why I was concerned with how the black community in Harrisburg would react. Again, I think the billboard and its message are valid. Will anyone around here see that? I don’t know. Hopefully there are some. The local news is all over it (and yes it is being portrayed very negatively), but it’s not like the people that might reevaluate their trust in the Bible are likely to be interviewed or willing to be interviewed. After all, being a black atheist is tantamount to exiling oneself from the community. However, there is a perfect example of why the billboard’s message is prescient and important. The following three sentences are possibly the best illustration of what all of these issues amount to and why we need to keep pushing. In response to the billboard, Thaddeus Kirkland stated:
"My master is Jesus Christ. I'm a slave to Christianity. I'm a slave to Christ."
Baptist pastor and State Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland, D-Chester*
Baptist pastor and State Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland, D-Chester*
*Rep. Kirkland also signed Resolution 535 declaring 2012 as “The Year of the Bible.”
UPDATE: That didn’t take long. The billboard was vandalized in less than 24 hours. via Friendly Atheist