An Unlikely Advent Meditation: Piss Christ in Prison

An Advent meditation I shared last year.

Out at the prison bible study I led the inmates through an unlikely advent meditation. Our focus was on Piss Christ, the controversial photograph by Andres Serrano.

As I describe in my book Unclean, in 1987 the photographer Andres Serrano unveiled his controversial work Piss Christ. Piss Christ was a photograph of a crucifix submerged in a mixture of blood and urine. The work broke into public consciousness in 1989 when members of the US Senate expressed outrage that Serrano had received $15,000 from the American National Endowment for the Arts. Senators called the work “filth,” “blasphemous,” and “abhorrent.” One Senator said, “In naming it, [Serrano] was taunting the American people. He was seeking to create indignation. That is all right for him to be a jerk but let him be a jerk on his own time and with his own resources. Do not dishonor our Lord.” Later, in 1997, the National Gallery in Melbourne, Australia was closed when members of a Christian group attacked and damaged Piss Christ.

Beyond the content of the photograph what really offends is the name, the juxtaposition of the word "piss" with "Christ." What is blasphemous is the contact between something holy and something defiling.

Piss contaminates the Christ.

This is an example of the attribution called negativity dominance in judgments of contamination. That is, when the pure comes in contact with the contaminant the pure becomes polluted. The negative dominates over the positive. The power is not with the pure but sits with the pollutant. 

This is why the Pharisees see Jesus becoming defiled when he eats with tax collectors and sinners. The pollutant--the tax collectors and sinners--defiles Jesus, the pure. The negative dominates over the positive. The pollutant is the stronger force. Thus it never occurs to the Pharisees, because it is psychologically counter-intuitive, that Jesus's presence might sanctify or purify those sinners he is eating with. Because pollution doesn't work that way.

Thus, in the contact between urine and Jesus in Piss Christ we instinctively judge the negative to be stronger than the positive. Thus the shock. Thus the blasphemy.

But the real blasphemy just might be this: That we think urine is stronger than Christ. That we instinctively--and blasphemously--believe that the defilement of our lives is the strongest force in the universe. Stronger even than God.

It never occurs to us that Christ is stronger than the "piss" of our lives.

I looked at the men in the study and said, This is the scandal of the Incarnation. This is the scandal of Christmas. That God descended into the piss, shit and darkness of your life. And the piss, shit and darkness did not overcome it.

I know, I told the men, that this is so very hard to believe. That Jesus goes into the darkest, most disgusting, most defiling corners of our lives. This, all by itself, is hard to believe. But even harder to believe is that Jesus is stronger than that polluting, shameful, defiling darkness.

That is the scandal of Christmas.
John 1.14a, 5
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
The story of the incarnation is more subversive than the most subversive art. It is hard to be more transgressive than Christmas. Consider Beth Williamson's analysis of Piss Christ:
What are we to make of this work: what are we to understand by it, and how can we interpret it?

Most obviously were enraged by the combination of the most iconic image of Christianity—the Crucified Christ—with human bodily fluid, and felt that this work set out deliberately to provoke viewers to outrage. The artist almost certainly aimed to provoke a reaction, but what reaction?

The fact that urine is involved is crucial here. But was the use of urine simply intended, as some of Serrano’s detractors have claimed, to cause offense? Had the artist deliberately set out to show disrespect to this religious image, by placing it in urine? Some felt this was tantamount to urinating on the crucifix.

I would suggest that, even if some viewers and commentators feel that it was the artist’s intention, or part of his intention, to be offensive, there are also other ways to interpret this work...

The process of viewing the Crucified Christ through the filter of human bodily fluids requires the observer to consider all the ways in which Christ, as both fully divine and full human, really shared in the base physicality of human beings. As a real human being Christ took on all the characteristics of the human body, including its fluids and secretions. The use of urine here can therefore force the viewer to rethink what it meant for Christ to be really and fully human. 
God had a body. That is about as transgressive as you can get. So transgressive that many Christians, now and throughout history, have passionately resisted and banished the thought.

Christmas is so hard to believe that most Christians don't believe it.

But the Word became flesh. God dwelt among us. And still does. Even in the piss. Especially in the piss.


I looked at the men in the prison and paused. I wanted them to hear this. Because there is some real darkness in their lives. Darkness we rarely speak about.

I looked at them and said:

The meaning of the Incarnation is that God has descended into the piss and shit of our lives. And that God is stronger than that darkness.

Do we believe this? Because it is so very, very hard to believe.

We want to believe that our foulness, all the shit we've done or experienced, is the strongest thing there is. The greatest and final truth about our lives.

It's so hard to believe what I'm telling you because it feels like blasphemy.

But it's not. It is not blasphemy.

It is the story of the Incarnation. It is the Word becoming flesh. It is the story of God's love for you.

It is the story of Christmas.

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17 thoughts on “An Unlikely Advent Meditation: Piss Christ in Prison”

  1. The same people who described the work as “filth,” “blasphemous,” and “abhorrent” aren't exactly getting their knickers in a knot over the report I heard this morning about the filthy and abhorrent conditions workers live in and work under on megafarms in Mexico. Shouldn't we be outraged at the treatment of these people who bear the image and likeness of God?

  2. I am reminded of the novel Silence. In Shusaku Endo’s masterpiece, Rodrigues, a young Portuguese Jesuit priest, begins his missionary work in 17th century Japan with an image of Christ drawn from a famous painting, a model of beauty and purity. But this face never really speaks to the priest. Eventually he is captured and imprisoned -- and ordered to renounce his faith by symbolically trampling on a plaque bearing an image of Christ (fumie), now horribly defaced by the accumulated abuse of apostates. Rodrigues refuses -- until he is presented with an excruciating choice: either he too tramples the fumie, or several peasant Christians, hanging face down in a pit of excrement, will be suffocated to death. “How his foot aches!” Then the disfigured image of Christ speaks to Rodrigues: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross.”

    Serrano missed a trick: he should have done a diptych, the other photograph being "Shit Christ".

  3. I looked. Plenty about homosexuality but didn't see squat about this. Even searched under Mexican farm workers. Hmmmmmm....

  4. I took the l liberty of linking to this on the /r/Christianity subreddit. Some interesting comments there:

  5. Kim, are you aware that a certain Italian-American film director is making a film adaptation of Silence right now?

  6. The one time I ever seriously considered getting a tattoo it was going to be John 1:5. I eventually talked myself out of it.

  7. Scorsese finally getting around to it? 'Bout time! (He wrote the foreward to my edition of Silence, 2007.) And I'm really looking forward to the sideshow of conservative evangelicals picketing the cinemas!

  8. Our sensibilities are not God's sensibilities. I think she is much more disturbed by the blood and piss we spill as we destroy and damage one another all over the world. Perhaps the crucifix in piss and blood reminds of us of the terrible price he paid for our sins - for he too was made of piss and blood. And he gave it up for us.

  9. The cross isn't that thing i can worship and love. I don't talk to an instrument of empire torture.

  10. Richard, you have taken a scandalous image and helped us recover the scandal of Christ's work on the cross. I love the inversion and the truth that His blood is ultimately stronger than our piss. This is good news not only for the prisoners you spoke to but also the rest of us in prison to sin and shame. A most unlikely (but essential) Advent meditation indeed.

  11. Thank you. It reminds me of Peter's lesson in the garden of Gethsemane. Jesus belongs in the hands of sinners if His work is to be completed.

  12. Can I respectfully submit to you that many of us don't worship the cross, or the torture it was, but the Person who submitted to that process? I understand that much of the "military" and "conquering" mentality as seeped into Christian thinking, to our shame. To see a hero who went through this process that looks like he was a complete failure is something for us to think about. (Meanwhile, I do appreciate your reminding us that the cross was, indeed, an instrument of empire torture!)

  13. Thank you, Charles. I was worried about coming off as indignant and self-righteous. Take care!

  14. Thank you Richard, this is unsettling in a very positive way. I wonder if I'm brave enough to share this idea with others?

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