Friday, March 9, 2012

Provocative? Yes. Racist? ...Not so sure.

I've always said that sometimes, people need to be offended. Hurt feelings and outrage don't generally seem productive at first, but remember: we can't solve nasty problems without first being made aware of them. That brings me to this divisive issue.

For the last week, my "atheist" google alert stream has been abuzz with articles on the the "Year of the Bible" protest billboard in Pennsylvania. I'm sure you've seen it by now, but in case you haven't, it portrays a shackled black slave alongside the bible verse "slaves, obey your earthly masters". Only a day after this controversial sign was erected, it was vandalized and eventually taken down. A common allegation among those who were not in favor of the billboard was that it was racist.

Surprisingly, I actually think that the outrage at the content of the billboard was justified. The problem is that it was misplaced outrage. Slavery is a very real phenomenon, the practice of which should elicit offense from any empathetic human being. If you are a member of a segment of the population that was once enslaved, the reaction is even more understandable.

The problem is that to call the sign itself racist is to shoot the messenger. The tragic fact of the matter is that there was was time in American history in which African Americans were enslaved and that the bible justifies slavery. The object of the angry reaction should not be the atheist group that put up the billboard, but the bible itself. Pennsylvania Nonbelievers were only quoting it, just as slaveholders did in the days prior to abolition.

A question still remains, however. Why did Pennsylvania Nonbelievers have to display such a graphic image? Simply, to catch much needed attention. The biblical quote alone, while awful, is easy to ignore on its own. The picture reminds us just what that quote MEANS. We might make a comparison to holocaust museums. Would they not be less powerful if we removed the pictures of concentration camps for fear of being anti-semetic? For those of us living in the luxurious first world, it's hard to imagine how terrible practices like slavery really are. It's easy for us to just shrug off those bible verses... unless we are jolted by a dramatic demonstration of what their implications are.

Now I know, I know. I'm white. I'm privileged. I don't know what it's like to be black. Point taken. But here's my suggestion. Next time an atheist group puts up a controversial sign, they should include one of the verses about executing promiscuous women alongside an image of a stoning in Iran. Even as a woman, I would defend it just the same. 

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