@panonbelievers Pisses EVERYBODY Off or What’s in a Billboard?

I’m sure you’ve heard some of the controversy over the following billboard, now destroyed and removed:

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Here’s one of the guys responsible for it, Ernest Perce, of American Atheists in association with Pennsylvania Nonbelievers (thanks to Brian Fields, president of Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, for the correction!):

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I have VERY mixed feelings on this one. My first thought was, “Well, that’s what the Bible says; read the fucking thing.” But I had a second, less tangible reaction. One of those pesky, deep-down-in-the-gut reactions. I wondered why I felt a sense of guilt and remorse, especially over something I hadn’t done or endorsed. Then it struck me.

The image.

I’m not sure if this is the crux of the issue or the entire issue or neither, but I think one of the difficulties of such a billboard is it’s really hard to objectively present any idea on slavery in this country without pissing somebody off. And of course. It’s an extremely emotional issue. But I think what really got me was that the image could’ve been anything or nothing at all. That is what they chose.

Why is the image objectionable? I think it’s the pictures vs. words thing. I imagine if I were an African American and I saw the image on a billboard, my deepest anger and resentment would fire up before anything else. I wouldn’t take the time to really consider the billboard’s words. I’d see the depiction of the slave and the fact that it’s on a billboard and I’d think “slavery + advertisement = evil.”

It’s not to say that such a thought process is rational or fair, but obviously when it comes to advertising, especially messages that contain such provocative images, rationality and fairness are not always intended to and can’t always be expected to enter the picture.

Let’s consider, then, how we’d feel if the image weren’t there at all. Would that fix the problem? Would the offense float away? Honestly, I think so. At least to a great degree. And I think that speaks to the efficacy of the billboard. And thus I question the design behind it. If the intention was to provoke, okay, fine. Mission accomplished. But if the intention was to say, “Hey, African American churchgoers, check out what your precious Bible says,” I think that message was lost with the outrage over the image.

Then again, there’s this:

One witness called the message itself racist. That’s where they lose me. The message itself is clear. The Bible in the very least never criticizes and at most endorses slavery. Thus, the message is exactly the opposite of racist.

Another witness called it a hate crime. Along with the first complaint, this simply isn’t true. The billboard was neither endorsing slavery nor racism. It was against both. But as we see, the mere depiction and mention of slavery is enough to be labeled “hate,” let alone whatever the actual message says or is intended to say. (And really, do we all get to call anything that we happen to not like for any reason at all a “hate” crime?)

Unfortunately for Perce, it’s simply not socially acceptable for white guys like me and him to make any comment on slavery, no matter how well-intentioned said comment might be. Just check out the “Social Commentary” post by Kelsey Wallace at

:

Ostensibly meant to highlight the hypocrisy of the “Year of the Bible,” the billboard instead pissed people off because it’s racist.

and

Luckily, someone tore the billboard down after just one day, but that doesn’t erase its hateful, completely ineffective message.

After seeing that, I felt compelled to post this comment:

Do you have any actual reason and evidence for accusing the billboard of racism, or is it just more fun to poison the well? If quoting racist Bible quotes is racist, then is it also racist to quote Martin Luther (anti-Semite) or Mark Twain (anti-Indian)? If depicting a slave is racist, then is every depiction of slaves racist? You’re not whining about films like Glory or Amistad, both promoted by massive billboard campaigns in all neighborhoods leading up to their release. I’m all for questioning Perce’s actions, but labeling his actions racist just because you don’t agree with them is inaccurate and irresponsible.

Wallace’s one good point, as I pointed out above, is on the efficacy of the billboard. Had Perce collaborated with, say, the Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta, then at least his message would’ve had some sense of legitimacy in the African American community. Because he didn’t, he looks like just another white guy talking about shit about which he has no actual direct experience.

And finally, there’s all the rationalization around what was meant by “slavery” in the Bible. I’ve heard everything from “those were different days” to “slavery was different then” to “it wasn’t REALLY slavery, but rather sort of indentured servitude.” Ultimately, not only do I think that’s all bullshit–the word is “slave”–but it’s irrelevant. However we define the intricacies of the treatment of slaves in the Bible (it says it’s okay to beat your slave as long as the slave recovers within a day or two, Ex. 21:20-21) or the semantics of what it meant to be a slave (indentured servitude vs. lifelong ownership), the fact remains that if even in one instance it meant to OWN another person, all the rationalization and justification is moot. I’m too lazy to verify that there is only one such mention; I’ll let others clear that up. I find alone the circumstantial evidence that the Southern Baptist Convention, for over a century, officially endorsed American slavery (not “ancient” slavery, not “indentured servitude” slavery) specifically based on the endorsement of such in the Bible. If the SBC found ample God-given evidence to support the institution for over a century, then I now consider that same evidence ample enough to condemn the Bible on its support for the institution.

4 Responses to “@panonbelievers Pisses EVERYBODY Off or What’s in a Billboard?”

  1. Quick correction : while Ernest has spoken aant PA Nonbelievers events, he is with American Atheists. This billboard was designed by that organization, we contributed half of the cost of posting it.

    Brian Fields
    President
    Pennsylvania Nonbelievers

    • Anton A. Hill Says:

      Hey Brian,

      Thanks so much for the correction! I wasn’t 100% clear on it. Good thing, unlike our pal at bitchmedia, I’m not a journalist. I’ll correct the post soon.

      Best,

      Anton.

  2. Call me a pedant, but what seems offensive to me is the suggestion that slavery in the ancient near east and slavery in 18th-19th century american are the same institution. Perhaps I agree that the problem is in the image. The bible in this pasage does endorse the legal priciple of one person owning another, but that is not the same thing as endorsing plantation alavery.

    • Anton A. Hill Says:

      Hi Pedant (boy am I funny!),

      I agree that plantation slavery was most likely very different from slavery in the ancient Near East. And I addressed that point in the post. Thus, I understand your point on offense with a false equivalency between the two in the billboard. Two things, though.

      One is that, as you admitted and I’d pointed out, the Bible does endorse the institution, which was the central point of the billboard. And to some degree, if we’re going to launch a semantic debate of what the Bible says, what it means, and why, we’d have a massive jumble on our hands as, reportedly, the original Hebrew meant nothing like “apple” which Eve ate. So to me, this is a dangerously nuanced spectrum of gray area in terms of what was meant, what the contexts were, etc.

      The second thing is that, as I cited, the Southern Baptist Convention, second only in popularity to the Roman Catholic Church, specifically and wholeheartedly endorsed plantation slavery for over a century citing, among others, the scripture verses that I cited. So if it was perfectly acceptable theologically for the SBC to cite those passages and any implied context to endorse plantation slavery, then I feel it absolutely appropriate for someone else to do the same thing.

      Best,

      Anton.

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