The McJesus sculpture controversy: Finnish perspectives

A screenshot from Al Jazeera video.
A screenshot from Al Jazeera video.

The ”McJesus” sculpture controversy is a nice scale model of religious coexistence in the Middle East. Personally, I find the incident interesting because I share the same nationality with the artist himself, Jani Leinonen. The way the Finnish media writes about the controversy mirrors wider attitudes towards the Middle East, especially Israel.

Something must be said about Leinonen’s cultural background. In the 1960s, new radical artists emerged Finnish society. Among them were atheist author, Hannu Salama, and painter, Harro Koskinen. They both were found guilty of blasphemy. Koskinen’s case, however, was not closed until in 1974. He had painted an acrylic color work called Pig Messiah. The pig was crucified the same way Jani Leinonen nailed Ronald McDonald. It was a big deal in the 1960s and 1970s. Later, museums included Pig Messiah in their changing exhibitions, and nowadays, it is considered, more or less, significant piece of our national art.

However, it took no less than three decades after Pig Messiah before the Finnish blasphemy law was removed. The new law of 1999 criminalizes breach of sanctity of religion. In today’s Finnish television comedy, there are practically no limits for mocking religion. In 2010, famous Finnish author Jari Tervo literally threw a Bible onto the floor on a live television broadcast as a protest against the country’s anti-gay Christians. Of course, there were people who disliked Tervo’s showing off, and a criminal report was filed against him, yet there were no legal consequences. On the contrary, Tervo is widely considered as a great defender of human rights. As for mocking religions, there is, however, one exception in Finland. During the years of Finlandization we never mocked the Soviet Union, these days it is almost impossible to laugh at Islamic figures. In my personal experience, even mocking Hamas is out of the question. Jari Tervo would have never thrown a Quran onto the floor.

Against this background, Harro Koskinen’s Pig Messiah was almost a prophetic sign of its times. To me, Koskinen’s work truly revealed our spiritless consumerism, but more than that, it targeted rigid and corrupted forms of institutionalized religion. Lutheranism had had a very important role in unifying our nation against the Russian threat, and thus, Koskinen’s artwork was not only, religiously, but also politically dangerous. The Lutheran church had served as a bulwark against atheist Bolshevism, and hence, a crucified Pig Messiah ridiculed Finland’s most sacred values. The painting compelled the church to ask, what the difference between religion and quasi-religion was. In my view, Pig Messiah anticipated a full realization of the separation of church and state.

Compared to Pig Messiah, Jani Leinonen’s McJesus is tame. Leinonen says he protests against capitalistic exploitation, but deep down, his own piece of art only exploits a Christian symbol.

A screenshot of Jani Leinonen’s Food Liberation Army group ransom video in 2011.

In 2011, Leinonen became famous by “kidnapping” a Ronald McDonald figure from a McDonald’s restaurant in Helsinki. He and his team called Food Liberation Army then released a ransom video in al-Qaida style. They threatened to slit Ronald’s throat if McDonald’s HQ failed to answer Leinonen’s questions about the origin of their food. In the end, they decapitated Ronald McDonald mascot by a guillotine.

What kind of a man identifies himself with al-Qaida?

Since the demonstrations escalated in Haifa, there has been a couple of Finnish newspaper articles dealing with Leinonen. In the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, Leinonen stated he wanted the McJesus taken down because he had joined the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions against Israel movement, or the BDS. In other words, it seems that he has become just another victim of the BDS pressure campaign against artists.

After the sudden shift in his attitudes against Israel, Leinonen gave a couple of interviews. To the Iltalehti tabloid, he said about the Minister of Culture Miri Regev:

“Fundamentalists like her are eager to throw gas onto the flames in support of their cause. Being a Christian in Finland and other western countries is very different from being one in Israel, where Arab Christians are a small and pressured minority.”

However, the Christians in Haifa did not protest against the Israeli government but against Leinonen’s own art piece. Regev rode like the cavalry onto the scene to protect the Christians from Leinonen himself. She even threatened to cut state funds from the museum if they will not take the sculpture down. Despite of that, Leinonen tried portraying himself as a friend of the Israeli Arab Christian community while in reality he was the one who insulted the protestors in the first place.

I wonder if Leinonen is aware of the real plight of Christians in the Middle East? After what Middle East Christians have experienced in the Middle East, a crucified Roland McDonald might annoy me too.

Embed from Getty Images

In Iraq, the persecution of Christian began soon after Saddam Hussein’s fall. That was years before Isis emerged. Just for one example, in 2006, there was a well-coordinated bombing campaign against Christians in Baghdad, Kirkuk and at the Vatican embassy. Radical Muslim preachers have spread anti-Christian hate, and since those days, the persecution of religious minorities has been non-stop in Iraq. When Isis came, Christians were taken as sex slaves. They were tortured and nailed onto crosses. However, in Syria, it was not only Isis that persecuted Christians. I once met a young man who had fled with his family from Syria where an entire Orthodox community was persecuted by the Free Syria Army linked jihadist groups. Al-Nusra Front murdered Christians in Homs.

In Iraq, individual Muslims risked their lives by saving Christians from Islamists.

In 2012, when the Muslim Brotherhood took over in Egypt for a year, radical Brotherhood supporters started an immediate murdering of Christians. In the territories controlled by the Palestinian National Authority, it can be dangerous for Christians to show their faith publicly. Public eating during the holy month of Ramadan can cause even imprisonment for Christians in the Palestine Authority controlled areas.

Israel is a safehaven for Bahá’í faith in the Middle East. The Bahá’í gardens of Haifa are a famous tourist attraction. Photo: Wikipedia

There is no freedom of religion in any part of the Arab world. In sharp contrast to that, in Israel, large crowds of angry Christians marched in the street without a fear of arbitrary arrests or torture by the Israeli police.

Civil liberties always go together. Status of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of ownership indicate the status of human rights.

However, did not Minister Regev just limit freedom of speech when she threatened to cut state funds for Haifa Museum of Arts if they failed to take down Jani Leinonen’s McJesus sculpture? Would not it be a great example for any Middle East country to let people openly draw Mohammed cartoons? Similarly, why not let artists crucify pigs and things? I think we have already seen what happens when a blasphemy ban is in full force in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and so forth.

Indeed, a recent Haaretz editorial criticized Regev strongly by asserting, “She has thereby confused her job with that of a commissar, whose job is to protect cultural ‘purity,’ and grossly exceeded her authority.”

Is that right? While following news on McJesus, I came to learn that there’s actually a blasphemy law in Israel too. Hence, perhaps Regev only followed her country’s legislation when she asked to remove the sculpture. By her acts, she thus proved there is no legislative discrimination of Christians in Israel.

Christianity in Israel is prosperous and technically advanced. Apparently, this priest in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher hanged on Facebook while believers queued up in front of him to light candles. Photo: Juhani Huttunen

In fact, the real question here is if Israel should remove the blasphemy ban. In her recent blog, a retired family therapist Sheri Oz opened my eyes on many horizons. Oz reminded me that the Israeli penal code for blasphemy dates back in the late 1920s when Muslim Arabs started massacres of Jews in Hebron and many other cities under the British mandate rule. The law aimed to prevent such aggressions against dissenters. In its historical context, the purpose of the blasphemy law under mandate rule was to protect Jews.

Oz writes, “Israeli law declares that it is a criminal offence to insult the sensitivities of members of any religious community. One could ask if the Haifa Museum of Art could have faced criminal charges if they had refused to take down the sculpture. Since this law does not require anything more than offending the faith of another person, it is perhaps time to revise this antiquated left-over from British Mandate rule that was, in any case, devised in order to try to prevent the anticipated outbreaks of violence that eventually took place regardless (in 1929, Muslims against Jews, for those who do not remember).”

Oz’s insightful writing puts the whole conflict in perspective. Namely, the mandate clearly saw the massacres of Jews in 1929 were motivated by religion. Partly, this confirms what I believe, namely the so-called Israel–Palestine conflict is not a controversy about occupation, borders, checkpoints or settlements. The conflict is religious by nature.

About the Author
Juhani Huttunen is a Finnish journalist who has focused on the Middle East issues. He is of a Lutheran Christian background. Views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect any official position of any agency or media company.
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