By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
Am I going to defend the idea of reenacting the black mass at Harvard? Not a chance. But I found someone who did. There are such things. The advocate for what he called “a historical reenactment of a black mass through the Harvard Extension School Cultural Studies Club” was Joseph Laycock, an assistant professor of religious studies as Texas State University, writing on the web site Religion Dispatches on May 15.
This story may seem moot, considering that the black mass first got rescheduled off campus, and then probably did not take place at all. The Catholic News Agency reports, “A satanic ‘black mass’ did not take place as planned May 12 on Harvard’s campus. The Harvard Crimson reported late on the afternoon of May 12 that the event had voluntarily been moved to The Middle East nightclub, a short distance from campus. However, shortly afterward, the general manager of the nightclub told the publication that negotiations had fallen through and the event would not be hosted there. Subsequently, in a breaking news update at 7:45 p.m. Eastern time, the Harvard publication reported that the black mass has been postponed indefinitely.”
Why this outcome? Sometimes the good guys carry the day. The Archdiocese of Boston, Harvard’s chaplains, and a petition protesting the event signed by 60,000 students, faculty, and alumni no doubt all helped. Not to mention a eucharistic procession near the campus and a holy hour, attended by an estimated 1,500 Catholics.
But this does not close the book on the matter. We have to ask ourselves why anyone would have proposed the black mass in the first place. What is the redeeming social value in reenacting the desecration of the Host, which is central to the black mass? Joseph Laycock gives us the rationale.
Laycock assures us, first of all, that a real Host was not to be involved in the “reenactment,” that, instead, a “prop” was going to be “desecrated in various ways.” (Which makes a difference. Not all despicable acts are equally despicable.) The event, he continues, “was originally intended as a lecture on the history of legends surrounding the black mass followed by a performance.” Laycock spoke with Lucien Greaves, a representative of the Satanic Temple that had hoped to sponsor the event. Laycock informs us, “The Satanic Temple is best known for political campaigns that demonstrate the wisdom of separating church and state….Although they reject supernaturalism, they comprise a community that values self-determination and finds meaning through a shared tradition of ideas and rituals.”
In fact, “Greaves has been invited to speak about his perspective in comparative religion classes at Harvard and has been well received. The black mass, he claims, was not a bid for media attention but an honest attempt to educate an audience about how Satanists see the world. Had the black mass proceeded as planned, it would have been about two hours long, with the first hour devoted to an educational lecture and the second half to a performance of a black mass based on descriptions from the nineteenth-century French novel Là-bas. Two actors dressed as a nun and a priest would have performed a ritual in liturgical Latin. A prop representing a communion wafer would have been stepped on or otherwise defiled.”
Laycock considers the cancellation unfortunate. He points out the missed opportunity for a “discussion about religious pluralism, tolerance, and free speech.” He writes of the missed “opportunity for debate and reflection” that “was squandered. The overwhelming majority of Catholic demonstrators, including the Archdiocese of Boston, made no effort to learn what the Satanic Temple intended to do or what their motivation was. Instead of engaging the Satanists in a reasoned and civil debate, dissent was effectively silenced.”
He calls upon us to take from this brouhaha lessons about how “to foster the values of pluralism and tolerance even when other people’s views strike us as frightening or offensive.”
Baloney. No one disagrees with the idea that educated people should know about the black mass. It is part of the history of religion. It can be discussed. I can remember nuns in grammar school instructing my class to tell the priests if they saw anyone who took the Host from his mouth; that perhaps he was taking it for the black mass. Marist Brothers in my high school spoke of how Satanists would “defile” the Host during the black mass. I am sure I was not the only one in the class who went to the library to find out what that defilement entailed. The question at hand is not “knowledge,” but the “reenactment” that was going to take place at Harvard.
Some comparisons are in order. How do you think Laycock would react to a proposed reenactment of the old caricatures of blacks in the movies of the 1940s, the Stepin Fetchit and Mantan Moreland skits that evoked waves of laughter at the time — by a group as favorably disposed to those caricatures as is the Satanic Temple to the black mass? (A favorable disposition to the presentation makes a big difference in this analogy. We are not looking at a group seeking to enlighten the audience about the blasphemous nature of the black Mass.)
Come on: The academic liberals won’t even permit showings of the arguably inoffensive Uncle Remus and Amos ’n Andy shows.
What would Laycock say about a student theater club that decided to put a spotlight on anti-Semitism by reenacting the caricatures of Jews — as pedophiles, embezzlers, and Communists — that can be found in the movies made in Germany by Nazi sympathizers during the 1930s — if the student group were as favorably disposed to those caricatures as is the Satanic Temple to the black mass?
Would he encourage this event as a way to “to foster the values of pluralism and tolerance even when other people’s views strike us as frightening or offensive”? He might say that he would. Put me down as a doubter.
What would be his recommendation if he heard that a student club was going to sponsor a dramatic rendition of The Turner Diaries. This was the book favored by Timothy McVeigh and those involved with him in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. The book glamorizes a future race war against Jews, homosexuals, and non-whites. It has been called the “bible of the racist right” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Would Laycock encourage this performance as an opportunity for a “discussion about religious pluralism, tolerance, and free speech” and “debate and reflection” — if the sponsors of the play were as favorably disposed to Aryan Supremacists as the Satanic Temple is to the black mass?
The questions answer themselves. I can’t remember Laycock leading any protests when Brandeis University decided not to confer an honorary doctorate to human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali in recognition for her contribution toward advancing women’s rights, after being pressured by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and others. And Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s career does not involve fiction or reenactments. She has spent her adult life calling the world’s attention to facts that no one disputes: violence against women such as female genital mutilation, child marriage, and honor killings in the Muslim world.
It would be enlightening to hear Laycock’s analysis of why discussion of these practices will not serve the cause of “tolerance, free speech, debate and reflection,” as effectively as an enactment of the black mass.