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Sympathy for the Devil

By Joshua B. Lipson and Daniel J. Solomon

On Monday night, the black mass contretemps degenerated into the farce many had long suspected it to be. After condemnation from the Catholic Church and University President Drew G. Faust, the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club decided to find an off-campus venue for the event. Those plans fell through, and the group shelved its sponsorship. With nowhere else to go, followers of the Satanic Temple performed their rite at the Kong, a refuge for drunk Harvard students and, that evening, a motley assortment of smokers clad in black clothes and chains. We should laugh off the event, but first we must consider the disturbing logical and moral distortions perpetrated by its decriers.

Greta Van Susteren, on her Fox News program, compared the performance of a black Satanic mass to the burning of a Quran. That equivalency, picked up by a number of commentators, totally ignores the disparate relations to power the two groups have experienced historically. In the West, Islam is a minority faith whose adherents endure severe discrimination and unfair loyalty tests. Burning its holy books is nothing less than an open expression of hatred for Islam and Muslims.

For a millennium, Catholics constituted a religious oligarchy in the Occident. The Church imposed its values on freethinkers, Jews, homosexuals, and other non-conformists. The mass was embedded in a system of domination. Indeed, false accusations of host desecration were frequent pretext for pogroms. In 1243, the entire Jewish population of the German town of Belitz was murdered on such charges. That pattern of violence would continue until the Reformation.

This is not to refute the existence of anti-Catholic bigotry. In this land, Catholics were an object of persecution, denied job opportunities, free choice, and social acceptance by a Protestant elite. But whatever demon the black Satanic mass conjured, the specter of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” was absent. Begun during the Middle Ages, the ritual is best understood as a protest against the Church’s repressive influence.

In their op-ed published on Monday, Aurora C. Griffin ’14 and Luciana E. Milano ’14 claim the ceremony involves “desecrating the Eucharist... by placing it on the genitals of a naked woman, urinating on it, and slitting an infant’s throat to pour blood over it.” That statement is as fictive as the notion that the Harvard Extension Cultural Studies Club was “inviting the prince of darkness to sit among the most vulnerable of our community, the freshmen, in the safe space that they use to eat, socialize, and study.” The development of the black Satanic mass remains shrouded in mystery, and its practice seems to have varied from one period to the next. In all likelihood, the allegation of infanticide was the handiwork of Christian Judeophobes, and did not reflect the behavior of actual Satanists. The blood libel, the claim that Jews slaughter Gentile babies and use their blood to make matzoh for Passover, was a persistent anti-Semitic trope.

One might argue that the University still should have canceled the event. Campus Catholics lack any connection with medieval atrocities, and the black Satanic mass offends their religious feelings. Such a prohibition, though, would be antithetical to the University’s mission to foster an open and lively discourse. To preserve that ideal, we must tolerate all expression–as long as it is not endorsed by the University–that we find objectionable. That includes desecration of a host and, though mean and ill-advised, hate speech, such as the burning of a Quran.

Under the standards they advance, some opponents of the black Satanic mass would find themselves censored. Milano, for example, heads the campus chapter of the Anscombe Society (“where traditional values meet Harvard”), a group that advocates a particularly démodé view of gender, sexual ethics, and social organization. The club’s platforms define marriage as “the exclusive and monogamous union between a man and a woman.” They maintain that there are “inherent physical, behavioral, emotional, and psychological differences between men and women.” They also imply that the mainstream feminist movement demanded “that women should become more like men.” Deeply hurtful to many female and LGBTQ Harvardians, these beliefs are religious in origin, and, outside the bubble of Cambridge, Massachusetts, create human misery. The black Satanic mass was once a way to resist ecclesiastical social control. Perhaps it has not outlived its purpose.

Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House. Daniel J. Solomon ’16, a Crimson editorial executive, is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House.

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