Behemoth on the burning stake of the Inquisition

Poland is a beautiful country. Not only is it the birthplace of one of the most talented metal journalists of its generation, it is also the origin for Death metal as destructive as they are great, ranging from Vader to Behemoth and none of them go to waste. In fact, we will be talking about the latter this time.

We assume that by now everyone has heard that the band, and more specifically the lead singer, is currently on trial in Poland for having ripped up a Bible on stage two years ago. The way the story has evolved since then and now is very confusing. This article follows the chronology of events and gives the floor to Krzysztof Kowalik, the Polish theologist commissioned two years ago by the Gdansk prosecutor to examine a few points on the charges. We will come back to this later.

All in all, this article is an attempt to place the facts within their context. Poland is neither like France nor Germany, as their cultures and histories are very different and complex. As a result, that which Behemoth sparked off through their provocation can only be commented on taking in account these elements.

The scandal started in September 2007. The band were performing in a venue in Sopot, near their hometown. As they had often done before, at the end of the show, the band rip up a bible. However on this night, Ryszard Nowak, a high representative of the Defense Committee against Sects, was in the crowd. Following this event, Nowak decided to take the band to court for having offended his religious beliefs according to article ß196 Polish Penal Code.

The translation of this article is : «Article ß196 : Anyone who offends the religious beliefs of another individual or insults the object of a cult in public or a religious ceremonial location faces a limitation of liberties and an up to two year prison sentence» . It is notably for this reason that Gorgoroth were banned from playing on Polish soil, and that Madonna and Lamb of God almost had their tours cancelled in the country.

See below an amateur video of the «incident».

The band responded to this accusation by claiming: «a Behemoth concert is a Behemoth concert. The fans know what to expect, they know the themes that lie in our lyrics and they know our philosophy. It is surprising that someone should come to one of our concerts and be offended by something that we did on stage. If they come to our concerts, then it is something that they wanted. We do not wish to attack anyone, or even the religion that we grew up with.»

The court validated the band’s claim, since at least two plaintiffs are necessary for this type of complaint. Since Ryszard Nowak was the only one to complain, the trial was opened with a dismissal. It could all have ended there, however Nowak increased his public announcements in which he accused the band and in particular Nergal of being a criminal. Nergal then decided to counter-attack by taking Nowak to court for defamation.

Justice fell in his favour and Nowak was forced to make a public apology and pay 3000 zloty (about 800 Euros) in damages. Nergal then decided not to keep the money and hand it over to a kennel. He then commented on the website Metal As Fuck : [Nowak] «kept calling me a criminal in public. So I went to court to press charges against his words that I find slanderous. I am not a criminal and I am far from being one. In fact I consider myself as an important part of Polish society: I pay taxes and many people around the world know Poland through Behemoth» and he continues a few lines further on : «This whole story with Nowak left the religious frame from which it had started early on. It rapidly became a struggle about narrow mindedness and a certain form of stupidity. It seems that I represented open-mindedness and freedom, in some ways. This is the way that some of the people saw me. I am not a Satanist, they donít like my music, but they know that I am right.»

Once again, the story could have ended there. At the end of last year, the trial preparation from 2007 was re-opened. In fact, the political party in power «Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc» (literally meaning Law and Justice, the Polish Christian Democratic Party) enforce Nowak’s complaints rendering it «legal». Therefore, the band were brought to court on account of this ripped up Bible story. Today, Nergal faces the highest sentence according to article ß196, meaning two years in jail.

The Bible mentioned. At least whatís left of it.

Interview of Krzysztof Kowalik

In an attempt to understand these events further, we asked Krzysztof Kowalik a few questions. This Theology Professor from Gdansk was in charge of working out for the prosecutor whether this destruction of the Bible in a public place was a legitimate offence to re-open the case for. The talkative man received me in his office at the centre of the brand new buildings of the university. The floor will be given to him to conclude this article.

Radio Metal : Hello, first of all, could you introduce yourself to our readers ?

Krzysztof Kowalik : Hello. I am a theologist and sociologist at the University of Gdansk. The themes that I am most particularly related to are religious sociology and moral sociology. Both of these are direct responses to my theological training.

Let’s get to the subject we are interested in: the trial between Nergal, the singer of Behemoth and the «Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc» Political Party. Could you explain under which terms you were called to testify during the first trial?

My participation happened by accident. The Chief Education Officer of the Academy commissioned me to work on the opening of a new field called «Science of Religions». This is probably the reason my name started to spread into certain circles. The prosecutor of the trial of Gdansk asked me to make an expert assessment during the trial initiated by Ryszard Nowak from the Defence Committee against Sects. The aim of the assessment was to determine whether each copy of the Bible is an object of worship for Christian Catholics. I was able to answer this question by using my own knowledge on the subject and with a questionnaire sent to Catholic theologists, priests and exegetes. I was not asked to say whether Nergal was guilty or not. The aim was to find out whether the complaint was admissible.

What sentence could Nergal incur?

I don’t know (ed : the interview took place before the first hearing of the second trial). I am neither a judge nor a jury. Personally, I see these events in a different way. In today’s pluralistic society, similar events will continue to take place. Since all institutions, everyday events and politicians are submitted to fierce criticism, which they also give back in return; we can ask ourselves why the Church should still be treated any differently. It must not be forgotten that the Church is also guilty for the disaffection of its followers. Many people have been shocked and hurt by the sexual scandals surrounding Church officials. These scandals have deeply sullied the image of the Catholic Church and the obligation of kindness that it preaches appeared hypocritical to some. After years in which it was impossible and forbidden to openly contradict the Church, people in Poland are now slowly starting to criticise what they dislike in its functioning. In a way, I think that Nergal represents these criticisms that many citizens feel but do not always dare to say. Unfortunately, the consequences that followed his undoubtedly unmeasured actions were out of his control. Obviously, this form of criticism is not acceptable or effective. There is no doubt about this. Conversely, it is also clear that Nergal criticised the Catholic Church and ripped up a Bible in a particular context. The Bible is not only a sacred text for Catholics but also for Protestants and Orthodox for example. The Bible should not be treated in this way. However, Nergal is the only person who can attack the Church as an institution in such a violent way. It is for this reason that I believe Nergal should learn a lesson from his actions but that he should not be sentenced. Of course the politicians of the «Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc» are not ready for this just yet. They are hoping for a heavy sentence for Nergal so that they can fish out some more votes and depend of the financial support of the Catholic Church during the next elections. Also, it must not be forgotten that the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

What were your thoughts after the verdict of the first trial?

I felt relieved of course. I found it quite uncomfortable to be implicated in this trial. I also thought it was disappointing that the trial did not emerge from a more general debate about the place for religion in modern Polish society and more specifically in public places.

On the CD there is the sticker «ideal gift for your first communion». Clearly, Poland is not lacking in contradictions.

Over two years after the trial, « Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc » and Ryszard Nowak brought Nergal to court once again. Why do you think they waited so long?

As for as I am concerned, Nergal was not satisfied with his discharge after the first trial as I seem to remember that he then brought Nowak to court for defamation. His «Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc» co-workers then reinstated the complaint in order to protect him from a conviction.

Were the main prosecutors the same as the ones two years previous? Do you believe that the outcome of the trial could be different this time?

The main prosecutors are exactly the same. Two years ago, Nowak was the only person taking Behemoth to court. The trial did not proceed since there needs to be at least two plaintiffs in order to come to a verdict in this type of case. Therefore, the added complaint by «Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc» is what enabled the trial to be started again.

Two years ago, the band Behemoth ripped up Bible on stage during other concerts. How do you explain the fact that the band were only taken to court in Poland?

The answer to the question has already been partially given. The prosecutors are referring to the article ß196 of the penal code. The article is not very clear. It does not indicate the limit as to which freedom of expression can be worded in order to offend religious beliefs. This limit is particularly difficult to determine in an artistic frame. In a way, article ß196 is a defence tool used against insults and criticisms from the outside. However, it does give the impression that the Church and the State are not separate entities in Poland. In other European countries this separation between the two is a lot clearer.

Do you think that other European countries should have responded to this blasphemy?

I don’t think so. People are mistreated, persecuted, killed etc all over the world. I believe that the Church and the State should collaborate and use their energy to help these people rather than to seek protection for their symbols and artists over all else. It should not be forgotten that in the name of God, the Cross and the Holy Bible, many people have been persecuted in the past. Perhaps it is time that they centralised their actions around more fundamental values.

Previously you mentioned the idea of a political manoeuvre to win votes for the Catholic Party. Could you develop this point?

In Poland, the Catholic Church has a lot of influence you know and it comes from our history so it is a long established fact. It gained a lot of influence in the 19th century because the Church’s prelate were in charge of the State’s function. Although the Church did not have a direct link to power, its authority was still very strong and it was worth having it on your side. This authority can still be felt today. Politicians know this and so they often seek support and finances from the Church. Today, «Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc» positions itself as a Christian Party who are strict but do not come to terms with it. They actually have very few shared values with the Catholic Church. The Party keeps making faux-pas and empty statements one after the next. In a way, the «Nergal case» is a way to reassert their position in government and win back the trust of the Catholic voters who had given up on them.

Nergal’s summoning to court emanates directly from the political party in power. Being French, it is very difficult for me to imagine the government interfering to such an extent with cases related to religion. Why is this possible in Poland?

Some might say that it is the will of justice. Personally, I don’t believe this. The background of this case is political. If the government’s current situation and popularity was greater, then I do not believe that they would have joined in these proceedings. Why did they wait two years before supporting Nowak’s deposition? Did it really take them that long to realise the importance of Nergal’s actions during that concert? This is very hard to believe. The mutual interferences of government officials in religion and that of religious officials in politics is a result of the lack of clarity in our law documents. Added to this is our special history on which we have built our identity as I mentioned earlier. Even so, is it normal that in Poland the State gets so involved in a religious case? I don’t think so, however, many Poles accept the State’s behaviour and are not even shocked by it.

During the first trial you said that «the Bible is a religious object of worship and must be treated with respect as a result». Could you develop this opinion a little? Why must this object also be respected by a non-Catholic person?

I would like to start answering this with a reminder of the Biblical principle : «Do unto others as you would have others do unto you». This principle is very precise and universal. We must not hurt or make fun of people, whether they are believers or not, just because we do not agree with their way of life and vision of the world. Am I better than those that I do not like? Even if I have not received God, this does not give me more reason to damage or destroy an object of religious worship in public. This situation reminds me of those caricatures of Mohamet that were draw and to which I was very much opposed, despite the fact that I am not Muslim. However, even though I was opposed to this and that I do not condone Nergal’s actions in any way, I don’t think that this type of behaviour deserves a court sentence. While we are on the subject, I would also like to highlight the differences between the Protestants and the Catholics. Protestants believe that the Bible contains the words of God, yet the book itself does not represent these words. According to them, God lives through these words only when they are spoken, read or preached. So I believe that for Protestants, Nergal’s actions are without consequence since by attacking this object, he was not attacking God. On the other hand, Christian Catholics worship cult objects as though they are sacred (be it the Church, the Bible, the Cross…). Therefore, any attack against one of these objects is considered as an attack against God. On this specific point, I find myself more in agreement with the Protestant way of thinking since I believe that it is inconceivable that God lives within any material object.

Nergal on the cover of the Polish edition of Newsweek

Since the start of his relationship with pop star Doda, Nergal has been ever present in the Polish media (magazines, tabloids, television). Old ladies are often seen reading the latest gossip on their relationship or watching Nergal discuss his beliefs with impunity on television. Isn’t it strange to want to expose and quote someone who causes such discomfort and could be considered a criminal according to Polish law?

I think that Polish pluralistic society is more open minded than people might think. Nergal and Doda live in a particular world that the media is always interested in and will also be interested in. The media is there to reflect and inform people of the truth. They end up creating their own form of reality and try to convince people that it is «real life». I was able to collect a few pieces of information about Nergal through some of the articles in the newspapers. Yet the information was very slim and I was not able to grasp much about his personality through it. The current political affair is not just a negative thing for him since it also enables him to use the media to his advantage. I think that the previous short term emotion that was provoked by the given facts overshadow the debate surrounding what he did and his potential sentence. I am not waiting for the trial to start in order to collect more information and manage to interpret what took place two years ago effectively. I do believe that the way he presents himself and acts on stage is a clear indication of his personality and the way that he lives. It is not longer a case on his performance as a musician. In my opinion, through his act, he wants to reach out and shock people by joining musical aggression with visual aggression.

We are at the end of the interview. Would you care to add anything before we end?

After being submitted to years of dictatorship and occupation, Poland is now slowly adapting itself to a free democratic society. Although the laws may seem old-fashioned to some, democracy does not come with a manual. There is also no institutional or human authority that never makes mistakes or never takes wrong decisions. In order for Polandís democratisation to progress, this authority must accept freedom of thought and criticism, even in situations where the criticism is inappropriate and illegitimate.

Translation by Izzy.

Laisser un commentaire

  • At last someone who’s no afraid of religion/religious people.
    Religion is one of the reasons the world is such a hell-hole.
    People must see through it and open their minds to science and the truth. Stop believing and start thinking.

  • Great stuff.

    Just the other day I mentioned to a friend that Vader was coming to town and we came to speak about how big black metal is in Poland (afaik BM albums VERY rarely end up on the billboards elsewhere, like Evangelion did).

    So my friend, who’s a secondary school history teacher, says the Polish people are quite fed up with catholicism, and understandably so, after hundreds of years of strong influence on the government by the church.

    Now the picture got even clearer.

    Cheers from Sweden!

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