The band Behemoth has always been blatant in their views about religion. All of their albums are pervaded with anti-religious and pro-Satanic lyrics, themes, and images. The band’s live shows are also filled with similar ideology, as frontman Adam “Nergal” Darski can’t go more than ten minutes without shouting some anti-Christian epithet that gets the crowd roaring. This has always been a risk for the Polish blackened death metal stars, since many areas of the world — including their own home country — protect the religious views of citizens under law. Behemoth experienced this firsthand when Ryszard Nowak, head of the All-Polish Committee for Defense Against Sects, attempted to sue the band in 2008 for tearing up a Bible onstage at a September 2007 concert in the city of Gdynia. In Poland, it is a criminal offense to offend a person’s religious beliefs, but in order for someone to be charged with such an offense, at least two complaints need to be filed. So the case was dismissed at that time. However, on Monday, March 8th, the case was re-opened and Nergal was formally charged after an unspecified number of other complaints were filed for the Bible-tearing incident. Nergal is pleading not guilty, but if found guilty, he will face up to two years of prison time.
The knee-jerk reactions of the metal community were predictable. Metal fans immediately cried foul, insisting that Nergal’s actions were protected free speech. A number of metal news websites began publishing stories decrying Poland’s laws as archaic and intolerant. Nergal’s own testimony under cross examination in the case’s first hearing was that his actions onstage are part of artistic license and not meant to offend religious beliefs.
There are a number of things to consider here that many within the metal community don’t seem to be looking at. Nergal’s consistent rhetoric in interviews and onstage portrays him as having nothing but the utmost contempt for religion. In fact, right before tearing the Bible apart, he called the Catholic Church “the most murderous cult on the planet”. His actions during shows reinforce that portrayal a thousand times over. Nergal is definitely not uneducated, since his lyrics and his statements about the meanings of songs show that he has a vast knowledge of religious doctrine and beliefs, things that he needs to know properly in order to criticize correctly. He would know, therefore, that destroying a Bible is incredibly offensive and sacrilegious to most Christian groups. Thus, one can only surmise that his testimony saying the incident was not meant to offend religious beliefs is, at best, laughably naive, and at worst, a blatant lie.
Furthermore, metal fans declaring that Nergal’s actions are protected free speech do not seem to realize that free speech is not a worldwide guaranteed right. There are many countries in the world where free speech is essentially a myth and a dream, made impossible by tyrannical leaders and autocratic governments. While Poland does not have an autocratic government by any means, the country does have laws that disallow certain forms of expression, in the name of preventing intolerance among its people. The protection against offending religious beliefs stems from the fact that the citizens of Poland are almost universally Christian, and after suffering under both Nazi and Communist control for half a century, they do not want to endure any further religious oppression. It’s a different society there than it is in America or other countries where religious beliefs are more diverse, and metal fans are not realizing that at all.
I don’t have an opinion one way or the other about whether the laws involved in this case are just or not. I do not live in Poland, and therefore, I won’t make the assumption that the Polish people are better or worse off for having these laws in their country. I do, however, think that the Polish judicial system has every right to prosecute Nergal for breaking the law of their country. Being a citizen of Poland, Nergal should have known the risk of destroying a Bible onstage there. As previously stated, he is incredibly naive to think that he wouldn’t offend someone and risk being charged with a crime in that environment. And if he did realize the possibility of offending someone and destroyed the Bible anyway, then he is no better than shock performers like Ozzy Osbourne was in the 1980s, enacting ridiculous stunts onstage to garner media attention.
This is not an issue of infringing on free speech or laws being stuck in the past. Cultures are different worldwide, and all live performers need to realize that and plan their stage shows accordingly. Behemoth didn’t do that, and it was foolish of them to not realize that they were playing with fire.