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Controversy at the Zoo?

In recent news, Christian opposition to a statue of Ganesh at the Calgary Zoo has made the headlines. I was first made aware of this controversy when a co-worker of mine saw the headline in one of the free Calgary papers he picked up on the C-train during our short trip back to the office from a mid-day meeting late last week. A small teaser on the front page (“Christian wants to ban statue”, or something like that) provoked a quick, negative response from him before attention shifted to other things (the article wasn’t delved into during this quick trip).

Having not heard anything about this before, my curiosity was piqued and I made a mental note to look into issue.

So, at the centre of the controversy is a 9 foot, 8000 pound granite statue of the Hindu god Ganesh. Apparently this statue was commissioned for the Calgary Zoo using the funds provided by a private donor. However, Jim Blake on behalf of Concerned Christians Canada (CCC) sent a letter to the zoo protesting the statue and asking it be removed. In part, he stated:

The zoo is not a place of religious indoctrination, it is supposed to be a safe family environment free of religious icons and selective religious partiality. The displaying of different gods in a public place, like this, is an offence to our beliefs and does not represent the diversity of views that should be reflected, if the zoo is embarking on teaching the public about world religions as they relate to the natural world. If, in fact, the zoo is on a quest to expose people to different religious viewpoints, which I presume atheists would take exception to, the zoo should not be selective and exclusive. . . .

The display of foreign gods is offensive and does not reflect the views of the majority of Canadians. Today we make a request that unless the Calgary Zoo is willing to expand their exhibits with the proposed additions we outlined above, that the zoo would in fact maintain its former state of being neutral with respect to religious beliefs and backgrounds by not displaying any religious icons, idols, or texts within its grounds.

On one hand, I tend to think I understand the CCC response; it seems Christian symbols in public have, increasingly, come under attack. Our natural desire for justice makes us want to demand that if Christian symbols are not welcome, then no religious symbols should be. But on the other hand, it seems this view is in direct conflict with many good arguments for allowing Christian symbols in the public sphere.

But, maybe that is too pragmatic an approach to this issue. After all, we ultimately can not decide right and wrong based on what appears the most advantageous for us at a given time. The core of CCC’s argument is that this statue is offensive and should be removed. Is that correct; is it offensive and, if so, does that mean we should lobby for its removal?

I remember seeing that sculpture for the first time and it was a bit of an affront. Most of us know, or at least have a pretty strong feeling that a public monument, even privately funded, depicting any explicit Christian symbolism would, quite frankly, not even be considered to start with. In that venue I have no expectation of ever seeing any sort of respectful reflection of my faith, even if only for “cultural reasons”. Yet there, in front of me, was a larger than life (and very well crafted) Hindu god. So, on that first point, I can see how the statue could be offensive to some.

That said, to be honest, even recognizing the statue as a representation of a Hindu deity, I can not make a strong case that the statue should be removed from the zoo. I can’t think of a Biblical teaching that would persuade me to actively work for the removal of such outward symbols in our society and I don’t see how forcing the issue in this way would make us good ambassadors.

That’s not to say the situation necessarily demands silence; but perhaps ultimatums and focusing on the removal of such outward symbols are not the correct tact? Could this have been better used as a way to reach out and engage as opposed to something which now seems unnecessarily divisive?

I’m not sure, but I guess that’s what I’m asking. What should our response be to this type of issue? Any thoughts?