Pope Francis looks beyond hammer and sickle crucifix chatter


Pope Francis receives hammer and sickle crucifix

Like Queen Victoria, Pope Francis in Bolivia was not amused. On that the media were agreed. But if, after Bolivian President Morales had presented him with a crucifix superimposed on a hammer and sickle, they agreed about what he was not, they disagreed about what he was.

The prudent said that he simply received the crucifix, the wary declared him apparently not amused, the Vatican went a letter further into the alphabet to describe him as bemused, others raised the emotional charge to find him surprised, put on the spot, and angered.

One went out on a limb to assert that he rebuked President Morales for embarrassing him with this melange of Communist and Christian symbols. Whatever of the Pope’s feelings, some Bishops used social media to denounce Morales for arrogantly conflating faith and ideology.

As the story developed, discussion turned to what the Pope had said to Morales (inaudible on the tape), and whether the hammer and sickle were intended as a Communist symbol at all.

President Morales explained, and the Vatican spokesperson agreed, that the design of the crucifix came from Jesuit Luís Espinal who was captured, tortured and killed by right-wing paramilitaries in 1980. On his visit, Pope Francis had stopped to pray at the place where he was killed and had praised his faith and courage. Espinal designed the cross to show Christ close to workers and to peasants.

The story quickly died in a snow flurry at the close of the news cycle. But for those of us for whom the crucifix is a sacred symbol, it invited reflection on how to respond to art that places Christian symbols in political contexts.

Those who criticised the cross given to the Pope believed that it associated Christian faith with communist ideology and the revolutionary violence it endorsed.

To make that association would be wrong, but to be consistent we would have also to deplore the practice of the Conquistadors whose chaplains held the cross aloft in battle. We would also need to reflect on the crosses on Latin American churches that share the town square with the army barracks, the police station and the town hall. The cooptation of faith and the violence Bolivia and many other Latin American nations came from national security ideology as well as from communism.

Religious art has regularly been controversial. We need only remember the outrage at Piss Christ in Melbourne some years ago. Marilyn Manson’s gun cross made of rifle and revolvers and the plethora of popular craft in which images of crosses, hand grenades and guns dangle from bracelets have also been strongly criticised.

Outrage, however should be tempered by the fact that works of art are susceptible to many interpretations. Even if the Bolivian crucifix was intended to identify Christ and communism, it can equally be taken to represent Christ crucified under communism, in the same way that the crosses on churches in town squares can be seen to represent the suffering of the faithful under the violence of the security state, and Manson’s Holy Wood to warn of the prevalent association of religiosity with violence.

Debate about what is acceptable in the combination of religious and other symbols is usually inconclusive, and perhaps should be so. But it should be kept in mind that there are two audiences for religious art. One uses crucifixes and other art primarily as aids to devotion. They know who and what the image represents and do not wish to be diverted by change and provocation. So they may be enraged, for example, by a statue of a visibly pregnant Mary because it makes them focus on the image instead of on the familiar Mary who for them lies behind it.

The second audience comprises those who expect artistic images to reveal something new and surprising. For them an image of Christ on hammer and sickle makes them see afresh the ambiguous relationship of Jesus to revolutionary movements. They will welcome the way it disturbs more conventional ways of seeing Jesus.

Both these audiences deserve respect. Conversation between them will turn most profitably to what the images represent than to how they represent it.

On his visit to Bolivia Pope Francis was more interested in the reality of a crucified people than in the image of the crucified Jesus. His apology for the evils of colonial conquest focused on people, not what benefits Spanish occupation may have brought.

I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offences of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America… There was sin, a great deal of it, for which we did not ask pardon. So for this, we ask forgiveness, I ask forgiveness. But here also, where there was sin, great sin, grace abounded through the men and women who defended the rights of indigenous peoples.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. 


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Pope Francis, religious symbols, liberation theology, Bolivia, Morales



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Existing comments

A fine combination of balance and poignancy, Andrew,

John | 15 July 2015  

Religious art, like all art, is perceived through the eye of the beholder. Each interpretation deserves respect. When reading the final paragraph, I thought of 1 John 1:8,9. These are verses of healing and renewal,

Pam | 15 July 2015  

George Weigel [Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center]. opts for a less beningly poetic take on the blasphemy: "I can well imagine what the famously irascible Pope Pius XI would have done, had Joachim von Ribbentrop, foreign minister of the Third Reich, presented him with a swastika-crucifix; Herr von Ribbentrop would probably have had a pontifically inflicted dent in his thick skull. My point, however, is not that our Franciscan-inspired pope ought to have clobbered Morales with his “gift.” (If Pope Francis wanted to clobber anyone, he should have clobbered his spokesman for saying later that the gift was not “ideological.”)" Read more at: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/421079/pope-francis-john-paul-ii-vatican-economics

Father John George | 16 July 2015  

Thanks again, Andrew. What a marvellous ending to that final sentence: grace abounded through the men and women who defended the rights of indigenous peoples.

Joe Castley | 16 July 2015  

I believe President Morales was incredibly tasteless and high handed in that he was symbolically preaching to someone who didn't need to be preached to. The piece of "art" was deliberately provocative. Like so many other pieces of "art" trash it supposedly "made a statement". It certainly spoke volumes about the artist. Well do I remember the artist's explanation of the execrable "Piss Christ". Pope Francis dealt properly with the martyr Father Espinal's memory and the horror the Conquistadors inflicted. That was enough. The Pope is incredibly media savvy in that, like Jesus, he doesn't fall for the verbal snares set for him. Jesus did not involve himself in the revolutionary politics of his day and place. His was a moral revolution that outlasted the time and spread throughout the known world. Pope Francis is the inheritor of that revolution which will be around long after President Morales is gone.

Edward Fido | 16 July 2015  

' it associated Christian faith with communist ideology"... There are actually parallels between the two. The ideal of 'From each according to their ability; to each according to their need' is one that the early Christians, (The Followers of The Way), would have embraced readily. The next part.. " and the revolutionary violence it endorsed". is a deviation from that ideal. But it bears a close resemblance to the violence of the Crusades and the Inquisitions sponsored by the Church. Extremism can debase any ideal. Humans are social beings, as well as being individuals. Unless a balance between the two is established there will always be conflicts, to the detriment of everyone.

Robert Liddy | 16 July 2015  

We have a fuller picture of Pope Francis' reaction to the crucifix in his own words at a press conference. Holiness, what did you think when you saw the hammer and sickle with Christ on it? And where did this object end up? What did you think when you saw the hammer and sickle with the Christ on it, given to you by Evo Morales? And where did this object end up? Pope Francis: Ah, yes, truly. I heard 'mantello' (editor’s note: mantle, cloak: ‘mantello’ is similar to ‘martello,’ the Italian for hammer, that’s why the Pope needed the question repeated), and I didn't understand. It’s curious, I didn't know this, nor did I know that Fr. Espinal was a sculptor and also a poet. I learned this in these days. I saw it and for me it was a surprise. Secondly, you can qualify it in the genre of “protest art” – for example in Buenos Aires, some years ago, there was an exhibit of a good sculptor, creative, Argentine, who is now dead. It was protest art, and I recall one, it was a crucified Christ on a bomber that was falling down, no? It’s Christianity, but a criticism that, let's say, Christianity allied with imperialism, which is the bomber. The genre that first I didn’t know, and secondly, I would qualify it as protest art, which in some cases can be offensive, in some cases. Thirdly, in this concrete case, Fr Espinal was killed in 1980. It was a time when liberation theology had many different branches. One of the branches was with Marxist analysis of reality. Fr Espinal belonged to this, this. Yes, I knew because I was in those years rector of the theology faculty and we talked a lot about it, about the different branches and who were the representatives, no? In the same year, the general of the Society (of Jesus), Fr. Arrupe, wrote a letter to the whole Society on the Marxist analysis of reality in theology. Stopping on this point saying, “it’s no good, these are different things, it’s not right, it’s not correct.” And, four years later in 1984, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the first small volume, the first declaration on liberation theology that criticizes this. Then comes the second, which opens to a more Christian perspective. I’m simplifying, no? Let’s do the hermeneutic of that time: Espinal was an enthusiast of this Marxist analysis of the reality, but also of theology using Marxism. From this, he came up with this work. Also the poetry of Espinal was of this kind of protest. But, it was his life, it was his thought. He was a special man, with so much human geniality, who fought in good faith, no? Making a hermeneutic like this, I understand this work. For me it wasn’t an offense, but I had to do this hermeneutic, and I say it to you so that there aren't any wrong opinions.

Andy Hamilton | 16 July 2015  

Excellent article Andrew and thanks for the Pope's contribution you have added in the discussion. All this South American stuff makes me forever grateful the Spanish and their Iberian neighbours didn't colonise this country! Were the Sth American Jesuits getting their own back against the extreme Spanish Fascist corruption of Sth American elitism and found their only ally in the Marxist Communist movement? All's fair in love and war, after all.

john frawley | 16 July 2015  

This says to me that the Church has defeated Marxist-Leninist-Stalinism and through recent Popes has taken over the mantel of defending the true dignity and interests of the poor, the marginalised, the workers and the unemployed. Francis will do that better than a 1000 Communist parties.Through God`s Love and Compassion.

Eugene | 16 July 2015  

an excellent well balanced article.

luke weyland | 16 July 2015  

I would have been moved had Morales simply handed His Holiness a picture of Jesus Crowned with thorns kept in Cardinal Mindszenty's pocket during horrific suffering under Communisms enhanced interrogation techniques: hooding, humiliation (he was forced to wear a clown suit), drugging, sleep deprivation, etc. Pius XII was so appalled by Mindszenty's torture that he wrote an apostolic letter - Acerrimo Moerore - condemning it. Pius went on to excommunicate those involved in the torture. Mindszenty was beatified by John Paul. One could add a litany of brutalised confessors under the hammer and sickle.
Sorry I share not poetic enthusiasms for that hammer and sickle parody Mr. Morales
Sir!! [Try Jesus in a Mindszenty clown suit besaddled by a prison guard with a whipping truncheon].

Father John George | 16 July 2015  

Thank you Andrew for an article that made me recall reading liberation theology and being surprised by the vehement attacks made on liberation theologians in the eighties. I felt then as I do now that they were myopic criticisms by those who refused to concede to the reality of a Marxist analysis of society and rushed to condemn because of the violent means proposed to redress the exploitation of the poor. So I'm glad to see the restoration of Segundo Galilea to the good standing he deserves and equally glad to find Pope Francis challenging all systems that exploit the poor. His criticism of free market economics and of the demonstrable failure of trickle down theory so beloved by Western economics transcends politics. Like Jesus, Francis challenges us to show genuine love by the way we treat each other and our home - planet earth. Thank you also for your note on how Pope Francis responded to the gift. It was for me further evidence that in him we have a deeply open, understanding and articulate leader. May our world's leaders heed his call to develop a new paradigm of relationship and human development.

Ernest Azzopardi | 16 July 2015  

Thanks again for your reflection, Andy. My own reaction was to research the origin of the hammer and sickle to find that it was designed to represent labour and farming as the agents of revolutionary change. The source states that the original design also included a sword, which Lenin asked to be removed as hostile and aggressive. I thought also of Vietnam - closer to my own life experience than South America - the colonial history, the war crimes museums and the ongoing struggle of the Vietnamese people . I am grateful for a Pope who asks for forgiveness, is not judgmental and is open to a hermeneutic of our time. Denis

Denis Quinn | 16 July 2015  

Morales doesn't get it! Marxism was eviscerated by St John Paul.
Francis should send Juan Evo Morales Ayma a chunk pf Berlin wall with barbed wire hammer and sickle nailed on,sprinkled with blood stains!

john michael george | 16 July 2015  

Catholicism is a religion whose liturgy is full of symbols. The power of those symbols was so pervasive that one of the first thing her enemies did when they occupied Christian lands was to denude her churches and monasteries of all symbols and artifacts. Lenin was a supreme propagandist. Marx's dialectical materialism predicted that it would be the industrial proletariat that would overthrow the bourgeoisie. Lenin saw this could never come about unless the workers in the factories united with the peasants in the fields. Interestingly in Russia they refer to 'Serp i molot' (Sickle and hammer), indicating perhaps the priority of the peasantry. All the plastic arts particularly painting and sculpture show artists trying to communicate to their audience with colour, shape, size rather than words. Of course 'the message' of works of art is not always received in the way the artist intended. I don't know what message Luis Espinal intended his Christ on the Hammer & Sickle to convey but because of my knowledge of Lenin and the Russian Revolution I took to signify Christ's identification with the lowest orders of society, even unto death. That's where I'd expect Jesuits to be working.

Uncle Pat | 16 July 2015  

This controversial art brings to mind the 70+ years of praying for the overthrowing of Communism. We still need to pray for Communistic countries.

Helen-Mary Langlands | 19 July 2015  

I am not sure you need a Marxist critique of society to show you the injustices in society. Jesus did not need it but was quite trenchant in his criticism of these abuses. He did not advocate the violent overthrow of a manifestly unjust society and he lived in an occupied country. His social revolution may take a longer time to bring about because it ultimately relies in a change in the hearts and minds of those who wield power. Meanwhile, like Jesus, the Pope keeps the strong but nonviolent pressure on.

Edward Fido | 20 July 2015  

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