Sunday, July 19, 2015

The 'Communist Crucifix' and Other Offbeat Gifts

I'm pretty sure that the current Pope's 'communist crucifix' will be as well-remembered in the mid-22nd century as Leo XIII's tricycle is today. Pope Francis called it "protest art," said he understands the idea behind it, and isn't offended by the gift. I think that's reasonable.

(From PA, via The Telegraph, used w/o permission.)
("The table, which is called an EVO 8000, came with customised bats painted with the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes flags"
(The Telegraph)

Sometimes diplomatic gifts aren't very diplomatic. For example — the pingpong table British Prime Minister David Cameron gave the American president was a great idea, with just one problem: it was made in China. That was in 2012, so maybe the fuss about a "best of Britain" being made in China has stopped.

I don't think one table tennis table proves that British industry is in decline, or that Portuguese kings were covert Buddhists: despite the Robinson Casket's decorations. It's a gift from the Kotte king to the Portuguese king, about four and a half centuries back.

Please bear with me. This ties in with the 'communist crucifix,' sort of.

The Robinson Casket carvings show some chaps in European garb playing bagpipes, critters, and Sinhalese dancers: probably reflecting the hope that Sinhalese and Portuguese leaders could get along.

The Kotte kingdom lasted a bit over a hundred years, and hasn't been around since 1597. Portugal is still around, but the last I heard they've got a president and a prime minister, not a king.

By the time the last Kotte king gave his kingdom to the Portuguese king, it had shrunk. Then the neighboring Kandy kingdom — I am not making that name up — made a deal with the Dutch empire.

The idea was that the Dutch would liberate Kandy and other Ceylonese kingdoms from the Portuguese empire.

It gets complicated after that. Instead of going into everything from the Portuguese conquest of the Jaffna kingdom and Battle of Randeniwela to the Sri Lankan Civil WarDutch Ceylon became British Ceylon, and after that European empires had gone out of fashion.

We're calling Ceylon Sri Lanka these days, and that's another topic.

Anyway, a Kotte king gave a Portuguese king — John III, or maybe Sebastian — a little chest with a mix of European and Sinhalese decoration.

Most Sinhalese are Theravada Buddhists, but the gift doesn't prove that the Portuguese monarchy was Buddhist.

Maybe that sounds like a silly assumption, but I've run into similar claims made about Pope Francis: based on the 'communist crucifix' he took back to Rome.

Remembering History

(From L'Osservatore Romano, via CNA/EWTN News, used w/o permission.)
("Bolivian president Evo Morales presents Pope Francis with a 'communist crucifix' at the presidential palace in La Paz, July 8, 2015."
(CNA/EWTN News))
"Pope calls 'communist crucifix' protest art, but says he wasn't offended"
CNA/EWTN News (July 13, 2015)

"Responding to waves of controversy after receiving a 'communist crucifix' – a carving of Christ crucified on a hammer and sickle – from Bolivian president Evo Morales, Pope Francis said he took no offense, but understands the work as 'protest art.'

" 'I would qualify it as protest art, which in some cases can be offensive,' the Pope said during an inflight news conference on his July 12 overnight flight from Paraguay to Rome.

"But given the context of this piece of art, he added that he understands the idea behind the crucifix, and 'for me it wasn't an offense.'..."
Pope Francis received this 'communist crucifix' on his Apostolic Journey to in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay. (July 5-13, 2015)

Protest art describes everything from Picasso's Guernica to someone's 'save the pigeons' picket sign. Getting back to the Pope, a 'communist crucifix,' and diplomatic gifts: I'm not offended by the thing, or that the Pope didn't take offense.

I'm also not surprised at Evo Morales' choice for a diplomatic gift.

His politics are "leftist," and "his administration has focused on the implementation of leftist policies, poverty reduction, and combating the influence of the United States and multinational corporations in Bolivia." (Wikipedia)

Considering Bolivia's recent history, that's understandable.

The territory was part of the Spanish empire until Napoleon's forces invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 1807-08. That eventually led to independence for nations in Spanish America.

On the other hand, Napoleon's invasion wasn't particularly good news for most folks living in western South America. The wars and revolutions that followed resulted in a succession of old-school tyrants replacing the Spanish governors. My opinion.

Then the Russian Revolution(s) inspired some with visions of a worker's paradise, and scared others silly. I remember the trailing edge of McCarthyism — and never, ever, want the 'good old days' to come back.

Now, back to that 'communist crucifix,' and the red menace.

Freedom and McCarthyism

(From Wilfredo R. Rodriguez H., via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(A market in La Paz, Bolivia.)
"...The crucifix, which the Pope revealed was traveling with him back to Rome, was given to him by leftist Bolivian Evo Morales on Thursday, sparking controversy.

"The cross with a hammer and sickle is a reproduction of another carved during the 1970s by Fr. Luis Espinal Camps, a Spanish Jesuit who was a missionary in Bolivia who was killed in 1980 during the Bolivian dictatorship....

"...Francis said that he had been unaware that Fr. Espinal, in addition to his work as a journalist, was also a sculptor and a poet.

"He noted that during his life, Fr. Espinal had sympathies with the Marxist interpretation of Liberation Theology, which at that time was widely popular in South America.

"It was criticized both within the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), to which both Pope Francis and Fr. Espinal belong, in 1980, and later in by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in their first declaration on Liberation Theology, in 1984...."
I recommend reading the rest of that CNA/EWTN News article: to folks who don't mind learning why Pope Francis didn't recoil in horror from the Bolivian president's gift.

I think remembering that Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a chemical technician and nightclub bouncer in Argentina before he became a priest, and eventually Pope Francis, helps. He knows, and has worked with, folks who endured Latin America's colonial legacy.

I also think that freedom doesn't mean "free to agree with me." That's why I must support religious freedom: for everybody. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2104-2109)

America's leaders often show tolerance for folks who don't agree: sometimes grudgingly, but my country generally lets folks criticize public leaders and policy.

But from around the end of World War II to the mid-1950s, we were 'protected' from folks like composer, conductor, and pianist Leonard Bernstein; composer Aaron Copeland; historian Benjamin Keen, actor Edward G. Robinson, and clarinetist, composer, and bandleader Artie Shaw.

Their offense wasn't being talented or smart. In most cases, folks were blacklisted for having the 'wrong' opinions: or at least knowing someone who didn't approve of America's then-conservative establishment. Some got their lives and careers back: others, not so much.

My father, who was a librarian while McCarthyism was in progress, told me that he considered destroying the library's circulation records — to protect folks who had checked out the 'wrong' books.

He was no 'commie sympathizer,' but he did think that freedom makes sense: even for folks who read the 'wrong' books.

Somewhere along the line, American leaders got the idea that setting up power-mad dictators in Latin America would stop the 'Communist menace.' We'll be cleaning up the mess that left for generations. Again, my opinion.

A Bolivian ersatz "democracy" finally fell apart after a famous assassination and badly-managed "elections." I am relieved that my country seems to be getting past that deplorable era.

As for Evo Morales' politics, I'm hardly surprised. I just hope that Bolivians keep recovering from the last several centuries of appalling leadership.

Being Catholic

As the CNA/EWTN News article says, the Pope's 'communist crucifix' is a copy of one made by Father Luís Espinal Camps: a priest killed by Luis García Meza Tejada's enforcers in 1980. Father Espinal thought Liberation Theology was a good idea.

It's not, which isn't just my opinion.1

García Meza was intensely anti-communist, may be responsible for more than 1,000 politically-motivated killings, eventually lost power, and may be serving time in a Bolivian prison.

Instead of quoting someone's criticism of the Pope for being too liberal, insufficiently conservative, or whatever, here's how the news item ends:
"...Taking a 'hermeneutic' approach to the crucifix – one that involves an interpretive act of understanding with an emphasis on dialogue – the Pope made an analysis of the times, saying that Fr. Espinal 'was an enthusiast of this analysis of the Marxist reality, but also of theology using Marxism.'

"It was from this perspective that Espinal created the work, he said, noting that the priest's poetry was also '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?' "
The closest I'll come to a criticism of Pope Francis is observing that sound bites of his off-the-cuff statements often betray sympathy for folks whose ancestors weren't in the privileged one percent of Latin America's colonial period. My opinion.

Since America's mainstream news media seems to assume that the Catholic Church is politically conservative: that's "news." I suspect that at least some journalists also assume that whatever the Pope says is directed at American politics. (October 19, 2014; June 18, 2013)

My own position is Catholic. (November 3, 2008)

I've been pegged as conservative, based on some of my beliefs, but could be labeled liberal for others. The reality is that I joined an outfit that's literally catholic, καθολικός, universal: a united and diverse people, embracing all cultures and all times. (September 7, 2014)

Our basic principles haven't changed, and won't. How we apply those principles hasn't stopped changing, and won't. (August 31, 2014)

About capitalism and communism, I think Luigi Taparelli was right: capitalist and socialist theories don't pay enough attention to ethics. (September 28, 2014)

And now, for something completely different: Pope Leo XIII's oddball gifts.

Tins of Sardines, a Tricycle, and Two Cows

The Glasgow Herald's Monday, March 19, 1888, edition didn't have a photo of Pope Leo XIII's tricycle. That's not surprising.

Although The Illustrated London News went to press in 1842, decades after The Times included a photo in Lord Horatio Nelson's funeral coverage, photojournalism didn't peak out until the 1930s to 1950s. And that's yet another topic.

I put a copy — a pretty-much-legible image — of "Strange Gifts to a Pope" (by Our Own Correspondent, Rome, March 12) at the end of this post.2 I think the journalist had respectful fun describing the papal collection, which included:
  • One
    • Stuffed boa constrictor
    • Tricycle
    • Whale's skeleton
  • Baked clay "South Sea idols"
  • Perfume (Acqua di Felsina from Bologna)
  • Jars of cloves
  • Tins of sardines
  • Some sheep and goats
  • Two cows.
That doesn't make Leo XIII a taxidermist, cook, or farmer. It does show that the Pope is an important figure in world affairs, and gets occasionally-oddball gifts from all over the world.

That reminded me of social exchange theory, cultural anthropology's reciprocity principle, and the vicuña coat scandal. Instead, I'll talk about something else


I suppose the Pope's failure to dwell on Father Espinal's deviation from Catholic beliefs might look odd to American reporters.

I think America's religious attitudes and assumptions tend toward the "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" style.

I'm a Catholic, one of those "superstitious and idolatrous" papists James Ussher wrote about, and that's almost another topic. (March 15, 2015; February 5, 2014)

Don't expect a rant about Jonathan Edwards. I think, and hope, he meant well. Besides — I'll get to that.

Good intentions only go so far. "I meant well" isn't an excuse. Not in the long run. (Catechism, 1789)

Despite the impression Edwards and his energetic disciples give, God doesn't hate me: or you. God loves each of us. That's why our Lord walked to Golgotha. (Catechism, 458)

But God isn't a senile old fool, rewarding us for doing anything we like. There are standards of behavior.

I've got a sort of final evaluation coming, right after I die. Can't say I'm looking forward to that, but it's unavoidable. (Hebrews 9:27; Catechism, 1021-1022, 1051)

Meanwhile, I should love God, love my neighbor, see everyone as my neighbor, and treat others as I'd like to be treated. (Matthew 5:43-44, 7:12, 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31; Luke 6:31 10:25-27, 29-37; Catechism, 1789)

Not judging where others should spend eternity doesn't mean that we ignore wrongdoing:
"...judging others leads us to hypocrisy ... a person who judges gets it wrong...because he takes the place of God, who is the only judge: taking that place is taking the wrong place!..."
(Francis I)

"...although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God."
(Catechism, 1861)

"Stop judging, that you may not be judged."
(Jesus, in Matthew 7:1)
And that's yet again anther topic.

More of my take on being Catholic:

1 For the Catholic angle on Liberation Theology, I recommend reading: 2 From The Glasgow Herald (March 19, 1888):

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