Wednesday, October 29, 2003


The media has given much attention to the court victory by a Muslim in Italy who objected to the presence of a crucifix ("a little man between two sticks," as he described it) in his son's school classroom. Minority religious communities and secularists have long objected to the state's imposition of Catholic symbolism on public spaces. John Bell of the Iona Community presented a powerful BBC Radio 4 Thought For The Day on the issue this morning. The full text is here. These are Bell's concluding observations:

"[I]rrespective of Christian, Islamic, or Hindu beliefs, Western societies are dominated by deities. But unlike in ancient Rome, worship of them is more subtle.

"We don't have shrines to Mars, the god of war, but we do encourage a huge armaments industry at whose behest children in Angola and Mozambique still lose limbs through tramping on hidden landmines.

"We don't have shrines to Mammon, the god of insatiable consumption, but the logos of multi-national junk food giants are foisted in the face of the world's poorest, with the expectation of instant devotion.

"We don't have shrines to Bacchus and Aphrodite, the deities associated with excess and gratification, but we do have a whole fashion industry committed to exploiting the variable tastes of children and teenagers who don't have the money to pay the dues which the brand names demand and so pester their parents.

"By all means take down the Cross and the Crescent and the Star of David, but only if you also take down the insignia of ...of the multinationals I cannot name on radio.

"Or else leave the symbols of religious faith in their place, allowing - in the case of the cross - for the self-importance of earthly gods to be set against the seeming naivete of the Creator of the Universe who saves the world through suffering love."

I appreciate Bell's final sentiment. But it misses three points. First, the image of the cross in the public realm has been corrupted by its Constantinian associations ("With this sign we conquer"), so that its sanctioning by the state can perhaps never be innocent. Second, its ubiquity and generalization may cheapen the Christian commitment that it be a symbol of God's willingness to suffer rather than to inflict suffering. Thirdly, the idea of a God who suffers and who identifies with humanity at its most degraded is incomprehensible and offensive to Muslims: the meaning of God's presence in Christ crucified is something that needs to be offered and discussed with sensitivity, not with power.

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