Friday, November 6, 2009

The battle for the cross

Ever since the battle of Milvian bridge in which Constantine fought under the banner of the cross to become Emperor, the cross never ceased to be a political symbol.
As i had predicted the decision of the European Human Right Court has galvanized a traditionalist conservative right both in Italy and in Malta. People in the street are already blaming this decision against "Europe"-(even if the European Union has nothing to do with this decision) We are entering very dangerous and unchartered waters.
With defenders like Berlusconi who has no qualms on sending immigrants back to Libya, the cross is once again a tool in the hand of aspiring emperors.
Even the arguments leveled against the court's decision by our Archbishop are gross. For nobody has censored the cross. The Court only found the exhibition of one particular religious symbol in public building discriminatory. The decision would have been the same if any other religious symbol was exposed in a public building. Neither is the court forcing any country to remove crosses. It is merely offering compensation to those who presented a case of discrimination.
At the same time I don't want to play ball with the conservatives who would like to pit secularists against religious symbols.
I trust that in this case governments will respect the rule of law and abide to the court's final decision. That is why we all take pride in the fact that in 1986 Malta accepted the jurisdiction of this court after long years of protests by the Nationalist opposition against human right violations.
This court offered us safeguards against a repetition of gross human rights abuses. All talk of disregarding the authority of this court is a threat to these safeguards.
That said, Maltese progressive should not be diverted in to a battle against the crucifix. This is exactly what the Maltese right wants.
The real battle is that against censorship and against the imposition of dominant lifestyles through the ban on divorce and other laws limiting people's choices.
I have no contention with religion or the church. I have deep respect for the cross which for me stands out as a symbol of liberation and compassion and an iconic representation of the cruelty of the death penalty.
My contention is against a confessional state. The ban on Realta has shown the willingness of the state to use the repressive state apparatus to clamp down on freedom of expression.
In Italy they still have the cross in class rooms (thanks to a law introduced by the Mussolini who was so Christian that he bombed Ethiopia with poison gas and allied his country with Hitler) BUT they there they have divorce, reproductive rights and the Catholic religion is no longer the state religion.
If we can have all that while still having a cross in the class room ...i might be willing to pay the price.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The power of the cross

I can understand the logic behind the decision of the European Court to ban the crucifix from class rooms. Legalistically speaking the exhibition of one set of religious symbols in schools discriminates against non believers and other religions.
But looking at this issue from a deeper sociological level, attacking symbols intimitally tied with deeply rooted identities only serves to strengthen neo conservative and racist movements.
We should not forget that we all need symbols. But symbols take time to develop. Perhaps one day society will create new symbols representing the ethical values of truly inclusive civilisation. But when Russian or French revolutionaries tried to invent new symbols or cults of reason they failed miserably. Ultimately the cross managed to outlive them.
It is surprising that the crucifix as a symbol has been retained in a country where Catholicism is no longer the state religion and where both abortion and divorce are legal. Is this simply a hang up of the past or a demonstration of the power of the cross? I think it is a mix of both.
The cross itself also represents many of the universal values embodied in our civilisation. But like all symbols its meaning is subject to negotiations.
For me at least at face value it stands out as one of the most iconic depiction of the cruelty of the death penalty and human rights violations.
On a deeper level it represents universal values like compassion and sacrifice for others as well as defiance against power.
Surely it was also a symbol used to rape, pillage, torture and victimise heretics, witches, indegenous populations and whoever deviated from the norm.
And some today are using the cross simply to exclude others and affirm a white european christian identity.
Symbols tend to have a life of their own.
Ironically to keep the cross in class rooms the Italian government will have to prove that the crucifix is a cultural and not a religious symbol. Would that not amount to the secularisation of the cross?
The danger is that in so doing it will the cross even less inclusive as symbol. For by taking the cross away from its religious context,it will be easier to manipulate it.