Not surprisingly, many people considered the combination of the symbol of communism -- an atheistic and oppressive ideology which has been espoused by governments responsible for around a hundred million killings over the last century -- with the symbol of Christianity to be offensive, and there was a certain amount of discussion as to whether Pope Francis considered the gift offensive. Some held that in photographs and video the pope looked taken aback at the gift, and people also argued that one could hear him say in a low voice "that is not right" as he was given the present. However, an enterprising reporter asked the pope about the gift during the flight back to Rome, and Pope Francis professed himself un-offended.
“I was curious, I didn't know Fr. Espinal was a sculptor and also a poet. I learned about it in these past few days, I saw it and for me it was a surprise. It can be categorised as a form protest art. In Buenos Aires, some years ago, there was an exhibition displaying the works of a good sculptor, a creative Argentine who is now dead. It was protest art, and I remember one piece was a crucified Christ on a falling bomber: a criticism against Christianity but because of its alliance with imperialism. I would qualify it as protest art, that in some cases can be offensive. In this particular case, Fr. Espinal was killed in 1980. This was a time when Liberation Theology had many different branches. One of these branches used the Marxist analysis of reality and Fr. Espinal shared these ideas. I knew this because that year I was rector of the theology faculty and we talked a lot about it.” In the same year, the Society’s general, Fr. Arrupe, sent a letter to the Jesuits asking them to stop the Marxist analysis of reality and four years later, in 1984, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published the first document, which is critical, and the second, which opens up to more Christian viewpoints. Espinal was an enthusiast of this Marxist analysis and he produced this work. His poetry also belongs to that genre. It was his life, his way of thinking. He was a special man abounding in human genius, a man of good faith. Let us interpret it this way: I understand this piece and I did not find it offensive. I carry it with me. I left the decorative honours which President Morales gave me behind… I have never accepted such decorations but Morales acted in good faith, to please me, so I thought of it as coming from the people. I prayed it over and I thought I would leave them with Our Lady of Copacabana, so they go to the shrine. The wooden Christ I took with me.”
(The Shrine of Our Lady of Copacabana, incidentally, is apparently the source of one of a number of disputes between the Bolivian bishops and the socialist government of Evo Morales. In 2006 Morales's party seized land which belonged to the shrine and had been given to it to provide the shrine with a supporting income. Whether Pope Francis's choice to regard Morales's other presents as gifts of the people, and to leave them at that particular shrine, seems to portray any sort of message to those within the Bolivian context I do not know. Other areas of dispute between the Church and state in Bolivia include Evo Morales's attempts to declare Bolivia a secular state, to remove most holy days from the list of national holidays, and to secularize education.)
Francis's description of the piece as protest art, and his comparison to a piece showing Christ crucified on a bomber, is interesting, though I have to say that the example he gives strikes me as rather different. Showing Christ crucified on a bomber seems to suggest a message that the bomber is a tool of execution and torture used by an imperial power, just as the cross was in fact a tool of execution and torture used by the Roman Empire. Indeed, an interpretation along these lines did strike me as soon as I saw pictures of this "Marxist crucifix": There's something in a little way appropriate in making an analogy between the cruel violence of crucifixion and the cruel violence which communism visited upon the world, including upon many Christians.
But as the pope says, Espinal was a believer in a heavily Marxist approach to Christianity, and Evo Morales is himself an avowed socialist, leader of a political party named Movement for Socialism (MAS). Clearly, the intent of the original sculptor of the piece, and Morales in giving it to Francis, was not to suggest that communism crucifies Christ. Rather, it seems clear that the intent is more to suggest that socialism is an instrument of salvation, just as the cross, and Christ's suffering and death on it, was the instrument of our salvation.
What this helps to underline is the curious place which the cross holds in our Christian iconography, one which is so familiar to us that we forget how strange it is. We believe, after all, that Jesus, true God and true man, was falsely accused by his own people and unjustly executed by the state. The cross was a horrific means of execution, one which often caused people to suffer publicly for days before finally dying in agony. As such, the cross was a grisly and shameful symbol, and for our sins, our savior was put upon one and to suffer and die.
Sometimes a persecuted group will take a symbol of persecution as their own in order to make a point. For instance, in the Vietnam novel Matterhorn, several black soldiers make a point of wearing nooses make of cord around their necks as a reference to lynching and an accusation of racism against those around them. That is now, however, how Christians view the cross. Our use of the symbol is far more radical, and shows how seriously the Church takes the idea that salvation was won for us through Christ's suffering and death: we have adopted this instrument of death and cruelty as a thing of beauty.
It did not happen all at once. In the Christian art from the era of persecution, there are very few portrayals of the cross. Indeed, one of the earliest depictions linking the cross with Christianity is a piece of apparently anti-Christian graffiti carved in a plaster wall in Rome around 200 A.D., the Alexamenos Graffito, which portrays a man standing before a crucified man with the head of a donkey, captioned "Alexamenos worships his god".
Clearly, the graffiti artist thought that for a god to be crucified was shameful, and for someone to worship a god who had been crucified was foolish. Christians may not have agreed, but in their art of the period you are more likely to see the chi rho symbol, the fish, the shepherd, or depictions of the last supper than any kind of crucifixion scene. However, after Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity and banned crucifixion, and his mother St. Helena discovered the relics of the true cross, which became a site of pilgrimage, depictions of the cross and the crucifix began to appear in Christian art.
Today there is no symbol more identified with Christianity than the cross. We have made something once at least as shocking as the gallows or the guillotine the symbol of our faith, and we have done so not our of protest or irony, but because it is through this suffering that we are redeemed.
That is why Espinal and Morales both saw a crucifix depicting Christ nailed to a hammer and sickle as something which suggested Marxism was a positive thing, rather than a thing of cruelty and suffering. And it is why I would disagree with the Holy Father and find the crucifix offensive. Perhaps the Holy Father has a far greater ability to put himself in the place of others than I. Perhaps his background in Central and South America, provides a different perspective than a grounding in European history, where the killing fields of communism are rivaled only by those of communism in Asia. Perhaps both.
I think the message of the art is clear: Marxism saves. It takes the strange, scandalous new message which Christianity has applied to an ancient instrument of killing, and substitutes the symbol of Marxism to say: By this sign, your salvation comes into the world.
But in fact, Marxism kills. It has killed scores of millions.