You’ve probably heard that Christians in Italy and elsewhere are trying to defend crucifixes in public classrooms before Europe’s highest court, the European Court of Human Rights. “This is a great battle for the freedom and identity of our Christian values,” said Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini. Some speak of “intolerance” or even “persecution” of Christianity. The Catholic bishops of Malta said, “The display of the Cross in public places does not impose a religion: in our tradition, the cross is a symbol and expression of the highest altruism and generosity, and of the deepest solidarity offered to all.” Many Orthodox bishops further east are expressing similar sentiments.
I just don’t get it. The Christians in Europe seems thoroughly mistaken to me. I’m sure there is a complex history to these European disputes which an outsider like myself can’t begin to appreciate. But from my cultural perch some 5,000 miles away, it seems long past high time to get beyond the special privileges which the Church has enjoyed ever since Constantine legalized Christianity in the 4th century. I wish the Christians in Europe would get ahead of the story and be leaders in the transition, instead of being forced into it against their will.
I admit that I’m greatly influenced by Methodist (or is it ‘high church Mennonite’?) theologian Stanley Hauerwas in all this. I’ve retained much from that two-year stage I went through as an undergrad in which I read every book and article written by Hauerwas, even if I view a few things differently by now. Hauerwas taught me that the Gospel applies first of all to the Church, not the state. He taught me that Christians best serve nation-states not by their patriotism, but by their embodiment of an alternative Gospel vision. (I was ready by the second-last week of the last semester of my senior year, by now a pacifist, to join the Friday demonstration calling for the removal of ROTC from campus.) Hauerwas taught me that the Church’s mission is not primarily to preserve the achievements of Christendom, but to be an alternative community, a contrast society to the ways of the world. This vision contributed much to my decision to become a Benedictine monk.
The Maltese bishops rightly say that “the cross is a symbol and expression of the highest altruism and generosity.” But doesn’t this mean that we Christians should avoid using the cross in any way which is offensive to others? Doesn’t the self-emptying of Our Lord on the cross teach us to refrain from any coercion of others? Shouldn’t we reject the battle imagery of “Christians versus secularists,” where their win is our loss and vice versa, and be happy to “lose” in the eyes of the world if this is more faithful to Christ and more in accord with his loving act of self-offering?
I have the impression that the Christians in Europe are grabbing for every last scrap of privilege they once had in the hope that this will forestall the Church’s complete marginalization. It’s as if they’re saying, “We need yesterday’s cultural props because we can’t count on our own resources – our preaching of the Gospel, our celebration of the liturgy, our catechetical formation of the young – to inspire anyone to be a believing Christian.” I think it’s time to bite the bullet and and rely precisely on those resources. And to rely on Christ, whatever it means for the Church’s status.
Tomorrow is Independence Day in the U.S. I wish all the best to my fellow U.S. citizens. But you won’t be surprised to hear that I’m happy to live in a place where the focus of tomorrow’s Mass is the lectionary and missal texts for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time. Without any patriotic songs.