…And Deliver Us from the Cross in Brazil’s Public Places

CrucifixWhen I had to perform the only mission that I’d rather never have to perform in my life, I suddenly stumbled upon the problem. I carried the inert body of my beloved to the crematorium’s chapel and there he was, naked, obscene and dirty with blood, extended arms, dominating that funereal chamber, with an air of someone who for centuries felt very well at ease in that wood cross, always hovering over corpses.

My reaction was immediate: “Take out this thing at once!” The staff members, surprised at my infuriated gesture, did not know how to react. But they ended up finding a way to hide the image of the Jew. The touched visitors started dropping in and you could see in their expressions that they were missing something in the room.

Let them miss it. That would be the last straw, me, an atheist, having a wake for my wife, also an atheist, under the shadow of a cross! And to those who have to accompany me when it’s my time to return to the nothing I came from I leave a message: ‘I do not want torture instruments hovering over my carcass.’

To this day, I haven’t been able to understand the success of the cross as a logotype. More than a death instrument, it is a torture instrument. If to the Romans it was an utensil for executing sentences, to Christians it became a slaughter heralding banner as soon as they took over power.

In its name thousands of people who did not accept the sole Christian god were massacred, in its name altars and cults to other gods were destroyed, in its name whole cultures were wiped out from the map.

For the first and only time in history, a torture instrument turned into a glorious flag. The flag with the scythe and the hammer bloodied the 20th century, but these two objects at least were work symbols and not symbols of a shameful practice.

Like concentric waves of a far-off earthquake, the battle between the West and Islam ended up reaching Brazil. Judge Roberto Arriada Lorea from the 2nd Court of Family and Successions of the Central Forum of Porto Alegre, proposed the removal of crucifixes from court rooms in the forums and in the Rio Grande do Sul’s Supreme Court.

“The presence of religious symbols – basically crucifixes – puts the forums and the court under suspicion,” explains the judge. And he’s sure right about that. Brazil is a multi-religious country. If the cross means redemption to a Christian, the same symbol brings quite unpleasant memories to Jews or Muslims: the bonfires of the Middle Age, the Inquisition tortures, the Crusades. But what does the Gaúcho judge’s proposition have to do with Islam?

It happens that the debate had its origins in Europe, more precisely in Italy, country that hosts the Vatican. The issue was raised for the first time in Milan, more precisely it was raised in 2001, in Milan, when Rosa Petrone, an Italian nurse converted to Islam, decided to not resume her chores in the hospital of Niguarda until they removed the crucifixes from her working place.

Italy’s Muslim Union sided with the nurse, arguing that the presence of the Catholic crucifix in public places was a violation and challenge to the Church and state separation doctrine. Still that same year, in another Italian town, a teacher had asked for the removal of the crucifix from class rooms in order not to hurt immigrants children’s susceptibilities. Suddenly, Europe realized that it had adopted a behavior that it condemned when practiced by Muslims.

The reaction of Rosa Petrone was the answer to the fight of the European against the Islamic veil. If some European countries brandish the argument of a laic State against the display of religious symbols, the Italian nurse concluded – and with good logic – that the public agencies should not exhibit symbols even those belonging to the Catholic religion.

This seems perfectly appropriate to me. By the way, the separation between clergy and laity was not an initiative from the laic power, but from the Church itself. This powerful agent of progress in Europe, was started in the 11th century. The idea didn’t come from a layman, but from pope Gregory VII. The so-called Gregorian reform’s intention was to remove the Church from the laymen’s dominance and most of all to free the Roman papacy from the Germanic emperor ambitions.

But Gregory VII’s timely decision doesn’t seem to have been adopted seriously. Pope comes, pope dies, pope takes over and the Vatican keeps interfering in matters concerning the State. João Paulo II, in a flagrant provocation to Europe, went as far as recommending that judges be subject to Church guidelines in matters concerning abortion and divorce.

With the haughtiness of monotheists, who believe that their god is the true and only one, he spent good part of his pontificate condemning homosexuality and the sexual pleasure. To condemn such practices in the Vatican and among his herd, would be understandable, it’s a matter of idiosyncrasy. To condemn them, however, in other nations, is not only a demonstration of authoritarianism but also vain presumption.

Alas! Nowadays, the good Greek sport thrives more under the altars shadow than in the barracks. This is the natural consequence to the behavior of a religion that removed its celebrants from the female sex. But this is another matter.

In my opinion, the legislators might as well offer Catholics an exclusion clause. Abortion and homosexuality do not constitute crime, except when carried out by Catholics. In this case, let these gentlemen get all the rigor of the law. In my view, this simple solution would satisfy both parts.

Are you Catholic and have you consented on having an abortion? According to your belief, you are a criminal and must be punished with jail. Are you not a Catholic? Have a good day, after all you haven’t committed any crime. If I know well enough my flock, the Pontiff’s herd would decrease significantly in a short while.

I come back to the cross. For judge Arriada Lorea the symbols placed on the walls show disregard to article 19 of the Federal Constitution, which forbids subordination relations between the State and religious institutions. So the story goes, that in the 1970s. a judge from Tupanciretã county, in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, right after taking over his post ordered that the crucifix be removed from the court room. Since this happened in a little hidden corner of Brazil the gesture has remained unknown, as a folkloric act from the country’s chronicle.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in 2004, in his New Year’s homily, in Regensburg, Bavaria, devoted good time to cuss Johannes Raus, the German President, for having compared the Islamic veil to the crucifix. Raus said that the wearing of the veil should not be allowed in public services, mainly in schools.

He stressed, however, that is not acceptable either that these same institutions carry crucifixes, something that still occurs in some places of the Catholic Bavaria. Ratzinger answered saying that he “would not forbid any Muslim woman from wearing the veil”, but added: “But we wouldn’t let the cross be forbidden as a public symbol of culture of reconciliation either”.

The European discussion comes to Brazil. As an atheist and layman, and a defender of a multi-religious country, I convey my support to the Gaúcho judge.

Janer Cristaldo – he holds a Ph.D. from University of Paris, Sorbonne – is an author, translator, lawyer, philosopher and journalist and lives in São Paulo. His e-mail address is janercr@terra.com.br.

Translated from the Portuguese by Arlindo Silva.

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