Expunging Christ: The Crucifix and the Nation

“Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, The people whom he has chosen for his own inheritance.”  — Psalm 33: 12

On Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights fined the Italian government for having crucifixes in its schools.

It’s yet another example of oversized, secular bureaucracies pitted against the most natural forms of human agreement, in this case the nation.

The European Court of Human Rights ordered that the government pay 5,000 Euro ($7,390) to Soile Lautsi, a mother of two who claimed that public schools in her northern Italian town refused eight years ago to remove the crucifix from the classroom.

We might at first wonder, “It’s amazing that they’ve had crucifixes in the classroom for so long.” The American experience has been one of Catholic colleges and universities who have willingly given up the crucifix. The history of the European nations is very different.

Manuela Mesco, writing for England’s The Guardian, explains that the reason crucifixes are hanging in Italian classrooms is due to a legal and political agreement. That agreement, known as the Lateran Treaty (Patti Lateranensi), reached in 1929 between Benito Mussolini and Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, writes Mesco,“established a framework for the mutual recognition and cohabitation of the secular and the religious domains within the Italian state.”

Article 7 of the Italian constitution states: “The state and the church are, each one in its own domain, independent and sovereign.”

“The agreement, among other things, states that crucifixes must hang in every classroom and tribunal in the country,” says Mesco.

The word “nation” appears in Scripture some 670 times, almost nearly as many times as the word “love.”

Clearly, both Scripture and the Church are supportive of the nation. The nation is how God decided to order man.

So, who gets to decide what is in the best interests of a nation? The vibrant, living and breathing nation itself, or some neutered, atheistic bureaucracy?

Think Star Trek’s villainous, collective - the Borg: You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

On one hand, we have a Christian nation that has in its very constitution the crucifix. Italy is a nation willing to admit that it has a sacred center, that it stands for something, namely God.

On the other hand, a genderless bureaucratic entity seeks to disassemble the natural forms of agreement that Christians have built and continue to foster, namely that marriage is between one man and one woman and the nation as a form of territorial union demands loyalty and protects its citizens.

An Event, Not a Symbol
Unfortunately, much of the debate has centered on the crucifix as a “symbol.”

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi described it as “a symbol of Christianity.”

The Italian Bishops’ Conference described it as “a cultural sign.”

Yet, the crucifix is far more than that. Such thinking reduces the crucifix, a cross with the body of the God-man hanging dead upon it, to simply one symbol among many.

The crucifix depicts a historical event, the central event in human history.

People may argue over who Jesus Christ was, but they cannot deny the historical event that actually took place. It’s an event so real that time itself has been cleaved by it, and our very calendars are ordered by it.

Those who want to expunge the crucifix are running from physical reality. When we’ve been asked to “remember,” they’re saying, “Take it away. I cannot look at it anymore.” They want to forget.

“The crucifix creates discrimination,” says Massimo Albertin, husband of Lautsi, as if “discriminate” is a bad word.

To discriminate means to mark or distinguish. Does the crucifix discriminate?

Of course it does. The crucifixion itself was the most heinous act of discrimination humanity has ever witnessed. An innocent man — the Son of God — was plucked from a crowd, cruelly tortured, and sent to die the death of a criminal.

Christ crucified Paul reminded us was “a stumblingblock for the Jews, and folly for the Greeks” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

The crucifix distinguishes truth from falsehood. Yet, for the European Court, it’s apparently an obscenity that must be taken completely out of sight. Now that’s the ultimate profanity.

The Profane and the Sacred
If anything good has come from the decision, it has been the rare display of fraternal agreement. Italian politicians, Churchmen, local authorities, government ministers and laity have responded strongly. They see the defense of the crucifix as a defense of the nation itself.

“Nobody, much less a European court that is steeped in ideology, will be allowed to strip our identity away,” said Mariastella Gelmini, Italy’s minister of education. “It is not by eliminating the traditions of individual countries that a united Europe is built.”

“The court has decided that crucifixes offend the sensibilities of non-Christians,” said Luca Zaia, Italy’s minister of agriculture. “It’s the court that is offending the sentiments of the European peoples who have their origin in Christianity.”

“Go back to the darkest roots of civilization and you will find them knotted round some sacred stone or encircling some sacred well,” wrote British journalist G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy. “People first paid honor to a spot and afterwards gained glory for it.”

Perhaps the defense of the crucifix can be the rallying sacred point to help the Italian nation say, “We’re Italy!”

The strong reaction to the court’s decision is reminiscent of another historical event that the European Union may want to forget.

When the Nazi party began removing crucifixes from Bavarian schools beginning in 1937, there was a strong reaction by Catholic Bavarians. It culminated in the summer of 1941 with large protests. In one particular town, a crowd of more than 500 confronted the mayor after Mass, obtained the keys to the school, and restored the crucifixes to their place of prominence. Professor Ian Kershaw says in his book Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich: Bavaria 1933-1945 that the extent of civil disobedience during this time was greater than at any previous time during the Third Reich in Bavaria.

The European Court has to understand the reality that crucifixes aren’t only found in the architecture of Italy’s cities, but also in the architecture of their life events. Crucifixes are found at the birth, marriage and death of Italians.

And where there’s a crucifix, there’s blood.

The forming of a nation is a tremendous act of communion and love, and it’s an agreement that too often has come at a price. Whether on the soccer field or the battlefield, men have fought to protect their territorial agreements and how they decide to worship God.

The European Court suggests that traditional national loyalties are somehow suspect. Yet, it’s these same traditional loyalties that protected Europe from the threats of Nazism and Communism.

Despite the fantasy the judges live in, sitting in their sanitized halls of the European Court, there is an Italian nation, and much blood has been shed to protect it. It’s a nation whose God is the Lord. May it be ever thus.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy