In Bolivia, the would-be dictator, President Evo Morales, gave Pope Francis a carving that represents Jesus crucified, as it were, on the symbol of communism, the hammer and sickle. People inside and outside of Bolivia have criticized him for accepting the gift, as if his action were an endorsement of … what? Communism? That’s ridiculous. Liberation theology? How so? The hammer-and-sickle isn’t its symbol. True, some proponents of that discourse use Marxist concepts, but the only symbol of Marxism that we have is an old guy stuffed into a repressive Victorian suit while his thicket of a beard tumbles down to his portly belly.
Was Francis endorsing Morales, his half-baked economics and his authoritarian rule that resonate with the hammer and sickle? It would seem that the wily Evo did put Francis into a corner on this one: The President told him it’d been sculpted by Fr. Luis Espinal. Actually, it’s a copy. In any case, this Jesuit who outspokenly opposed the military dictatorship had been murdered in 1980. On his way from the airport, the Pope stopped at the spot where his body was found—not to praise the priest’s Marxist statements, but to make sure that the good he did was not buried with the seventeen bullets in his body. So how could Francis refuse a bit of memorabilia of this priest of God? Well-meaning Vaticanologists who think the Pope needs an excuse for not looking a gift horse in the mouth will note that he only touched it when he heard who the artist was.
But, back to the meaning of this controversial little carving. For those who reverently reflect on Jesus’ sacrifice, the cross is a throne of triumph. For those who want to make a political point, it’s just an instrument of torture. One of the most famous speeches in American political history ended with a line that brought the crowd to its feet for half an hour: You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold. Translation: Gold is bad, the gold monetary standard is bad. On his way back to Rome from Evo-Evo Land, the Pope said that the gift was one object in a long line of protest art, citing a famous Buenos Aires artist’s depiction of Christ crucified on a bomber jet plane plunging downwards from the sky. Francis said it was meant to be a criticism of some imperialists bombarding some country. In other words, bomber planes are bad, bombing is bad.
So the conclusion to draw from Bolivia is that the President’s gift is a witness that the hammer-and-sickle is bad, that Communism is bad. Well, knowing the histories of Evo and Espinal, let’s say it’s a bungled attempt at an ideological statement, a self-contradiction from two messed-up minds. No need to get riled up about it.