By Elizabeth Lev
ROME, SEPT. 1, 2008 (Zenit.org).- For historians, who inhabit the remote world of the past, the injustices and sufferings of people are sufficiently distant in time to ever have much emotional impact on them.
Thus, history can serve as a convenient escape from turbulent contemporary issues.
Studying the plague in 1348 or slavery in the South, it’s easy to feel complacent about man’s progress through the centuries. Abolition and penicillin seem to testify to humanity’s ability to overcome illness and degradation.
And then, as if rudely awakened from a deep sleep, some event will reveal the horrific truth that we haven’t budged as much as we would like to think from the darkest practices of antiquity. Human traffickers buy and sell women and children for the pleasure and profit of men, while malaria kills more people than the bubonic plague ever did.
A dear friend shocked me out of my academic coma by sending me a video link. It has already been widely circulated among pro-life circles since 2003, but I was unaware of it until, taking a break from Early Christian Architecture, I clicked on the link.
I watched Jill Stanek, a registered nurse, describing how a child dies after surviving a late-term abortion. I profess total ignorance; I did not realize that these abortions often involved inducing early labor and letting the exposed child die because it no longer had the protective home of its mother’s womb. Expelled from the mother’s body, and left to die alone among the garbage, a living and breathing child was deemed unworthy to live.
Making matters worse, those who sought to provide protection for those infants by sponsoring the Born Alive Infants Protection Act, were opposed by persons who claim that those children who survive abortions should be left out to die.
It seemed as though I had time-traveled back to antiquity where, in Greece and Rome, the civilized veneer of their clever laws, philosophical speculations and brilliant engineering, co-existed with their sadly primitive customs of slavery, blood sport and exposing unwanted infant children.
In books, it seems so easy to look down on the Ancients for doing something so barbaric as leaving a child out to die. But what are we to make of the tolerance of the presence of this same brutal practice in our modern liberal democracies?
In both Greece and Rome, among the majestic temples and sophisticated societies, the harsh utilitarianism of their world began at birth. Children were discarded because of birth defects, single parenthood, economic strain or because they somehow interfered with the well-being of the parents (Oedipus Rex is a famous example of the latter).
The Greek author Plutarch wrote that “the father took his child and brought it to the elders of the tribe. They examined the child, and if it was well formed and strong, ordered it to be raised, but if the child was ill-born and maimed, they discarded it in the so-called Apothetae, a kind of pit, on the grounds that it was not worth the rearing.”
Under the Roman law, fathers, called “paterfamilias,” had power of life and death over all the members of their family. Romans claimed that “Romulus compelled the citizens to raise every male child and the first-born of the females, and he forbade them to put to death any child under three years of age, unless it was a cripple or a monster from birth. He did not prevent the parents from exposing such children, provided that they had displayed them first to the five nearest neighbors and had secured their approval.”
Compared to our age of abortion on demand, the Romans had more rigorous strictures on putting their children to death.
Both in Greece and Rome, the parent exposed his own child. In our world, we make others complicit in our evil. Babies who are born alive after attempted abortions are handed over to nurses to be abandoned. Not only is the child’s life destroyed, but forcing nurses, who have pledged to assist and care for people, to stand by as a baby feebly kicks and fights for each dragging breath is to deprive them of their essential humanity.
It is a sad irony that the Ancients come across as more humane than those who oppose the Infants Born Alive Protection Act. By exposing children, they at least left open the possibility of the child being saved whether by a compassionate passerby or the will of the gods. Both Roman and Greek cultures, pious in their own way, left a certain amount of leeway for the gods to act.
Those today who oppose legislation protecting survivors of abortions want to preclude any assistance, any compassion or any recognition of these little lives; their brief experience of the world destined to be cold, lonely, unalleviated suffering.
Two thousand years ago, Christianity came to the rescue of these abandoned children. As early as the first century A.D., they possessed a manual of catechesis, the “Didache.” In it the first Christians learned about the ways of life and the way of death. The way of life was a way of love where they were explicitly commanded, “Do not kill a fetus by abortion, or commit infanticide.”
Thanks to Christianity, the exposed infants were saved, nurtured and raised. In our post-Christian culture, these children have lost the protection they enjoyed for a while. Sometimes, sadly, history comes full circle.
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Mocking the Crucifixion, Again
In the northern Italian town of Bolzano, the Museion Museum decided to get some attention by displaying a work called “Feet First” by German Martin Kippenberger.
The four-foot installation shows a bright green frog in a loincloth, nailed to a cross through its hands, with its tongue hanging out of its mouth. One hand holds a beer mug and the other, an egg.
That this object was deemed “art” has much to do with British-Iraqi collector Charles Saatchi who showed the work at his gallery in London. The same Saatchi also promoted the image of “The Virgin Mary with Elephant Dung” in the “Sensations” show of 2000.
Of course, there may be something about Italy that makes the anti-Christians go into overdrive. Adel Smith, the Muslim activist who chose Italy as his home, denounced the presence of crucifixes in schools, while the pop star Madonna chose Rome as the site of her own pretend-crucifixion on a mirrored cross.
It doesn’t say much for the health of the art world when the only way artists can get noticed is by taking hallowed Christian images and mocking them.
Franz Pahl, who runs the regional government of Alto Adige in northern Italy, objected to the work of art with a by going on a hunger strike, but the museum board decided to leave the work.
Claudio Strinati, who alas, serves as superintendent of the artistic patrimony of Rome, defended the work with the trite and tired slogan, “Art must always be free.” He seems to have forgotten that Leonardo, Raphael and Botticelli were not “free” to paint whatever they liked. The numerous rejected works by Caravaggio inform us that when he painted what he liked, his work wasn’t shown in public.
Benedict XVI even weighed in, writing that the work had “offended the religious feelings of many people who consider the cross a symbol of God’s love and of our redemption.” News services gleefully leapt to attention, vying to invent the cleverest headlines, while the Museion collected more and more ticket sales.
The New York Times, with its proverbial insensitivity to all things Christian, ran the headline “Crucified Frog Sculpture Troubles the Pope,” making it sound as if the Pontiff were the one with a problem, suffering from an overly constrictive case of moral party-pooperism.
Imagine what the headline would read if someone presented as “art” a bright yellow stuffed lemming with a Star of David on its chest and a number tattooed on its forearm, and titled it “They All Followed.”
Or if someone made a collage using the faces of the victims of 9/11 to make an airplane crashing into a toilet?
No newspaper or gallery owner would be crying out about artistic freedom, and no one would blame interest groups for protesting in outrage.
In the face of this hypocrisy, why does the Pope even bother? Why does he ask Madonna to refrain from her self-crucifixion or the Museion to remove the offensive work? Is it because he wishes to regain some papal authority over temporal affairs like in the good old days? Or does he really think that that the souls of Madonna or the Museoin board are going to be awakened by his protests? Of course not, although he undoubtedly prays for their conversions.
He’s not talking to them, after all, he is talking to us — those of us who have the grace to see and understand what the crucifix means to Christianity. We can remember how Christ was mocked even on the way to his death, and know that the battle against evil is just as bitter now as it was then.
Those who have been granted the gift of recognizing Christ as Lord and Savior must uphold and defend the dignity of Christ’s sacrifice. Though there is nothing innovative about scorning the cross, we shouldn’t just shrug our shoulders or roll our eyes.
We should avoid these shows, concerts, CDs or movies. Christians number some 1.3 billion in the world, and without our patronage, these products will cease. The Museion’s gods are changeable ones, transforming faces with the economic tides; our God is constant.
Compared to the artistic giants of years past, men like Kippenberger seem mere fleas, and the agents who hock their work and defend their “freedom,” are like the rats that convey their plague from place to place.
Then as now, in the mayhem that follows a plague, it’s always the Church that is left to pick up the pieces.
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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian Art and Architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus. She can be reached at [email protected].