Tag Archives: law

The Crucifix as a Passive Symbol

While doing some research recently, I came across reference to the crucifix as a “passive symbol” by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in its 2011 decision in the Lautsi v. Italy case.

The context was the Grand Chamber’s pronouncement that the Italian law requiring the display of crucifixes in classrooms did not infringe on the rights of parents to ensure that the education of their children is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. According to the Grand Chamber, the display of the crucifix, unlike compulsory religious instruction or religious oath- taking, did not require action, prayer, or reverence from those who view it. Hence, according to the Grand Chamber, “it cannot be deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to didactic speech or participation in religious activities.”

(The Grand Chamber gave other reasons for its decision. For a more thorough discussion of the Lautsi case, please see “The Case of Lautsi v. Italy: a Synthesis” by Gregor Puppinck in Issue 3 of the 2012 volume of The BYU Law Review, available online.)

Whether the Grand Chamber realized it or not, the phrase “passive symbol” in relation to the crucifix is rich and deep in meaning. In more ways than one, the crucifix is indeed a passive symbol – although it is passive, like all other symbols it communicates meaning.

The crucifix tells the story of a God Who, out of love for humanity, freely became Man and allowed Himself to suffer the worst cruelty that humanity can think of. On the Cross, Christ rendered Himself powerless. He Who is God deliberately refused to display His omnipotence to a hostile crowd who was daring Him to show that He is Christ by coming down from the cross and saving Himself. Christ passively, albeit freely, suffered and died.

The crucifix shows Christ madly in love with us, yet too helpless to coerce us to respond to His love. He could only hope that the sight of Him nailed to the cross would move us to love Him in return.

This is His way of winning us over, because He wants us to love Him freely and without coercion.  Indeed, we can and do reject His love. With or without realizing it, perhaps the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights was on to something more when it ruled that the mere display of the crucifix “cannot be deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to didactic speech or participation in religious activities.”

Ironically, perhaps it is precisely the self-effacing love that the crucifix symbolizes that makes some people uncomfortable at the sight of it. For we can be incapable of responding to such love which begs to be repaid with love.

The crucifix depicts the apparent defeat of God and at the same time is powerful proof of His love for us. The sight of a crucifix and the meaning it conveys can be disturbing, consoling, or inspiring.  Christ may be passive on the crucifix, but the sight of Him there does not leave people indifferent.

Because of these, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights correctly referred to the crucifix as a “passive symbol”. The image of a God Who allowed Himself to be treated the way He was treated communicates a lot of meaning.

The Archived Life: On Scrapbooking, Catholic Liturgy, and Transitional Justice

By guest writer Melvyn Foo.

On all my holidays this year, my routine when I return to our accommodation is the same. I transfer the photos from my camera’s SD card to my laptop, I edit and select them, and then I upload them to Bonjournal1 and complete my travel log.

In the course of this most recent trip, I have come to call this routine ‘reaping the harvest’. By corollary, then, the day’s experiences are the seeds sown, the harvest of which are the memories that I immortalise in the web.

I have been asked repeatedly why I am so obsessive about archiving my life. I sometimes reply, “The unarchived life is not worth living.”

Remove the double negatives, rearrange, and you get something less tongue-in-cheek and more defensible: life is worth archiving.

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Scrapbooking is the epitome of archiving memories. You choose the happy snapshots, you write nice words, and you frame everything in a pretty page – exactly how you would like to remember those moments.

I am not good at scrapbooking. I took a course years ago, and since then, I have concluded that I have no natural talent for it. I take hours to do what the artsy girls can do in minutes (e.g. choosing paper). I work laboriously (e.g. take exact dimensions) to do what they do by sheer guesstimation. I use science (e.g. rule of thirds, triangulation) to do what they do by feel. (I have since learnt that you can’t really plan every detail out, so you just have to make decisions and improvise along the way. This works sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t. After all, just like jazz, improvisation requires talent, which I lack.)

It does not help that I have color disorder.

Despite my difficulties, I am still drawn to scrapbooking. I have a drawer full of materials, I have a Paper Market membership card (which may have expired), and I scrapbook a cover page for each year’s journal (which comprises largely of blogposts that I compile and print out).

Why? Why is the past – not just knowing what actually happened but remembering what happened – so important?

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An answer may be found in an unlikeliest of places: Catholic liturgy.

In every Mass, Catholics take Jesus’ words literally to “do this,” – i.e. to eat His body and drink His blood – “in remembrance of [Him].”2 This is not just symbolic. The Church holds that the Mass re-presents Jesus’ sacrifice on Golgotha.3 Father Jude had thus alluded in a talk on how there is only one Mass and “one single sacrifice”4 – the one on Golgotha – that we remember and re-present in all our Masses.

This remembrance and re-presentation is called anamnesis, which comprises the heart of the Eucharist.5 The word, sharing a similar etymology with ‘amnesia’, means “a calling to mind, remembrance”.

This word is also used in philosophy and in medicine. In philosophy, it is a Platonic concept which conceives of learning as a rediscovery of knowledge within us from past incarnations. In medicine, it refers to a patient’s medical history which a physician needs to know in order to diagnose and care for that patient.

Regardless of context, the point is the same: when we recall the past, we affect our present and our future. This is the power and the importance of memory.

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Transitional justice is an emerging field which increasingly recognizes the critical importance of memory (alongside the four traditional elements of truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence). This field studies the various processes by which a community recovers from large-scale human rights abuses. With the hindsight from Rwanda, Timor Leste, the former Yugoslavia, et al., it is now incontrovertible that criminal prosecutions alone, while necessary, are far from sufficient. More is required.

Memorialisation is one such process.

Professor Ariel Dulitzky thus wrote that “[c]ertain standards of the United Nations insist on the duty of remembering, educating about the past and rejecting negations of atrocities. They also highlight the role that archives play in the search of truth and justice, and they are also essential for recovering and building memory.”6

This is not just pure sentimentality. Professor Dulitzky quotes the UN Rapporteur on Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-recurrence, who says that “[it] does not suffice to acknowledge the suffering and strength of the victims,” and concludes that “ultimately, the challenge for a policy of memory is not building memorials or installing sleepy statues, but creating more fair, egalitarian and democratic societies.”7

Again, the point here is: remembering the past determines the present and charts the course for the future.

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And yet, if all that is required is to recollect objective historical facts, it is surprising that judicial rulings are insufficient. After all, the trial is democracy’s most potent fact-finding procedure. Why is more – in the likes of film, theatre, museums, etc – required?

In 2001, my family and another family got into a bad accident in South Africa. Both families were traveling together in a single vehicle. The tyre burst, the vehicle ran off the road, hit into barbed wire, and flipped a couple of times. We later learnt that the other family’s dad had been thrown out of the vehicle, and the vehicle had crushed his lungs, killing him instantly.

Two years later, they sued my dad, who had been driving the vehicle at the time of the accident. The judgment arising from the suit is reported as Loh Luan Choo Betsy (alias Loh Baby) (administratrix of the estate of Lim Him Long) and others v Foo Wah Jek [2004] SGHC 230; [2005] 1 SLR(R) 64. It is 18 pages long, and it goes through the evidence in detail. It mentions so much.

And yet it mentions so little. It does not mention the red-stained t-shirt that my mum had used to soak up the blood that had welled out when she performed CPR on their dad, which I had included in an essay based on this accident that I wrote in Secondary 4. It also does not mention a detail that I always talk about when I shared about this accident, that is, how fine the sand was, and how it got into my fingernails when I knelt down and clutched at it, praying to the patron saint of hopeless cases St Jude to make this all a dream.

And it does not even ask that most pressing of questions – where was God in all this? The answer becomes more layered as the years pass.

Examining the different processes of truth-finding, history-telling, and formation of collective memory, Professor Chrisje Brants and Professor Katrien Klep conclude: “The legal truth, laid down in the rulings of an international criminal court is, by definition, not open-ended. The verdict of a court is definite and authoritative; in this context, closure, not continued debate about what it has established as the truth, is its one and only purpose – indeed, on this its legitimacy depends. But then, also by definition, its contribution to history-telling, collective memory, and justice for victims is limited indeed.”8

In this regard, the learned writers also point out that “[h]istory and memory change as time goes on, and are never ‘finished.’”9

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Remembering the past, then, is not just a scientific and once-and-for-all endeavor of ascertaining the 5Ws+1H. It is also an art of attributing meaning and finding a narrative in the events that have happened.

Beyond the context of transitional justice, there is a word for this art of dwelling on the past: klexos. And of this artform, the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows echoes: “Maybe we should think of memory itself as a work of art—and a work of art is never finished, only abandoned.”

There are therefore two key elements in klexos: accuracy and meaning.

To speak of accuracy in recording the past is trite. Dates, names, sequence of events – these matter. Research on the fallibility of eye-witness memory highlights the grave consequences when we remember wrongly.

But to think of memory merely as a recording device is misconceived. In Elizabeth Loftus’ TEDtalk on the reliability of memory, she confirms that when we remember, we are not so much playing back what our senses have recorded. Instead, we reconstruct the past.

Beyond the factual data set of what actually happened, we make sense out of our past experiences, we connect the dots, we construct and reconstruct narrative arcs. We infuse an objective timeline with subjective meaning.

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The forms that the archives of our lives can take have evolved with the rise of social media. At the most extreme, Snapchat and Stories inveigh against the very idea of permanence, since the pictures and videos (allegedly) vanish forever after some time. Instagram heralded the prioritization of pictures over words. Twitter limited any expression of thought to 140 characters.

Perhaps it is inaccurate to conceive of these social media initiatives as archival tools, since they seek more to share and to capture the moment rather than to reflect on the past. All through a screen, of course. As one article puts it, “For Generation Z, there is no struggle to make sense of things. There is only the impulse to share.”

But there seems to be a counter-movement arising. Amidst the FLFC-culture of our times, slow journalism is gaining ground. A New Yorker staff writer opined: “We binge on instant knowledge, but we are learning the hazards, and readers are warier than they used to be of nanosecond-interpretations of Supreme Court decisions.” In 2015, The Huffington Post launched Highline,10 a magazine dedicated to running only cover stories based on months of investigations. Even our local newpspaper Today now has a section called the ‘Big Read’,11 which publishes longer and more thoughtful pieces.

While speed, brevity, and the power to grab attention will still remain foremost news values, slow journalism recognizes that readers also hunger for insight, for immersion, and for analysis. And the Web is taking notice.

But prose is not the only or even the best medium to archive, to reflect on, or to just make sense of life.

As a blogger, I am naturally a proponent of longform journaling. But as my Gen Z friend (who studies linguistics) counter-proposes, “Just cuz there r fewer words doesn’t mean we think less.”

Indeed, many of the Gen Z Instagram accounts that I follow are often filled with musings – be it through photos or captions or something in-between like typography – about life. One 20-year-old I know even has a third account (two is common among Gen Z – one ‘main’ account as a curated public persona and one ‘spam’ account for closer friends to follow) dedicated to more introspective posts.

While sheer wit and conviction certainly drive much of the content that Generation Z produces, not everything is simply “big, colorful, and hysterical”. There is depth and maturity too.

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Be it blogging, scrapbooking, or instagramming, a question persists: are we being merely self-indulgent? Archiving the great events or the lives people that have shaped history is uncontroversial. But what of the grain of our own lives, so lost and so insignificant in the sands of time?

Vanity is undoubtedly a temptation, against which the easiest way of resisting is to keep our archives private.

But as Brené Brown says (and the Gen Z instagrammer above quotes), “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”

These words resound with those of us who share regularly: we are honest with ourselves, we share with others, not necessarily in that order. To the extent, therefore, that the sharing of our lives intertwine with our pursuit of authenticity, perhaps we should be willing to endure some pretentiousness as the price of knowing ourselves.

For myself, blogging is many things. It is a way to make myself available to others. When people ask me a question about my life, the lazy (though admittedly lesser) alternative to sharing with them in person is to send them a link. It is also a way to make myself available to myself. It is amazingly convenient to have a compendium of my life to refer to at any time, to frame a more articulate sharing, to recall a personal story for a session, or just to remember what I went through before.

Perhaps, most importantly, it is a way for me to make sense of my world. To echo Gaiman, “All too often I write to find out what I think about a subject, not because I already know.”12

When my dad and I got into another bad accident in August 2014, I wrote about how I had lost faith in miracles. In September, I wrote about how I had to content with finding God in the ordinary, if I could not find Him in the extraordinary. In July 2015, I wrote again, but this time about how the accident formed part of a period of desolation, which was in turn, part of a larger narrative arc of learning to trust God.

The archive of my life thus becomes a lens through which I see the world. And if we can see the world in our grain of sand, we can move from klexos to sonder, to the humility of realizing that every person’s grain of life is as rich and as varied as our own.

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Moving beyond the individual, the wisdom of transitional justice underscores that klexos is not only relevant to individual lives, but to communities as well.

Just three weeks ago, I was surfing through our community’s spiritual bucket list, and I realized that some of us have already checked items off the list. To some extent, 1Cor12’s narrative has been captured in Mere Community. BASIC will be celebrating their 10th anniversary soon, and their ten years of journeying together will be digitally engraved into the blogs and Instagram accounts of their members.

Other memories are worth preserving. Consider, for example, OWL’s formation, journey, and eventual dissolution. There are precious shards here that I would love to see pieced together into a panel of stained glass.

Stained glass, after all, is a common sight in the Church.

In the final analysis, perhaps stained glass should be the ideal that all our archives aspire to. Because all our lives are broken and fragmented, and will remain so, regardless of how we curate or scrapbook our memories. It is only when we let Christ’s light shine through our past, into our present, and to guide our future, does beauty emerge.

Perhaps, then, it is not so much the unarchived, or even the unexamined life, but the un-examen-ed life, that is not worth living.

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1. Bonjournal is a minimalist travel logging app. It has a clean interface and limits the number of pictures per post to three. I have been using it since 2014, and will probably continue to do so.
2. Lk 22:19.
3. See CCC 1366.
4. CCC 1367.
5. See CCC 1106.
6. Ariel Dulitzky, “Memory, an essential element of transitional justice”, 20 April 2014. He was a member of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances in 2014.
7. Ibid.
8. Chrisje Brants and Katrien Klep, “Transitional Justice: History-Telling, Collective Memory, and the Victim-Witness”, International Journal of Conflict and Violence Vol. 7(1) 2013, pp.36-49.
9. Ibid.
10. See e.g. “Mothers of ISIS“, a paradigm-shifting angle on ISIS recruitment.
11. See e.g. this article covering the glut of lawyers, providing probably the most comprehensive and insightful analysis on the situation. 
12. Neil Gaiman, “Some Reflections on Myth (with Several Digressions onto Gardening, Comics and Fairy Tales”, in A View from the Cheap Seats.

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This article was originally blogged at Mel.

Melvyn Foo is a Singaporean ex-lawyer. He is supposed to be a young adult, but he is really a lot more young than adult. He committed to God while sitting alone before a small and unadorned tabernacle. Since then, everything has pretty much fallen into place. You can visit his blog at http://melvynfoo.wordpress.com/

Minding the Monarchical Church

The Church functions within a monarchical structure – this is important to remember. In addition to this, though, Her system applies to operations in the political realm. There is indeed a necessary temporal aspect to the Church.

The Pope, essentially, operates as a monarch. He may choose to convoke councils and synods, which act as versions of a parliament, and he can even set self-imposed limits on his authority, but it is his divine right to act in the way that he sees fit. After all, “full power was given to him in blessed Peter by our Lord Jesus Christ, to feed, rule, and govern the universal Church” (Council of Florence).

The Church even uses “purple and scarlet” and “gold and precious stones,” the traditional signs of power and prestige. Oddly, fundamentalist Protestants tell us that our utilization of these colors is proof that the Church is the “whore of Babylon” (Revelation 17:1-18). Of course, they are wrong and divorced from historical context.

Further, some of the Biblical evidence for the primacy of Peter hints at a temporal aspect. Eliakim, the forerunner of the Papacy, was entrusted by God with a political position.

And do not forget the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). One line from it reads, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Again, a temporal aspect is hinted at.

Keeping all of that in mind, think about the damage that secular authorities have done to the Church. It was the princes in Germany that secured a place for Martin Luther’s religion. And it was King Henry VIII who, just to secure a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, started the Protestant Church of England. On top of that, the Act of Settlement (1701) in that latter country prevents Catholics from sitting on the throne.

Nonsense from the State must be reined in, and profane governance must be brought to the heel of sacred morality. The State should stay under the auspices of the Church – only She can provide much-needed balance to the fickleness of politics. “It is preferable that each power be balanced by other powers and by other spheres of responsibility which keep it within proper bounds. This is the principle of the ‘rule of law,’ in which the law is sovereign and not the arbitrary will of men” (CCC #1904).

Vladimir Solovyov, a Russian Orthodox theologian who was sympathetic to Catholicism, once wrote, “But if the faith communicated by the Church to Christian humanity is a living faith, and if the grace of the sacraments is an effectual grace, the resultant union of the divine and the human cannot be limited to the special domain of religion, but must extend to all Man’s common relationships and must regenerate and transform his social and political life.”

The prevalence of dissonance between faith and life is striking. The Church even now suffers disobedient laymen that appear completely beholden to political parties and candidates that oppose Her on nearly every issue. In 2012, for example, the bishops of the United States heartily warned against supporting those that promote immorality. Bishop Thomas Paprocki cautioned, “You need to think and pray very carefully about your vote, because a vote for a candidate who promotes actions or behaviors that are intrinsically evil and gravely sinful makes you morally complicit and places the eternal salvation of your own soul in serious jeopardy.” These warnings were, as we know, largely ignored. That must be corrected for the future.

Solovyov also said that “the papal monarchy [was the] foundation of [past] imperfect but genuine unity” — I concur. The Papacy has often offered the most unitive and peaceful solutions to the sometimes-primitive world, in contrast to the rash impulses of many kings and princes.

Popes have historically maintained the Church’s superiority to the State. Pope St. Gelasius I wrote to Emperor Anastasius in 494, “There are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power. Of these that of the priests is the more weighty, since they have to render an account for even the kings of men in the divine judgment.”

It is true that the Church “cannot and must not replace the State” (Deus Caritas Est), but the two must work in harmony, and for that to be possible, the State must give up its immoral frivolities and stay in the Faith.

Great leaders such as Constantine, Pepin, and Charlemagne understood this. These monarchs (as well as many lesser-known others) endowed the Church with gifts beyond measure, and we should express gratitude for them daily. Unfortunately, such greats are rare in modern politics. This bothers me very much, because all civil authorities are supposed to act in alike manner.

The Papacy is the pinnacle of civilization; it is our most tangible link to God. That is why all, no matter their circumstances, are called to show tremendous deference to the Pope, the Vicar of Christ, the leader of God’s Church. He has no equal, and he should never be treated as a human peer, but as our divine guide. Our politics need to reflect that.

Sts. Thomas More and Thomas Becket, pray for us.

For more insight on the relations between Church and State, see my previous column on the subject.

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