On Christmas Eve, while Cardinal Joachim Meisner was celebrating Mass in Cologne Cathedral in Germany, a young woman sitting in the front row tossed aside her leather coat and leaped onto the altar, naked from the waist up, arms outstretched as if crucified, with “I AM GOD” written across her bare torso.
A group called Femen told German media the act was a protest “against the Vatican propaganda about criminalization of abortion.”
Earlier, Femen’s leader, Inna Shevchenko, had run through Vatican City yelling “Christmas is cancelled,” with the words “Jesus is aborted” written across her bare chest.
Shevchenko threatened to take her protest to Bethlehem itself. “Bethlehem…can see the rebellious naked breasts of Femen,” she told a news agency.
My first reaction was shock.
Then I found myself wondering why.
I’m not bothered by the nudity. I can see bare breasts on almost any European beach. Even the spa here in the Okanagan Valley has a clothing-optional “European hour” every night.
I am offended by individuals—male or female—claiming to be God. That attitude leads too easily to the ego-centred tyrannies associated with Hitler and Stalin, men who considered themselves omnipotent.
I believe God’s spirit lives in each of us. But that belief requires me to acknowledge the God-spirit in everyone else, not to declare myself to be God.
Although I no longer believe that God dwells in musty church buildings, I still think of the altar as sacred space. Whether or not I believe in the ceremonies enacted at that altar, I feel I should approach it with respect and reverence. Just as I should show respect entering a Buddhist temple or a Sikh gurdwara.
The Cologne protest offended me because it violated that sense of respect.
Yet if I were protesting something, shouldn’t I take my protest to the heart and soul of the wrong-doer? Should respect for the convictions of others prevent me from protesting at nuclear missile bases, Walmart’s boardrooms, or Monsanto’s laboratories?
The Roman Catholic Church—along with fundamentalist Protestant denominations—remains the primary Christian holdout against social and legal equality for women. Cardinal Meisner himself advised German women “to stay at home and bring three or four children into the world.”
British bombs spared Cologne Cathedral during World War II. But one German newspaper speculated that the mere presence of an unclothed woman on the altar had so damaged its sanctity that Meisner’s successor might have to re-consecrate the entire cathedral.
Amazing, isn’t it, that a pair of naked nipples can harm a sanctuary more than high explosives?
The Femen action was, obviously, a publicity stunt. And an effective one, judging by the coverage in European media—although American media largely ignored it.
Was it in bad taste? Yes. But no more so than the stunt pulled by Thinkmodo, a New York marketing agency. When bystanders attempted to rescue an abandoned infant inside a remotely controlled baby carriage a screaming, red-eyed, head-banging “devil baby” erupted and vomited on them.
Is it OK to offend people to market a product, but not to market a cause?