In anticipation of The Catholic University of America’s obligations and observations regarding Black History Month, an icon entitled “Mama” by artist Kelly Latimore was displayed outside Mary, Mirror of Justice Chapel at the Columbus School of Law—and, like the pachamama, soon disappeared.
Whether this was an act that mirrored justice or injustice may be a matter of some debate. But what is in no way a matter of any debate whatsoever was the controversy caused by the pietà painting, which depicted the Mother of God cradling the body of George Floyd in her arms.
The University’s President, John Garvey, expressed in writing his outrage over the pilfering, and denied that the image was anything but a black Christ. But the real outrage is the manner in which our politics are imprinting onto our religion, our religious institutions, and our churches—its sacred images and even identities mirroring the new pantheon of secular idols.
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Make no mistake—Mr. George Floyd should not have been killed beneath Derek Chauvin’s knee crying for his mother. Mr. George Floyd should also not have been resisting arrest as he was or flouting the law as he had. Mr. George Floyd was and remains a pitiable victim of excessive force by an officer who abused his authority. But Mr. George Floyd’s lowliness and desperation does not immediately render him a fitting Christ figure in art, though Christ was hidden in him, we cannot doubt, as he begged for mercy. Mr. George Floyd was certainly one of the straggling, needy multitude of poor sinners, but he is certainly not an icon of salvation. Mr. George Floyd died a painful death at the hands of human sinfulness like Christ, but this circumstance does not make Mr. George Floyd Christ-like.
Racism is a societal sin, but it is not the Original Sin. That Mr. George Floyd suffered and died as he did is sad, to be sure, even tragic. But it was not a holy sacrifice that can serve to save mankind from the oppression of sin. Christ should not be depicted as Mr. George Floyd, and neither should Mr. George Floyd be depicted as Christ, for neither is true. And to equate Mr. George Floyd and Jesus Christ, or to elevate that late gentleman as some kind of martyr, especially in this suggestive way, is an ignorant, propagandist affront to the nature and purpose of sacred art. It is also a startling sign of the white-knuckle stranglehold the State has on the Church, despite their ostensible separation.
Sacred art, if it is to retain its sanctity, must stand outside such sceptered sways and maintain the understanding that the Church is in the world but not of the world. The aim of sacred art is to reflect the eternal reality of Jesus Christ while remaining true to the temporal nature it imitates. If done with integrity and skill, works of art can and will, by some mystery, allow the supernatural to manifest itself on its own terms. The spiritual must be grounded in the material, in art as it is in the world.
The honesty required is not always conservative, but it is always artistic if it respects the divine dimension. Bad art, on the other hand, dictates to the divine, forcing it to exist out of context, making God in our own image. The result is misrepresentation and meaninglessness, and it is precisely such misrepresentation and meaninglessness that the purloined painting in question suffers under. Art should emphasize the dignity of every human life, but not the dignity of every progressive political agenda.
Not that the piece is beyond any truthful message or interpretation. Christ is the Champion of the downtrodden and lives in them in a particular way and with particular affection, for He was one of these Himself. But there is clearly a crude political message here that rudely overrides any possible theological one. Catholic art strives, first and foremost, to be sensible to the presence of grace as it exists in nature, which is the wellspring of art. At the same time, art is symbolic, free to manipulate its subject beyond its subjectivity, which “Mama” certainly does. But what is essential to the Catholic artist’s craft is that faith be not divorced from the perception and rendition of creation and culture, and that goodness, truth, and beauty remain reflected to point the way to God—which “Mama” certainly does not.
The painting was stolen from its place of religious honor, also true. But it was the first one to steal a place of honor from religion. For all the Jews’ anticipations of a political Messiah, Christ did not seem to care much for politics, reminding those around Him to be good citizens and render unto Caesar the things that were Caesar’s; but it was to another King and His Kingdom that He encouraged fidelity. Although He Himself was called a King, Christ’s politics were not of this world. He showed indifference to Pilate’s suspicions of reform or revolt, as that procurator looked Truth in the eye and asked, “What is truth?” while considering in his pygmy way how God Himself might be dealt with to favor the political agendas of the day.
And thus has the political realm become a redemptive realm in America. That is, politics has become a thing as regarded and revered as a religion. There are things that should stand unsullied by the workings of the world, however, and religion is preemptively one of those things. To muddy our religion with politics is to put the cart so far before the horse that, despite the merits of any cart, it would be hard pressed to pull any horse, no matter how tractable, even if it tried. Religion should inform our politics and not politics inform our religion. Religion and its images and influences should not be tainted by the passing fancies or outrages or errors of the day, but instead it should retain its participation in and preparation for the eternal things. This is where “Mama” fails in its incendiary subject matter, even if its intentions were, to give the benefit of the doubt, pure.
But despite the unclear intentions behind “Mama,” it is clear that politics have intended and succeeded to invade our Church and have tainted our sacred art for decades, becoming more and more blatant. What began with ugly, abstract, non-representational imagery in window and banner and vestment, in keeping with the modern taste, has led to a tremendous effort to follow the secular commandments of giving visual nods to diversity standards and female empowerment. It is everywhere. Even the rainbow flag has found its place in the adornment of our temples to signify the allegiances that are foisted on all of us as important, if not more important, than any spiritual affinity.
All of this shows an inclination to conform rather than to form, to be passive rather than active, and to see, even with a squint that approaches blindness, the fleeting relevance of George Floyd as Jesus Christ rather than stand firm in the eternal relevance of the Catholic Church, even if she falls out of fashion.
Religion and the religious conviction that recognizes Christ in our neighbor should be a guiding force in politics and political conviction. But as with so many things in our far-gone culture, a reversal has taken place and political agendas now define what is sacred and what is religious. In this way, politics has assumed a kind of religious iconography—a mandatory loyalty to certain principles of thought and action that promises some sort of salvation. Perhaps the error of this view was the sentiment that prompted the disappearance of “Mama,” or perhaps it was taken under the impulses of a strange passion for the purpose of adorning a private shrine of political correctness. But the purpose of sacred art is nothing less than the purpose of Advent: to prepare the way of the Lord and make straight His paths.
Christ does indeed come to us in the faces of others, but that does not mean that we can put our faces on Christ. It is He that puts His face in us. And while we may suffer the state to put the face of whatever George it will on the one-dollar bill, let us keep it from putting the faces of secular saints on our sacred icons.
[Photo: “Mama” icon by Kelly Latimore (Photo credit: Blayne Clegg)]