Only God Himself knows what was going through the head of Bolivian president Evo Morales when he thought it would be a good idea to give Pope Francis a “Hammer and Sickle Crucifix“.
Although, according to reports, the Pope diplomatically rebuked the president, saying “No está bien eso” (“That’s not right”), Morales has unwittingly presented His Holiness with an incredibly powerful symbol.
After all, Christ has been crucified thousands if not millions of times on the hammer and sickle, with communists and socialists around the world renowned for their brutal suppression of Christians, their slaughter of clergy and their attempts to culturally eliminate all vestiges of the faith.
Yes, Karl Marx is often misquoted in calling religion the “opium of the people”, with critics pointing out that he preceded these words by calling it “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”
Yet this faint praise still implies there will be no need for it in Marx’s materialist utopia, once the capitalist order is overthrown and oppression ended.
Right now, China’s Communist government is sending Christians off to re-education camps in the hope of halting the rapid expansion of the faith in their country. This is their punishment for worshipping in underground “house churches” rather than government-approved building where all clergy are vetted to make sure they toe to party line.
Just last month, authorities pulled down a multi-million dollar cathedral-like church in Wangling, Zhejiang province while a similar church was destroyed last year in Wenzhou just days after it was completed.
In the Russian revolution, the Bolsheviks also had a knack for destroying holy buildings. Following their victory in the Russian Civil War, the Reds blew up churches and massacred clergy in a bid to culturally cleanse the new Soviet Union of its Orthodox past.
Atrocities included the 1918 drowning of the Bishop of Tobolsk for organising a religious procession the day after the exiled Tsar had passed through his town. Around 600 monasteries and convents were also destroyed as they were “parasitic communities”.
The Republican fighters in the Spanish Civil War, so beloved by British metropolitan liberals as virtuous freedom fighters, were not much better. The side many in UK were told were the “good guys” were ruthless in their extermination of Catholic clergy, with nearly 7,000 priests, monks and nuns killed.
In one incident in Toledo, the South African poet Roy Campbell witnessed 17 Carmelite monks being rounded up and shot by communist militias. Their bodies were left lying where they fell, along with the bodies of several priests throughout the narrow streets of the city.
Even the comparatively more gentle Evo Morales has been quick to strike at the Church, despite his bizarre attempt at friendship yesterday.
Despite the best efforts of some Latin American clergy to make peace with socialism through so-called “Liberation Theology” – a doomed synthesis of religion with materialist ideology – left-wing governments such as those of Morales have wasted little time denigrating Christianity.
He has reportedly described the Catholic Church as his “main enemy” and removed its status as the state religion in 2009. He has also seize Church land, tried to stop having religious feast days as national holidays and attempted to eliminate religious education in state schools.
So Morales’s gesture yesterday was all the more unusual. Apparently based on a similar carving made by Jesuit human rights activist Fr Luis Espinal, it is nonetheless clearly blasphemous. Maybe Morales knew this and thought it would be a good way to chide the head of his “main enemy”. Or maybe he had no idea, something which is possible given he himself follows an unusual mixture of Catholicism, indigenous beliefs and communist ideology.
Either way, the symbolism of his gift to the Pope is more powerful than he probably intended.