Friday, 20 February 2015



In Manila, Pope Francis returned to a concept that he first introduced in Evangelii Gaudium - that of the polyhedron being the ideal of social interaction instead of the, seemingly more perfect, sphere. There, speaking about "ideological colonization," he said:
"[W]hen conditions are imposed by [...] colonizing empires they seek to make peoples forget their own identity and make them (all) equal. This is the globalization of the sphere - all the points are equidistant from the center. But the true globalization [...] is not the sphere. It is important to globalize [...] not like the sphere, but like the polyhedron. Namely that every people, every part, conserves its own identity without being ideologically colonized."
To make more sense of the sphere-polyhedron distinction, let's go back to Evangelii Gaudium, where it is presented in the context of strategies for contributing to the common good and peace in society. There, Francis gives preference to time over space (§222-225), unity over conflict (§226-230), realities over ideas (§231-233) and finally the whole over the part. However, he is quick to argue that the part is not negated or subsumed in the whole, but that they mutually enrich each other (§235):
"The whole is greater than the part, but it is also greater than the sum of its parts. There is no need, then, to be overly obsessed with limited and particular questions. We constantly have to broaden our horizons and see the greater good which will benefit us all. But this has to be done without evasion or uprooting. We need to sink our roots deeper into the fertile soil and history of our native place, which is a gift of God. We can work on a small scale, in our own neighborhood, but with a larger perspective. Nor do people who wholeheartedly enter into the life of a community need to lose their individualism or hide their identity; instead, they receive new impulses to personal growth. The global need not stifle, nor the particular prove barren."
And it is in the context of how the whole and its parts can be thought of without the former stifling the latter that the concept of the polyhedron comes into play (§236):
"Here our model is not the sphere, which is no greater than its parts, where every point is equidistant from the centre, and there are no differences between them. Instead, it is the polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness. Pastoral and political activity alike seek to gather in this polyhedron the best of each. There is a place for the poor and their culture, their aspirations and their potential. Even people who can be considered dubious on account of their errors have something to offer which must not be overlooked. It is the convergence of peoples who, within the universal order, maintain their own individuality; it is the sum total of persons within a society which pursues the common good, which truly has a place for everyone."
Reading the above, I believe, that the image of a polyhedron also points to another fundamental feature, implicit in the distinction between sphere and polyhedron, which is that of asymmetry.

Purely on geometric grounds, an obvious distinction between a sphere and any polyhedron is that the former abounds in symmetry: an infinity of rotation symmetries around the sphere's center, an infinity of reflection symmetries with respect to any plane containing the sphere's center and a central point symmetry, also with respect to its center, not to mention a host of other symmetry groups. On the other hand, a polyhedron, in general, has no guaranteed symmetry whatsoever, where each of its vertices may relate to all the others in a unique way and where even subsets of the polyhedron's vertices may form geometries distinct from those of other vertex subsets. As a result, the polyhedron formed by a set of vertices, edges and faces is both a unique whole and one whose nature depends on where each one of its components is located, potentially without any symmetry at all. In fact, the absence of symmetry can also be though of as an expression of the non-redundancy of the polyhedron's parts, since any, even partial symmetries or repetitions would allow for a representation of the polyhedron that no longer requires a reliance on all of its parts. The sphere here represents an extreme, where the infinite continuum of points that form its surface can be reduced just to the coordinates of its center and its radius. Incidentally this line of thinking also resonates with Pope Francis' early insistence on the importance of peripheries, expressed by him saying that “We understand reality better not from the center, but from the peripheries.” To understand a polyhedron requires traversing its vertices, edges and faces that form its perimeter, while a sphere can be "understood" from its center and radius, since its surface can be inferred from them, without ever being traversed.

Asymmetry not only means that each member is necessary for the identity of the resulting whole, but it is also a principle that is deeply embedded in Jesus' life and teaching. His incarnation itself is vastly asymmetrical, since it is the infinite, unbounded God making Himself spatiotemporally finite, as is His death on the cross, where his one life is given "so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life." (John 3:16). The all becomes one to save the many.

Jesus' teaching too is full of asymmetry, starting with the following, emphatic passage:
“But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic. Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back." (Luke 6:27-30)
In St. Matthew's account of the same speech, we then hear Jesus adding: "If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles." (Matthew 5:40-41).

Love-hate, bless-curse, pray-mistreat, strike-offer, take-give, tunic-tunic+cloak.

And the madness doesn't stop there! The asymmetrical rewards offered in the parable of the workers in the vineyard have those who have worked a full day complain to the owner: "These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat." (Matthew 20:12). The pittance offered by a poor widow is valued above the large sums contributed by the rich (cf. Mark 12:41-44) and asymmetry is also at the heart of Jesus' exhortation to "be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves" (Matthew 10:16).

Not only are action and reaction, action and reward asymmetrical, but asymmetry is at the very heart of God's own inner life and at the core of love as such. The gratuity of love and the very concept of a gift hinge on asymmetry. I give without expecting anything in return, for if I did, my gift would not be a gift at all, but - at least implicitly - an exchange, a transaction, a symmetrical process. In the Trinity the Father gives all of Himself to the Son, without holding back or without requiring prior guarantees of equal recompense. The Son too gives Himself to the Father unreservedly and totally, making Himself nothing to Himself and all as gift to the Father. The Holy Spirit makes Himself empty unconditionally to allow for the love of the Father and the Son to find space in Him. Each Person of the Trinity is ultimately asymmetrical: a gift of self outside oneself, for the other; nothing and everything. It is only on this asymmetry that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one - a one that is dynamic (instead of being static), varied (instead of being monotonous) and communion (instead of being regimented).

A consequence of the asymmetry of love is also a difference in what to expect of oneself versus others. For my actions to be gratuitous and an expression of love, their end must remain their being love, gift and a benefit for the other. If they get reciprocated, my neighbor and I share in the life of the Trinity and we become one without either of us being annihilated.

I believe it is for these same reasons that St. John Paul II used to say: "Be strict to yourself and lenient with everyone else." and that I choose to constrain what I say and do, out of love for my neighbors, without wanting to impose those same constraints on them. For by imposing them, I would preclude them from freely choosing to self-apply them out of love for me.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Jesus the blasphemer

After the Charlie Hebdo attack, I was struck by a tweet from the Protestant theologian and Yale professor, Miroslav Volf:
“Jesus was crucified for “blasphemy.” Blasphemers should not be crucified, or killed, or punished in any way.”
This assertion of Jesus having been a blasphemer stopped me in my tracks, as I have never thought of him in that way. Good Shepherd, Son of God, Paschal Lamb, and Word Made Flesh would ring a bell, but not Blasphemer. Then, I started thinking about all the offense Jesus has caused during his lifetime: fraternizing with tax collectors and prostitutes (cf. Luke 5:27-32), healing the sick on the Sabbath (cf. Mark 3:1-6), having his disciples eat corn without washing their hands (cf. Mark 7:2), making ludicrous claims about rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem in three days (cf. John 2:19), and even his death on a cross was perceived as a scandal (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23) ... And how did his listeners react? Exactly as Pope Francis suggested recently - with threats and violence, to the point of dragging Jesus to the edge of a cliff and wanting to throw him to his death (cf. Luke 4:29), or to making him fear for his life to the point of deciding to hide from the people he scandalized and who were about to stone him (cf. John 8:59).

Suddenly adding blasphemy to the list doesn’t seem like such a stretch, and in fact the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial clearly state that this was the charge brought against him.

When questioned by the Sanhedrin during the night at the start of Good Friday, the high priest commanded Jesus: “I order you to tell us under oath before the living God whether you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” (Matthew 26:63), to which Jesus responded: “You have said so. But I tell you: From now on you will see ‘the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power’ and ‘coming on the clouds of heaven.’” (Matthew 26:64). Jesus’ words then triggered the following scene:
““Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has blasphemed! What further need have we of witnesses? You have now heard the blasphemy; what is your opinion?” They said in reply, “He deserves to die!” (Matthew 26:65-66)
The determination of Jesus’ blasphemer status is then presented to Pilate by his accusers as the grounds for having the secular powers of the Roman Empire put him to death: “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.” (John 19:7)

The above may seem pretty cut-and-dried, but, like all legal arguments, it too is just that - arguable. Here the New American Bible has the following, interesting note on Jesus’ blasphemy, as a commentary on the passage about his hearing before the Sanhedrin:
Blasphemed: the punishment for blasphemy was death by stoning (see Leviticus 24:10–16). According to the Mishnah, to be guilty of blasphemy one had to pronounce “the Name itself,” i.e., Yahweh [...]. Those who judge the gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial by the later Mishnah standards point out that Jesus uses the surrogate “the Power,” and hence no Jewish court would have regarded him as guilty of blasphemy; others hold that the Mishnah’s narrow understanding of blasphemy was a later development.”
The spirit of what Jesus said certainly qualified as blasphemy, while the letter may have been arguable. Nonetheless, this guy, who was going around Galilee and Judea, telling everyone he was the Son of God, was guilty - a blasphemer! - and had to be killed. It’s the law. The Bible say so ...

Now, you may ask yourself, where am I going wit all of this? And that brings us to Charlie Hebdo and other brutal murders of those who speak out against oppressors of free speech, whether they be religious or atheist regimes (and, sadly, there are plenty of examples of both, both in the present and the past). In the case of Charlie Hebdo too we have a bunch of blasphemers, depicting what the law decries as insulting and blasphemous, and law-abiding believers doing their bit for the law’s just punishment being meted out.

Is what the Charlie Hebdo murderers have done consistent with how the vast majority of Muslims understand Islam? Is what Charlie Hebdo have been publishing detestable, crude and inciting of hatred?

Regardless of how those questions are answered (and I’d say “no” and “in some cases, yes”), the first order of business has to be a defense of the freedom of speech - and not just the freedom of “good” speech. Is this an argument for all speech being equal? Absolutely not! And neither is it an expression of support for what publications like Charlie Hebdo have been doing. Instead it is an insistence on the absolute value of free speech. And once that is given, arguments against expressions like Charlie Hebdo can be made (and must be made). Arguments to convince their listeners and readers of such offensive expressions being contrary to the common good, risking an angry (albeit wrong!) response, and not being the most efficacious ways of fighting against oppression, corruption or bigotry. But these must be arguments made on the foundation of free speech where its limiting to “good” free speech becomes a choice of the individual and not the imposed dictate of a legislative regime that is enforced at all cost, including the administration of death.

Making freedom of speech about “good” speech turns it into its opposite, as is clear both from fictional (although chillingly prophetic) accounts like George Orwell’s 1984 and the enforced superficial innocuousness of public speech in 20th century communist regimes, where everything was wonderful, according to plan, fraternal and equal. Unless you made fun of it that is ... in which case you’d qualify for a “Golden Bars” award (bars that were not golden, but embedded in prison walls instead). And the distortions of political correctness that grip many countries today are a scarily similar phenomenon. Only two days ago did I hear the following here in the US, in response to showing a historical photo of a Native American during a presentation to illustrate that a certain process was native to its context: “Um ... You should be careful about saying “native.” It is a very sensitive term here. Saying Red Indian or chief or similar can be offensive. Some sports teams here have already changed their names not to offend.” My colleague then proceeded to tiptoe around such a sensitive topic and ended up using the term “native” as a non-offensive way of referring to this whole faux pas of mine - the exact term that initially triggered the friendly advice.

Freedom of speech is clearly a complex question and it is easy to come up with examples of things that shouldn’t be said (e.g., racist slurs), that shouldn’t be made fun of (e.g., genocide), that should not be promoted (e.g., violence or exploitation). And I would unquestionably agree with that and support very specific, narrow constraints on freedom of speech. However, the easy solution of criminalizing whole categories of verbal expression brings with it great dangers in that those same legal instruments may be abused for very different ends. The extremes here are totalitarian regimes that criminalize any criticism of themselves and that consider any such criticism an offense against the common good that their leaders embody. In our democratic societies too there are dangers, where governments have been prone to overstep their remits and where legislation to prevent terrorism has enabled infringements of privacy and the gagging or undermining of critical voices. A society that cannot handle hearing ideas it disagrees with will eventually descend into fear and caution, rendering speech lukewarm. Speech that becomes barely worthy of being spat out.

I am therefore wholeheartedly with Volf: “Blasphemers should not be crucified, or killed, or punished in any way.” Instead, they should be challenged and engaged with in the same free speech context they employ and, who knows, maybe such engagement (instead of a silencing by law or bullets) could let all discover each other’s brothers and sisters on the other side of the argument.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Pope Francis the Violent

While there have been popes who have earned the epithet “the Great,” it looks like Francis is risking a very different one: “the Violent.” Even though he tends to come across all goody-goody, “who am I to judge”-y, during the course of the last couple of weeks he has spoken both of punching someone and of kicking them “where the sun never shines.”

Fortunately, paragons of pacifism, like the British Prime Minister David Cameron, have come out to condemn such brutality and thuggishness, insisting that no one has the right to “wreak vengeance.” Thank goodness for that! Where would we be without pillars of the international community like David Cameron? Rogues like Pope Francis would be left unchecked and free to perpetrate their injurious misdeeds without impunity!

With that out of the way, let’s turn to what the pope actually said, and look at whether it merited the prime-ministerial admonition that followed. On the flight from Sri Lanka to the Philippines, during his recent visit to Asia, Pope Francis said the following, in response to a question about the limits of freedom of expression (asked days after the Charlie Hebdo attack):
“Each one not only has the freedom, the right but also the obligation to say what one thinks to help the common good. The obligation! [...] We have the obligation to speak openly, to have this freedom, but without giving offense, because, it is true, one mustn’t react violently, but if Dr. Gasbarri,1 a great friend, insults my mum to my face, he gets a punch. It’s normal! It’s normal. You mustn’t provoke, you mustn’t insult other people’s faith, you mustn’t make fun of faith. [...]

Many people who speak badly about religions, make fun of them, we could say treat other people’s religions like toys, these people provoke, and what can occur is the same as what would happen to Dr. Gasbarri if he said something against my mum. There is a limit. Every religion has dignity; every religion that respects human life, the human person. And I cannot make fun of it. This is a limit. I have used this example of a limit to say that in freedom of expression there are limits, like that with regard to my mum.”2
Before jumping straight in, let’s also look at what he said when, a couple of days later, he was asked about his answer during the flight back from Manila to Rome:
“In theory we can say that a violent reaction in the face of an offense or a provocation, in theory yes, it is not a good thing, one shouldn’t do it. In theory we can say what the Gospel says, that we should turn the other cheek. In theory we can say that we have freedom of expression, and that’s important. In theory we all agree.

But we are human and there’s prudence which is a virtue of human coexistence. I cannot constantly insult, provoke a person continuously because I risk making them angry, and I risk receiving an unjust reaction, one that is not just. But that’s human. For this reason I say that freedom of expression must take account of the human reality and for this reason one must be prudent.

It’s a way of saying that one must be polite, prudent. Prudence is the virtue that regulates our relations. I can go up to here, I can go up to there, and there, beyond that no. What I wanted to say is that in theory we all agree: there is freedom of expression, a violent aggression is not good, it’s always bad. We all agree, but in practice let us stop a little because we are human and we risk to provoke others. For this reason freedom must be accompanied by prudence. That’s what I wanted to say.”
Oh ... So, Pope Francis wasn’t calling for physical violence in response to offense or provocation, and neither was he inciting his 1.2 billion followers to “wreak vengeance,” as the Right Honourable David Cameron, MP, suggested. In fact, even just a closer reading of the original reference to punching Dr. Gasbarri contains clues to what Francis unpacked during the second interview: he said “[if he] insults my mum to my face, he gets a punch,” not “if he insults my mum, then I am obliged to punch him” or “it is my right to punch him” or “the right thing to do is for me to punch him, and punch him I will!,” or “I go away and plan revenge against him in cold blood and with deadly force.” Strictly speaking, Francis points out that Gasbarri insulting his mum runs the risk of triggering a reflex in the heat of the moment. And this is precisely what Francis then elaborates on in the second interview: let us not reason about freedom of expression in a conceptual vacuum, divorced from a realism about human psychology. Insults and offense risk triggering “an unjust reaction,” and in spite of being unjust, one should take the likelihood of such injustice into account.

It could sound like Francis is advocating a ban on any form of criticism directed at religion and is just maneuvering to preempt having the Catholic Church criticized. Such a reading, however, is unsubstantiated. Already in the first answer, Francis emphasizes other religions rather than his own, where what he says could be restated as follows: “Don’t insult other people’s religions, because they might take it the way I might take having my mum insulted. This could make me punch the offender, even though I wouldn’t be proud of myself afterwards and such behavior would not be what the Gospel teaches. But, I too am only human and can get angry when provoked.” Far from calling for violence, Francis is clear about it being wrong, but, at the same time, he reminds his audience of it being prudent to take its possibility into account when one offends another.

That Francis is not thinking here gagging criticisms of the Catholic Church should also be clear from what he has been saying pretty much since his election as pope, where he himself has been razor-sharp in pointing out the flaws of the Church with bluntness and linguistic zest. Here the most recent and brutal example were his “Christmas Greetings” to the Roman Curia last December, where he listed 15 “diseases” whose symptoms he has observed in their conduct, including “mental and spiritual petrification,” “spiritual Alzheimer’s disease,” “rivalry and vainglory,” “gossiping, grumbling and back-biting,” and “self-exhibition.” “Christmas Greetings” indeed!

Finally, let’s also look at the other instance of Francis referring to being violent himself. During the same interview from Manila to Rome, a journalist asked Francis about corruption in the Church, where his answer included the following:
“I remember once, in the year 1994, when I had been scarcely named bishop of the Flores quarter of Buenos Aires, two employees or functionaries of a ministry came to me to tell me, “You have so much need here with so many poor in the villas miserias (shanty towns).” “Oh yes,” I said, and they told me “We can help you. We have, if you want, a subsidy of 400,000 pesos.” At that time, the exchange rate with the dollar was one to one. $400,000. “You can do that?” “Yes, yes.” I listened because, when the offer is so big, even the saint is challenged. And they went on: “To do this, we make the deposit and then you give us half for ourselves.” In that moment I thought about what I would do: either I insult them and give them a kick where the sun never shines or I play the fool. I played the fool and said, in truth, we at the vicariate don’t have an account; you have to make the deposit at the archdiocese’s office (chancery) with the receipt. And that was it. “Oh, we didn’t know.” And they left. But later I thought, if these two landed without even asking for a runway -- it’s a bad thought -- it’s because someone else said yes. But it’s a bad thought, no?”
Again, the thought of violence (to “kick where the sun never shines”) is triggered by offense (being offered a bribe), but again Francis only points to the impulse to such a response and spells out his having chosen another path.

Looking over all that Francis has said, both in the context of freedom of expression and when recounting his brush with corruption, I see someone who has his eyes wide open, someone who understands both what the right thing is to do, what should happen ideally, in theory, and the risks and dangers that come into play because of human weakness and sinfulness - both conditions he openly self-applies. His talking about limits to freedom of expression here does neither equal a call for legally curbing it, nor does it mean that those limits are absolute. Instead, they are tempered by prudence and may even involve getting “bruised, hurting and dirty” (Evangelii Gaudium §49) when it comes to speaking freely for the common good.

1 Dr. Gasbarri is the papal trip organizer, who was standing beside him during the interview (see the photo at the top of this post for Francis being mid-punch against his obviously distressed victim :).
2 Note that this quote departs from the America magazine English translation in an effort to provide as close a rendering of Pope Francis’ Italian words. This comes at the expense of some awkwardness of expression, but with - I believe - a closer sense of the simplicity and nuances of his words especially regarding the scenario of his punching Dr. Gasbarri.