In the Face of Controversy, Ave Crux, Spes Unica

Note:  This replicates a post found on my personal blog, greennotebook.wordpress.com.

(Shout out to the Congregation of Holy Cross for the title!)

Even when I’m not blogging frequently for you all, I’m pretty darn plugged in these days. Honestly, I’m falling more in love with Twitter each day. The live tweeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Fall Meeting was amazing. What a way to stay up to date on what’s going on in the hierarchy of the Church in the US!

Other discoveries that come via Twitter make me a little less giddy inside, however.

The fashion company United Colors of Benetton has launched a controversial advertizing campaign this week. I first stumbled onto what is dubbed the Unhate Campaign when I read a news piece announcing that, in the wake of serious objections, Benetton had pulled its ads featuring Roman Catholic Pope Benedict XVI locking lips with Mohamed Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand sheikh of al-Azhar mosque in Cairo .

Wait, what?

Yes, that’s right, Benetton’s new advertizing strategy revolves around photoshopped images of world leaders in conflict with each other kissing. Don’t click any of the following links unless you’re okay with seeing some of the photos.

As I mentioned above, I encountered this campaign through its opposition. As far as I can tell, there are six images of world leaders in all. In addition to the Pope and el-Tayeb, the featured partnerships are Kim Jong-il, Supreme Leader of North Korea & Lee Myung-bak, President of South Korea; Barack Obama, President of the United States & Hugo Chávez, President of Venezuela; Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany & Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France; Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian National Authority & Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel; and Hu Jintao, President of the People’s Republic of China & President Obama (again?).

The White House is unhappy. The Vatican is unhappy enough to be pursuing legal action. I can’t imagine any of the others who have had their images used without permission for a series of clothing ads are much more thrilled.

Let’s put aside that anger for a moment, though. Let’s put aside the fact that the US president was used in more than one conflict. Let’s put aside the fact that the only religious leaders featured are both outspoken critics of physical expressions of homosexuality. Let’s put aside the fact that the only heterosexual kiss featured is also arguably the least sexual kiss.

The intention of this campaign (other than the obvious selling of clothing) is to mobilize the people of the world against hatred. To quote Benetton’s press release, “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased.” This sentiment is apparently a quote from the Sutta Pitaka, a book containing over 10,000 teachings of Buddha or his disciples. Seems like an okay intention (ignoring, again, the obvious selling of clothing).

But then we get to what is my deepest discomfort in relation to this campaign, a discomfort I would suggest be shared by all Christians, especially those involved in youth ministry.

To represent this nonhatred, Benetton has chosen the image of the kiss, which they refer to as “the most universal symbol of love”. These particular pictures are “symbolic images of reconciliation- with a touch of ironic hope and constructive provocation”.

I can think of a much more universal symbol of love (not to mention ironic hope): the cross.

Obviously, a European fashion house, especially one willing to use images of a Pope & Imam in this fashion, isn’t going to be holding up the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ as a model to emulate. But to zoom in on a sexualized love as the way to save the world?

What of the love of a parent getting up at 5:00am to make sure the kids have all of their clean laundry, book reports and breakfast ready before it’s time for school?

What of the love of a little sister who thinks the world of her older siblings, even when their peers at school aggressively don’t?

What of the love of a priest who stays up half the night with a dying parishioner only to make it to the church on time for 7:00am Mass the next morning?

What of the love of St. Francis, begging in the streets for help rebuilding the church? And of St. Clare who supported him however she could?

What of the love of St. Joan of Arc, which led her to the mess of French politics, and ultimately to death in an enemy’s court?

What of the love of all the martyrs, recognized and unrecognized, who offer up not only their death, but every minute of their daily routine, to a cause greater than themselves?

I could scribble on for pages about the lack of caritas in modern understanding of love, or of the limited understanding we now have of its translation, “charity”. I can lecture until I’m blue in the face to teens about Theology of the Body and respecting & honoring ourselves enough to wait. In the end, it’s not going to make a difference if I, and others teens are watching, don’t live it out authentically.

Love is a choice, an act of the will. It is not a bunch of words. It’s not an image. It’s not an ad for clothing or a publicity stunt.  Advertisers might not be looking to the cross for hope, but we as Christians need to. Want reconciliation? There’s a sacrament for that. Christ has paid our debt, if we’re willing to accept. And if we’re going to make real, radical changes in the world, changes like the ones the Occupy movement, the Right to Life movement, and sure, even Benetton, are theoretically working for, we need to embrace the cross with every choice in our lives.

Until then, all we have is a lot of fuss and a winter wardrobe we don’t know what to do with.

 Closing note: After writing this post, I read Fr. Ron Rolheiser’s most recent column, entitled “Love Beyond Naiveté and Romance”.  It addresses the concept of Christian love far more effectively than I have.  Go to http://www.ronrolheiser.com/ to read it.

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About greennotebook

Youth Minister. Theologian-in-Training. Poet. Musician. Girlfriend. Caffeine Addict.
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