Religion & Politics: USF Fall 2006

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Religious Symbols used for Civil Protest

Jessica Hubler


Religious Symbols used for Civil Protest

Last week, during my usual work-time perusal of the BBC website, I came across an article describing recent protests in Paraguay calling for the release of General Lino Oviedo, a popular and controversial prisoner who helped overthrow an oppressive government regime. Though the article did delve into the many reasons behind the protest, its main focus was on an avid supporter who had nailed himself to a cross in order to show his devotion to the cause. Tomas Velasquez, while nailed to the cross, was surrounded by numerous supporters draped with banners calling for the General’s release, and was quoted saying “Oviedo was convicted by a military tribunal but that is illegal in times of peace. We believe that he is being politically persecuted.” This statement though not incredibly radical in its very essence, is interesting when seen in relation to the means of protest which Velasquez and his peers employed.
The action of nailing oneself to the cross is controversial in itself, but the fact that it was being done for non-religious reasons makes it even more divisive. Moreover, its vague, or perhaps non-existent, connection to the cause of the protest raises more alarm. What was Velasquez trying to imply? Was he doing it to show just how far he would go in support of the General’s release, or to connect the General with some sort of religious movement or event? The confusion of sacred Christian symbols and events, such as the crucifixion, and the utilization of these symbols to call for political reform combines the realm of religion with that of civil ritual in order to create a unique form or practice of civil religion. In reading the article, it is difficult to discern whether Velasquez was trying to draw on religious zeal or attachment in order to achieve the release of the imprisoned General, or if he is simply conflating the General’s predicament with that of Christ.
As we read in Gilmore’s Public Ceremonies: Ritualizing Civic, Media, and Social Life, the issues of what would be seen as divinely religious circumstances and symbols are often intertwined with civil ceremonies, such as inaugurations, celebrations, and perhaps protests as well. Similar to the instance in which Reverend Billy stapled Mickey Mouse to the cross and proclaimed his connection to the anti-Christ throughout a well-patronized Disney Store in Times Square, Velasquez also found the instance of the Christian crucifixion useful in his protest for more civil justice. However, Velasquez’s employment of the evidently popular technique was vague and unrelated to his cause. Had he more closely aligned the General with Christ, or used his voluntary crucifixion in a more relevant or obvious way, he may have been more effective in relaying his message. Instead, he seemed to be using the religious symbol in the same way that Reverend Billy used it, as more of a “shock and awe” strategy than a true political statement. Nevertheless, the conflation of religion and civil ceremony, despite its many complications and near contradictions, was both evident and provoking.

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