The Examined Life
A chocolate sculpture of the crucified Christ can give us the chance to learn the difference between a mere aesthetically upset stomach and real moral indigestion.
Easter this year was almost spoiled before Holy Week even began—by a life-size chocolate sculpture of Jesus Christ, sans loincloth. Coming in at 6 feet, 200 pounds, and 485,460 calories of pure milk chocolate, My Sweet Lord by artist Cosimo Cavallaro never made its planned debut. When news of its appearance at New York City’s Lab Gallery broke, William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights immediately denounced the anatomically correct sculpture as “one of the worst assaults on Christian sensibilities ever.” New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan called the piece “a sickening display.” Headlines the world over echoed that of the U.K.’s Guardian, “Catholic fury at chocolate Jesus,” though a few echoed Australia’s The Age: “My Sweet Lord! Christians need to lighten up.”
Though it’s true that a chocolate sculpture of Jesus might shock some, it seems a titch extreme to call it “one of the worst assaults...ever.” In fact, it’s really too bad that Donohue and the media he courts have shut down any possible intelligent conversation about this piece, which may actually have a point. After all, hasn’t Easter largely been reduced to a basket of religiously non-descript chocolate bunnies?
Take for example Jesus’ exposed “anatomical correctness.” Medieval artists were not shy about showing Christ’s full naked humanity at his Crucifixion. That true and complete humanity was at the heart of medieval faith. Could our modern obsession with genitalia be preventing us from appreciating the full significance of the Incarnation?
Indeed, for our own day, Jesus’ nakedness has new relevance. Jesus’ stripping was, as the gospels tell it, his final humiliation before Crucifixion, a deliberate act of violence perpetrated by his executioners. It is also an indignity he shares with the tortured mass of humanity, whose victims to this day are still brutalized and beaten to death, often in sexualized violence like rape. Have we forgotten the pornographic humiliation of the prisoners of Abu Ghraib?
These are the true insults to Christ’s image. While the Catholic League and few others pitch fits over a piece of art that few would have seen if not for League-provoked media coverage, we Catholics have hardly mustered sufficient public outrage at far more profound attacks against God’s image. Those labeled terrorists have been deprived of their human rights without trial; thousands of innocents have died in Iraq; every day families receive back their sons and daughters maimed in an unnecessary and unjust war. Add to this the blasphemy of countless children dead of starvation and disease, of women trafficked and exploited sexually, of the world’s inaction before the genocide in Darfur, and of migrants beaten, raped, and even killed in vigilante violence on our own borders. Getting riled about Jesus cast in chocolate starts to look ridiculous, even sickening.
Of course, a few public Catholics have spoken up here and there, and many others labor quietly to repair the damage of these evils, but I think the Catholic portion of the Body of Christ has much more moral muscle to flex. I have yet to see the generalized headline “Catholics denounce torture” or “Catholics demand action in Darfur” in any major newspaper. We may blame a media that tends to favor the exotic or the hysterical when it comes to religion, but in the end it is up to us, leaders and laity alike, to determine by our actions, words, and financial support the public face of Catholicism.
Imagine if the world’s billion Catholics, or even the 70-some million of us in the United States, rose up to protest the true insults against Christ’s image. Imagine if our bishops led us in denouncing these violations of our “Catholic sensibilities”—the ones that recognize in every person the image of God, that insist that every human life possesses infinite worth, that each person possesses God-given rights and responsibilities that must be respected no matter what.
Perhaps the world would be more willing to listen if we weren’t wasting time, money, and media attention taking offense at irrelevancies like a candy Christ. If we were less selective and more robust in our defense of human dignity, even of those labeled “enemies”—whom Jesus commanded us to love, after all—we might get the press coverage the gospel deserves.
Bryan Cones is associate editor of U.S. Catholic. This article appeared in the June 2007 (Volume 72, Number 6; page 50) issue of U.S. Catholic.