The 2010 spring and summer were a hot time in Poland. The April, 10th crash of the governmental airplane, with a death toll of 96, including the President Lech Kaczyński, triggered off not only a political turmoil but also significant social disturbance and various debates. During the days following the disaster, Krakowskie Przedmieście Avenue in Warsaw where the Presidential Palace is located, became one of the scenes of nationwide mourning and prayer. In front of the Palace and in the churches nearby thousands were gathering to commemorate the victims. Candles were lit, photographs of the deceased were posted and adorned with flowers. These were common images to be seen in public places throughout the country, which is hardly exceptional in case of such a tragedy. The public feeling of disbelief, confusion and grief lessened slowly with the passing weeks and months, as the attention of the nation was taken over by the procedures of the announcement of early presidential elections, the two rounds in June and early July, the oath of office of the new president and so on. However, one issue remained a tinderbox around which tension did not tend to release. That crucial point was a wooden, twelve feet high cross erected on the sidewalk of Krakowskie Przedmieście on April, 15th by representatives of scout organizations, which remained in its place until its removal on September, 16th. During these five months a huge political and social debate swirled across Poland – a debate in which the adherents of the constant presence of the cross in front of the Presidential Palace clashed with the advocates of purifying the public space from religious symbols.
Everyone who would like to canvass the case must keep in mind the broad canvas of the problem. In Polish social and political realms any ‘conflict over a cross’ is far from having a purely religious context, as there is a long tradition of such conflicts and of entangling the cross into a indissoluble maze of meanings, emotions and frames of reference. The thorough fusion and mutual pervading between the main currents of patriotic movements and Roman Catholicism can be traced back at least to the 1795-1918 era of partitions and political nonexistence of the state. After the year 1945 the Christian faith served for many as a symbol of resistance against the communist rule, since 1989 the cross was often a bone of contention between the supporters of the secularization of the state and the upholders of the conservative point of view. One may say that in Poland there is a long established custom of embroiling the cross in extra-religious narrations and using it as a banner in various social clashes. A concise list of strifes involving a cross restricted to the last half of the century could include the 1960 conflict in Nowa Huta in Cracow, the 1984 school strike and ‘war over the crosses’ in Włoszczowa and 1998-99 conflict over the crosses near the former Auschwitz concentration camp. It is clear that the 2010 controversy did not emerge out of nowhere – the scene was already set.
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This lengthy introduction was necessary to provide an outline of the complex background of the problem. Yet, the aim of this essay is not an insight in the convolutions of the symbolic meanings of the conflict over a cross in the Polish culture. Neither is it an analysis of the arguments raised by adherents or opponents of the cross in front of the Presidential Palace, nor do I intend to support any of those parties. Due to the mentioned knottiness a detailed study of either point of view would be an overwhelming endeavour, while explicit engagement in the political and ideological combat is out of my interest range. I am going to refrain to an inquiry into the means and measures of the struggle from Krakowskie Przedmieście, an inquiry, that I believe to be quite fruitful. In the earlier discussions of the case this problem used to be omitted, shown in a distorting mirror or – what is itself meaningful – these measures of struggle were taken for granted. This is the gap I would like to fill and subsequently try to sketch some more general conclusions that can be feasibly drawn hence.
Having that said, the time has come to present my standpoint. It might be outlined quite simply: I would like to pay attention to the fact that, despite distractive details, the means of action taken by the ‘defenders of the cross’ can be qualified as a kind of a Gandhi-like nonviolent resistance.
Presumably, this proposition may be considered controversial. The TV coverages and reports from the spot concentrated on images of verbal aggression and religious devotion from under the cross, as well as eerie conspiracy theories put forward by the defenders. Such instances, although shading the picture significantly, should not obscure the key fact that principal measures that were put in action were common prayer, singing religious songs and – above all – a constant picket and vigil at the cross to prevent its removal. Other modes of behaviour, quite distinctive for nonviolent resistance, such as attempts at tying oneself to the cross or allowing to be forced away, also took place (particularly on August, 3th when the municipal and church authorities tried to remove the cross).
Further clarification of the issue requires a little amateur sociological insight into both sides of the conflict. Restricting myself from now on solely to the events on Krakowskie Przedmieście and to the time frame of late July and August, I may claim that the defenders were a visual minority. They formed a group gathered under the cross around the clock and no matter what the weather conditions were. To mark and demonstrate their standpoint they used vigil lights, pictures of the deceased president and other victims, crosses, of course, and various other religious icons. What I would like to underline most, is that the defenders recruited in the greater part from elderly people, mostly religious in the old-fashioned, traditional way. At least a significant part of them appeared to have come from poorer social classes, often in their retirement years, some of them came to Warsaw solely on the purpose of the defence of the cross. Judging by my small ‘field observation’ and a few personal interviews taken with them in those summer evenings I dare claim that at least part of them appear to have difficulties in understanding the contemporary world and feel like washed ashore by its hostile stream. Those who manifested their objection to the presence of the cross in front of the Presidential Palace, especially those who attended the August, 9th anti cross demonstration, seemed to have a significantly different social background. They were younger, they had a much more ‘liberal’ point of view, they were using more irony (often quite malicious) in presenting it. They gathered using Facebook and other means of virtual communication, which is itself meaningful, as these would be quite alien ways of exchanging opinions for the defenders.
Why does this background appear significant to my mind? From a certain point of view, nonviolent resistance may be seen as a way in which the weaker minority can obtain its goals refused or disallowed by the stronger majority. There is a huge variety of ways in which the former can oppose the latter and nonviolent resistance is plausibly the most noble and virtuous of them. Indeed, it is the worst form of social struggle ‘except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’. Its central idea is to refrain from using force and violence as means of fight for the desired goal. Beneath it lies the meat, that is the renunciation of achieving one’s goal at cost of any other human being. In fact, those who follow the way of the nonviolent resistance do not simply refuse using force against their opponents, but reverse its direction and point the force against themselves. Their opponents are not forced to accept their demands by means of any kind of violence – they are impelled to do it by the very attitude of the nonviolent resistants. Thereby, the way of accomplishing goals is not force, but softening opponent’s heart with dedication and sacrifice.
One may ask how these lofty ideas fit the case of the discussed conflict over the cross. They do, I believe. Apart of the elementary observation that this was the way of struggle that was followed by the defenders (certainly, by some of them quite unconsciously), a twofold connection might be observed. Firstly, the very fact that the Gandhi-like way of dealing with such conflicts is so deeply internalized in our culture and conscience is itself encouraging and edifying. As it was mentioned previously, it may seem so obvious that it can easily go unnoticed. For those who find this remark trivial or unsound, let me remind how exotic and strange nonviolent resistance was only a century ago. That two centuries ago it would be impossible to conduct on a larger scale and that three centuries ago adversaries in such religion-involving case could simply end up at stake. Undoubtedly, some change has happened and it is worth noting.
The second point is probably more revealing and it might be regarded as a slight attempt at adding something to the very doctrine. It is obvious that there is a vast difference between the Krakowskie Przedmieście events and the classic examples of nonviolent resistance from the British-governed India or from many totalitarian regimes throughout the XXth century. The difference is in the range of hardships the resistants had to face and the magnitude of the offering they had to make. Many times in history the Gandhi’s idea of ‘sacrifice’ took a painfully literal shape as the followers suffered imprisonment, severe sanctions, physical abuse or death. Surely, this was not the case in Krakowskie Przedmieście.
Bet let us make a quick review of the banners brought to the demonstrations and the slogans chanted by the adversaries of the cross. This can be bolstered up by some survey of the Internet which reveals numerous publications (both official and unofficial), both on established websites and on social networks, containing comments, remarks, remakes, pictures and statements, great majority of them containing mockery and offensive, often far beyond any acceptable point. All that has clear traits of taunting the opponents who, I remind, were in large part elderly people clearly unable to make a suitable response. Therefore, the popular image of the ‘defender of the cross’ became as bad as it could: it was a mixture of extreme narrow mindedness, benightedness and backwardness. Thus, the conclusion that can be drawn is quite straightforward but relevant: the present day nonviolence resistant often doesn’t have to fear physical annihilation, being attacked or arrested, but has to accept the role of a laughing stock and face sneer and scorn. Those who have tried, know the price.
To sum it up. The memento coming from an application of the above discussion to the case of the cross in Krakowskie Przedmieście is that we shall not abandon recognition and respect of those who try their way on the arduous path of nonviolent resistance. Our reverence for their measures of struggle should be inviolable, no matter what our opinion of their goal is.
Having that stated, we have to face one more question and uncloud one more doubt. It is a question that might be asked from the standpoint of those in power, those who hold the hard duty of endorsing the consensus of rules that govern the social and political life. The question is: do we – as the whole society – have to accept everything that a small bunch of fanatics decides to defend? Should the government be vulnerable to such ‘blackmail’ and should the society become a hostage of every fancy of a tiny minority so easily?
The answer is yes. Yes, we are obliged to accept their demands, as long as – here comes the essential point – they restrain themselves to the means of nonviolent resistance. What man strives to obtain by forcing it on another man is out of the scope of this enquiry, but what man strives to obtain by sacrificing him/herself gains value by this very action. And this is the value and dignity we shall pay reverence to. The goal of the nonviolent resistants might be whatever they choose, for the majority and those who hold the power it can be either perfectly meaningless or completely odd. But it is not the goal itself but the measures of struggle that oblige us to respect. In other words: everything becomes valuable what somebody decides to defend by the means of nonviolent resistance.
To close with some catchphrase: there is a saying that the end justifies the means. The idea of nonviolent struggle may be described as a reverse of it, that is, a conviction that the means justify the end. In the Polish version of the phrase the verb ‘sanctifies’ is used instead of ‘justifies’. This replacement seems quite meaningful if we remember that in our case the end ‘sanctified’ by the defenders was the cross.