It should have been a festive mass in one of the centers of Germany’s Catholicism. On December 25, 2013, Cardinal Meisner celebrated not only his 80th birthday but also the Christmas mass in Koelner Dom, the Dome of Cologne. However, shortly after he started celebrating the liturgy a young woman jumped onto the altar, topless and almost naked. On her body was written: "I am God."
Immediately, journalists stepped onto the scene to snap photos. Several of the priests assisting Meisner roughly pulled the 20-year old, Josephine Witt, to the ground and, although she resisted, they dragged her toward the exit. On the way out one of the worshippers hit her brutally. The Dom’s sextons brought Witt (a philosophy student) directly to the police.
Perhaps the biggest provocation occurred at the end of the mass: before celebrating the Eucharist Cardinal Meisner purified the altar by sprinkling holy water on it. He also told the assembled worshippers that the young woman was especially in need of prayers and blessings, meaning that he considered her mentally ill.
Witt’s action must be placed within the context of FEMEN, a women’s movement that began in the Ukraine in 2008. There, women protested against prostitution and against being used as objects. FEMEN is also tied to the Russian all-women band, "Pussy Riot," whose members staged a protest in 2012 by dancing and singing in Moscow’s Christ-the-Redeemer Cathedral. For this, they spent one year in jail.
FEMEN considers itself a “new feminist” movement. Its members draw attention to women’s rights by writing slogans on their naked breasts and by jumping into public events with a high media presence.
Josephine Witt’s objective, for example, was to criticize the Cardinal of Cologne and the Catholic Church for its anti-abortion ideology specifically and for its discrimination against women generally. Because violating the freedom of worship is illegal in Germany, Witt faces a monetary penalty.
Her provocative action raises several questions. Is it possible to fight for respect and recognition of human dignity with an action that is not respectful to those attending and celebrating mass? Is there a higher aim that makes it acceptable to go beyond the limits of respect?
The activists of FEMEN emphasize that their actions would not capture public and media attention if they just held up protest signs. Their form of protest relies on the logic of the media and of journalists. This is clever and realistic. On the other hand it shows the clear limitations of the movement. The media wants scandalous pictures – topless women help get those pictures. But the media also plays the game "sex sells." Hence, FEMEN activists rely on a game against which they are, in fact, fighting.
If one reads carefully the news articles about the Christmas incident in Cologne, the problem becomes obvious. Reporters focus on the fact that a topless young woman jumped onto the altar and afterwards was dragged out of the church. There is little, if any, mention of the details of FEMEN’s criticism against the Roman Catholic Church: pedophilia and sexual abuse in the Church (and beyond), discrimination against women, and the institutional consequences of this discrimination.
Moreover, almost all of the news coverage reported the Cardinal’s words about the need of the woman-protester for prayers and blessing – which put her outside of the realm of serious discussion partners. The image created by this kind of coverage is of a crazy, possibly mentally ill woman, who disturbed the holy liturgy. Such an image makes it easy to avoid engaging her or the FEMEN movement about their motives and criticisms.
So far I’ve focused on the downsides of FEMEN’s style of protest. But does it have benefits?
I want to stress the following aspect of staging a provocative action during worship: the fight for human rights (in Germany, for women’s rights) is an essential part of Christianity. The first field of reference is the institution of the church itself. If the proper flow of the liturgy takes precedence over paying attention to violations of human rights, worship and liturgy lose their particular logic.
Witt and her actions may have captured the real message of Christmas. After all, Christmas is the beginning of a provocative story of humanizing the world (and God). If provocations are domesticated by making them decent and orderly, they lose their character as provocations. But Christianity itself has a provocative center, of which Witt reminded the German public on Christmas 2013.
For video footage of Josephine Witt's action in the Dom of Cologne on Christmas Day, 2013, visit: http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=1d5_1387968023.
Withnall, Adam. “Topless Christmas Day Femen protest in Cologne Cathedral slammed as ‘unnecessary disturbance.’” The Independent, December 28, 2013.http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/topless-christmas-day-femen-protest-in-cologne-cathedral-slammed-as-unnecessary-disturbance-9028426.html.
Interfax-Ukraine. “Topless FEMEN activist climbs altar in Cologne cathedral during Christmas mass.” KyivPost, December 25, 2013. http://www.kyivpost.com/content/world/topless-femen-activist-climbs-altar-in-cologne-cathedral-during-christmas-mass-334252.html.
Photo Credit: screenshot of liveleak video footage.
Author, Heike Springhart, (Ph.D. University of Heidelberg) is Lecturer for Systematic Theology at the Theological Faculty of Heidelberg. Her dissertation on the role of religion in the US’ reeducation program for post-war Germany won the Templeton Award for Theological Promise (2008). Her current research focuses on the theological aspects of dying, death and finitude. In 2013 she was a visiting scholar in the Marty Center. http://heike.springhart.de.