October 22, 2017

Fighting a Cause

Fighting a Cause

This week the British Red Cross in the UK has been fighting to safeguard its reputation. The problem is not, however, scandal or embezzlement. It is not like the aggravated fraud which sent its communication chief,  Johan af Donner to prison in Sweden last year after swindling the Swedish Red Cross of millions of kroner. Nevertheless, the Red Cross has made allegations that it has suffered a breach of trust and that the Geneva Convention has been violated.  So what is the issue?

Amazingly, it is a children’s theatrical event – a pantomime held at the Pavilion Theatre Glasgow. The pantomime is an annual British institution which re-enacts popular fairy tales and follow predictable plots. Viewed from the outside the tradition is certainly eccentric. The leading man is usually a girl, his mother, the ‘dame’ is a man in drag, there are villains and heroes, fairies and elves, and the amiable ‘horse’ is played by two actors inside an animal costume. The large, lively cast is supplemented by the audience who are a key part of the production and shout predictable lines of  warning or disagreement. It’s all silly but great fun, and families flock to theatres during January to brighten dull winter evenings.

Yet this harmless event has caused offence in Glasgow – not because of the plot or risqué humour  – but because of the dress. The outfit of the dame,  exaggerated as usual,  sported a large red cross on the hat and chest and this brought allegations of unlawful activity.  Recognizing how their response might be interpreted, the British Red Cross insisted they had ‘no desire to be the villains of the pantomime’ but that they had a serious obligation to protect the emblem since it is recognized internationally for its neutrality and its use is limited by the Geneva Convention. The pantomime producers did not argue. They climbed down rapidly and changed the colour to green.

The incident has raised an ethical discussion. How far should one go to protect an emblem? No-one seriously thinks that a Scottish theatre had any intention of undermining international humanitarian commitment. So where there is no motive of offence, is a legal reprimand really justifiable?

Surely, it is, because the power of an emblem depends on the integrity of its meaning and use. The Red Cross grew from Calvinist and evangelical roots in Switzerland in the mid -19th century, but it was a non-partisan Christianity, committed to seeking good for all people, providing protection for the vulnerable, whoever they were. The Cross –the symbol for Christians of Christ’s death for us –became red on a white background, universally recognizable, to assure us that all humanity matters. And for almost 150 years we have learnt to trust the Red Cross to act with impartiality, bringing help to those who need it even in the midst of war and violence.

So the Glasgow pantomime can have fun but not trivialize the Red Cross emblem. The world cannot afford for its significance to be diminished.

First published in Dagen

January 2011

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