Great moments in Anglicanism: Fidel Castro and Frank Griswold

What can one say about a bishop who lionizes a tyrant and murderer?

Tyrant and mass murderer Fidel Castro died last week. A notorious persecutor of Christians, Fidel Castro nonetheless was an idol for some members of the religious left. On 28 Feb 2006 Episcopal Church of the USA Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold met Fidel Castro in Havana. Episcopal News Service reported on that glorious occassion, with what can best be described as a tin-ear to the human rights abuses and pervasive atmosphere of fear that pervades Cuban life.

In his excitement upon meeting the great man, it appears Bishop Griswold forgot to speak out on the regime’s policies on gay and lesbian issues — homosexuals were sent to labor camps until 1979 and to this day under Article 303a of the country’s Penal Code, “publicly manifested” homosexuality remains illegal, as does “persistently bothering others with homosexual amorous advances.”

Episcopal News Service reported on the meeting between Castro and Griswold in 2006. One wonders, ‘what were they thinking’ when they released this piece.

“Cuba is the only country in the world where an American flag has never been burned,” Cuban president Fidel Castro, 79, claimed at a late-night meeting with Griswold on February 28. The impromptu dialogue, called by government officials, was not originally part of the Presiding Bishop’s pre-planned itinerary.

“There is no hatred here… I trust the American people,” Castro said through an interpreter. “We understand that the blockade is the creation of government, not the people of the United States.”

The two-and-a-half-hour conversation — conducted across a long conference table with one delegation on each side — began as Griswold spoke of being a senior at Harvard in 1959 when Castro visited the campus. “You approached in a boat on the Charles River,” Griswold recalled. “I was among a group of students who waved to you from a bridge.”

Recalling the campus setting, Castro asked: “Has anyone blockaded you for 47 years? Has anyone blockaded your thoughts? Lies are an attempt to block people’s minds.

“No one has all the truth,” Castro continued.

“Truth is larger than any one perspective,” Griswold concurred. “The truth is always unfolding.”

The full dialogue between Castro and Griswold was given almost entirely to points of history and philosophy. Griswold did, however, raise implicit concerns about the civil and political rights of the Cuban people — particularly the right to dissent publicly from government policies — with the Cuban president. Griswold told Castro that the right to dissent is one of the most cherished rights in the United States, and is the reason he is able to return home and advocate against the embargo.

“You were not born a revolutionary, and I was not born a bishop,” Griswold said. “But history has drawn us into events by which we’ve been shaped and molded.”

“And in such a way we have shaped ourselves, but we both chose difficult careers: I am a revolutionary, and you are a bishop,” Castro said, as laughter filled the room.

“When somebody like you and I sit down and talk, and we can tell each other our concerns, progress is often made,” Castro said, citing the value of the exchange of “a great diversity of minds. A great mistake is made when you think people think in the same way… Both in religion and in the political arena there are mysteries.”

“That tension is where true growth can occur,” Griswold said. “Aspects of truth can interact with each other, and we find ourselves stretched.”

Castro imparted many of his views on education, the nature of truth, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s tenacity in fighting for civil rights after centuries of oppression, including a slave trade that involved both Cuba and the southern United States.

Castro explained that his father — “a campesino, a poor peasant” born in Spain and drafted by the army — could neither read nor write. Yet Castro went on to complete schooling under the Jesuits, and to lead his country to new levels of literacy and education.

“I studied in a religious school,” Castro said. “I remember studying the Apocalypse. Do you think the Apocalypse could be close to us now?”

“I believe we create our own apocalypses,” Griswold replied.

Recalling Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit to Cuba, Castro affirmed the Pope’s view that “the theory of evolution was not irreconcilable with creation,” another point with which Griswold concurred-also raising the subject of global warming.

“It took nature 350 million years to create hydrocarbons, and it’s taken man only a few generations” to compromise the atmosphere significantly, Castro said. “When you and I met all those years ago, there was much talk about nuclear weapons, but nobody spoke about the environment.”

Castro cited care for the environment as among the core “values we should try to carry.”

“Yes, values that have a global significance, that see all of humanity as connected and of value,” Griswold replied. “One of the values of our churches is to respect the dignity of every human being.”

Castro raised the topic of globalization and the immediacy of digital communication.

“There isn’t time in this world for people to process information and allow it to mature into wisdom,” Griswold said.

The conversation turned again to flags — this time, to the 30 or so being flown on large poles in front of the U.S. Interests Section building in Havana — strategically erected by Cuban officials to obscure some twenty-five separate red light panels located in the windowpanes of the building and programmed to display news and information. The “ticker”-style message system, installed earlier this year by the U.S. government, broadcasts messages criticizing the Cuban government that, until the erection of the flagpoles, were fully visible to motorists on Havana’s main highway.

“I’m embarrassed,” Griswold said of the messages, which have become the focus of several international media reports.

“I’m very grateful,” Castro replied. “If you’re playing baseball, and your opponents make mistakes, you appreciate it.” He said the ticker “was ordered from Washington” and that staff of the local Interest Section should not be held responsible for the device.

“I am not a pessimist,” Castro added.

The talks continued past midnight, concluding after 1 a.m. Griswold commented that he would not soon forget the opening moments of this particular Ash Wednesday. In response, Castro made the gesture of a small cross on his forehead and said, “What I used to like about that service are the words, ‘you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’

“And I remember what [Cuban poet, philosopher and statesman] Jose Marti used to say, ‘All the glory of the world fits into a kernel of corn.’ “

Castro presented Griswold with an oil painting of a Cuban seascape, and gifts were given to the Presiding Bishop’s delegation of five staff members, including the Rev. Juan Marquez of the Office of Anglican and Global Relations; the Rev. Brian Grieves, director of Peace and Justice Ministries; Alex Baumgarten, international policy analyst in the Office of Government Relations; and Barbara Braver, the Presiding Bishop’s assistant for communication.

Oh my.

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