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The Secularized Cross

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

This week the United States Supreme Court has been hearing arguments in the case of Salazar v. Buono. And it’s a useful example of how attitudes toward religious symbols are not always what you might expect.

The case involves a cross that was erected in 1934 on public land in the Mojave National Preserve in California. Those who erected the cross, a local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, intended it to serve as a memorial to military who died in World War I.

Now let’s pause for a moment before we get to the current situation to reflect on the intentions of the VFW folks. Certainly their desire to erect a memorial to military who died is praiseworthy. This is an extension of one of the works of mercy: to bury the dead.

Now the form their memorial took is something that we might find difficult to understand today. Why choose a cross to represent all those who died, many of whom were not Christian? At the time, there was little awareness of people who were not Christian. It’s entirely possible that the members of a VFW chapter in some small town out in the middle of the California desert had never even met a Jew. Remember, this was a monument to the war dead of World War I, and the Second World War with its Shoah that would heighten sensitivity toward Jews had not yet occurred (in fact Adolf Hitler consolidated his power as chancellor the same year the cross was erected). Most likely to those who erected it, the cross was a naive and theologically unsophisticated but sincere way to honor their fallen comrades.

However, times change, and the inference of symbols changes.

From the early centuries of the Church, the cross has been considered a symbol of the triumph of Jesus Christ. We even have a celebration in its honor: September 14 is the Feast of the Holy Cross for almost all Christians. It has become perhaps the most recognizable symbol in the world, and it represents Christianity.

Unfortunately, to the members of the UFW, the cross had become merely a grave ornament. And that’s why they erected it. That was their intention. But the movement to preserve the cross has a different motivation: to advance the ridiculous notion of a “Christian nation.”

Justice Antonin Scalia indicated an attitude similar to what the original erectors of the cross must have been: he expressed astonishment that a cross could not memorialize non-Christians. To him the cross is just a generic symbol that means “rest in peace.” And that may be indicative of a generational rift; Scalia is closer in age and outlook to the VFW members who set up the cross in 1934  than he is to those of us who understand such issues in a pluralistic society. When an attorney pointed out to Scalia that crosses are not found in Jewish cemeteries, he became flustered and annoyed.

What Christian would want the cross to become merely a generic secular symbol? Yet that appears to be a possible legal fiction that fundamentalists would embrace in order to advance their cause. Liberty Legal Institute, a fundamentalist group, filed an amicus brief with the court stating that “the cross is commonly known as a symbol of the courage and sacrifice of veterans.” Not! To a true Christian, the cross has deep meaning. It is not a symbol that means “in your face, we own you,” nor is it, as the fundamentalists disingenuously argue, a mere military ornament.  It is a mysterious symbol rich in meaning that is a profound symbol of the Christian faith. It should not become a political football that one faction can use to exclude others.

Of course, trying to make the cross into a nonsectarian memorial symbol is merely a legal tactic. One supposes that Justice Scalia might embrace such a notion from the bench, yet still attend Mass on September 14 and profess his belief that it is a symbol of faith. And the fundamentalists who take up such a legal argument are using the time-honored extremist approach of the end justifying the means: to lift up the cross as a sign of (their own superior) faith, they must first publicly deny it has any religious meaning. That’s just creepy. People who are so ruthlessly cynical do not have real faith and can in no way be trusted. Their argument reminds me of Vietnam-era logic: “We had to destroy the village to save it.” But the fact remains: the cross is not a generic death symbol; it is a symbol of life for Christians.

Should the cross in the Mojave be taken down? That’s a difficult question. When the inference of a symbol changes (and in this case I would say the change has been for the better), there is probably no perfect decision on what to do, as the original intent can become obscured or even be unknown to those who see the physical object.

In my neighborhood there is a lovely Episcopal church built in the 1920s. Its elaborate terra cotta floor tiles are interspersed with different variations of the cross. One of the variations in the tiles is a swastika, which at the time was merely a kind of cross and had not yet been appropriated and corrupted by Hitler for his movement. Should the congregation rip out and replace their floor because the meaning of the symbol has changed since their church was built?

Some may say yes, but here’s a similar situation: Scientologists have appropriated the cross as a symbol to represent their “religion.” Most likely they did this to gain some kind of religious cred, since they have no central place for Jesus Christ in their belief system. So if Scientologists hijack the cross as their symbol, does that mean that Christians must abandon it?

The cross belongs to the People of God who are baptized. Period. It is for us a profound symbol of love conquering hate, of faith overcoming fear, of God’s solidarity with humanity. To use it in any other way, whether for marketing a new “religion,” advancing a political cause or creating division, is using the sacred for profane purposes, which we call desecration. So let us lift high the cross, put it on our towers, on hills we own, in our homes, around our necks, and especially in our hearts. But let’s not use it to push some sort of tribal superiority in a multicultural nation. That just cheapens it.

Along the Via Dolorosa

Tuesday, October 30th, 2007

The hem of my alb is dirty.

When I packed it for my pilgrimage to the Holy Land, it was freshly laundered. Clean and white and pressed. But when you wear a long white liturgical garment walking along a Palestinian marketplace, it gets dirty. And that’s a lesson we learned along the Way of the Cross this past Friday in Jerusalem.

For the past three years, I have been a religious leader on an annual interfaith pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and one of the elements of the trip cited each year as a highlight by Christians as well as Muslims and Jews is always walking the Way of the Cross along the Via Dolorosa. The pilgrims find this service incredibly moving, as do I, no matter how many times I do it.

This year we tried something new by visiting the Lithostrotos before beginning the service. This is the Stone Pavement, or Gabbatha, where Pilate sentenced Jesus to death. We learned about the game the Roman soldiers played as they mocked those condemned, which the Gospels recall as “casting lots.” We talked about crucifixion, and stood on that very pavement, marked with the crude etchings the Romans used in their game. Then we began the service.

In planning the day, our tour guide had suggested that we begin very early in the morning, to avoid the noise and crowds along the Via Dolorosa, which is located along a vibrant and crowded marketplace. He said this would avoid distractions. But I was adamantly against such a pristine service. On the day he carried his cross to Calvary, Jesus was led through just such a marketplace, in the midst of people who were probably accustomed to seeing condemned criminals humiliated in this way. Most of them just carried on business as usual, ignoring him, and I wanted the pilgrims to be in that same environment. Our prayer would take place in the midst of life, and life in the midst of our prayer. Let the merchants shout and hawk their good as we passed; this is what it was really like on that fateful day.

Way of the Cross

Mural in the chapel of the Third Station along the Via Dolorosa

And so our group of 39 pilgrims wove our way through the crowds and noise as we visited each of the stations leading us inexorably to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of our greatest sorrow and our greatest joy, a place of defeat and of victory.

Our meditations at each station focused on how each of us can be more aware of those around us who are walking their own Sorrowful Path, their own Via Dolorosa, and our responsibility toward them. Remembering the suffering of Jesus becomes mere melodrama unless we can somehow draw lessons from them for our own lives, lessons we must remember even in the business of everyday life. Those narrow, winding streets crowded with shops and shoppers are exactly the setting for how we each carry out the Christian duties we became heirs to at baptism. So that Palestinian marketplace was a place of grace, even if we did have to shout a bit to make our words heard over the din of commerce.

Come Sunday, I’ll wear my alb with its dirty hem as a reminder of what I experienced in Jerusalem along the Via Dolorosa. Later, of course, I’ll get it cleaned, but for now the dust of the marketplace is a sort of relic of the Passion, a reminder of how I must seek out the suffering we take for granted and pass by every day.

If you’re interested, the service we used was Stations of the Cross: I Am There, by Norman Haskell (St. Anthony Messenger Press), which I heartily recommend.

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An Interfaith Pilgrimage

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

Tomorrow I’m leaving for Istanbul as the first stop in an interfaith pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This will be our third annual trip we’ve organized as part of the Wilshire Center Interfaith Council here in Los Angeles, and it’s unusual among interfaith pilgrimages in that it includes Jews, Christians and Muslims.

After a few days in Istanbul, our group of 39 pilgrims will travel to the Holy Land, beginning with Sunday Eucharist in the Nazareth Synagogue Church, where Jesus began his public ministry. We’ll then walk over the the Basilica of the Annunciation for one of those wonderful eye-opening moments that we’ve come to expect: the Muslim pilgrims will be just as awed by being in the place of the Annunciation as the Christian pilgrims. Muslims hold Our Lady in great veneration, and we’ll hear the account of the Annunciation from the Qur’an.

This is only one example of commonalities between the three religions that we’ll encounter along the way. One reason we’re there is to learn about what unites us as well as what divides us, rather than relying on assumptions. One of our central themes in this pilgrimage is our common heritage in Abraham, the father of all three religions. Here’s a photo of his tomb in Hebron that I took last year.

Tomb of Abraham in Hebron

Pilgrimage is a form of prayer common to all three Abrahamic traditions.

From the time of the Second Temple and well before, the ancient Jews observed three festival pilgrimages when the devout would come to Jerusalem: Pesach (Passover), Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and Shavout (Pentecost). For modern Jews, the concept of pilgrimage is expressed in the terminology of aliyah, or “ascent” to the Holy City.

Christianity preserved the Jewish custom of pilgrimage. Among the chief places of pilgrimage for early Christians were Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem and Rome, the shrine of the apostle Peter. Later popular pilgrimage sites were the shrine of the apostle James in Spain and Marian shrines in México City and Lourdes (France) as well as numerous other sites that continue to attract millions each year. In Roman Catholicism, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) described the Body of Christ as “the Pilgrim Church,” learning from every culture we encounter as we travel through every time and place to proclaim the Good News (Gospel) of Jesus Christ.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) directed Muslims to practice pilgrimage (hajj) as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The three major Islamic places of pilgrimage are Mecca (the site of Abraham’s temple to the one true God), Medina (the location of the first ummah, or Muslim community, where the Islamic tradition is considered to have begun in the year 622) and Jerusalem. Muslims are also known to make pilgrimages to the Catholic Marian shrines. Foremost among the Islamic places of pilgrimage is Mecca, which attracts millions each year, whose faith is renewed by this act of travel.

So our pilgrimage is, above all, prayer. In this pilgrimage we do not practice syncretism (the idea that all religions are basically the same). We offer all pilgrims opportunities to experience worship in authentic Jewish, Christian and Islamic forms. At times they are challenged to participate in worship that is different from their own tradition. We encourage them to participate in those aspects they feel comfortable with and not to participate in those which make them uncomfortable according to their beliefs.

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