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The Secularized Cross

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.

2 Responses to “The Secularized Cross”

  1. Your piece may be the most cogent that I have read on this matter. Very little takes its proper place in news any longer, no matter what the so-called slant of said news.

    I dislike sounding so cynical, truly I do.

    You tease out each thread well, symbol, meaning, motivation. For the Cross to be interpreted simply as a symbol of resting in peace, well then what does that actually mean?

    Your words do more and better justice than my own. I thank you for them.

  2. beth says:

    This seems something like the clamor to bring “Christ” back to “Christmas”. In the USA, Christmas is so much about shopping and manufactured cheer. Putting a creche in the middle of a mall, or even a town square, is using the sacred for profane purposes, and cheapens the mystery of the Incarnation. Why do we want to do that?

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