Perhaps you’ve seen a meme going around on Facebook about atheists wanting to remove a remnant from the World Trade Center wreckage. This remnant, this surviving cross bar of steel took on a quasi-religious status of its own. This cross became a rallying symbol to some, but others feel a need to remove it. The Secularist group American Atheists is suing to remove the Ground Zero Cross while the Religious Right law group American Center for Law & Justice (ACLJ*) is fighting to keep it. The truth may be somewhere in between.
At heart in the legal issue is who owns the land and the memorial, due to the Establishment Clause. Though when a lower court ruled on the decision last year, they compared it to the Holocaust Museum, which is a government institution that possesses and displays Jewish symbols of faith. The significance in that decision – which shouldn’t be missed here – is that the Holocaust specifically targeted the Jewish population.
But I’m not going to argue that we should remove the cross for legal reasons. The judges may be right: the finding of the cross-shaped bar is an important part of the history of the post-9/11 recovery. It was after all a very difficult and tumultuous part of our nation’s recent history and faith was low. For many, they found faith when the cross was found and raised. Looking at it this way from a pluralistic perspective, it may be a central enough aspect of the period to remain, if not to centralize. But that is for the higher courts to decide – at the very least, other faith-identities should have space there as well.
I will argue against displaying the cross from a Christian perspective, however.
When the bible mentions that the sight of the cross was a symbol of offense, it meant that quite literally, but not in (anti-Semitic) the way people now think of it. For the cross was a sign of discarded people, insurrectionists and enemies of the oppressive Roman state. The crucifix was the death penalty of Jesus’ time and it was an especially grueling one. This was not the sign of status – it was never the symbol of belonging to anything worth belonging to. But early Christians saw this disgusting symbol of mass control and death as a sign of overcoming repression. They inverted the meaning of the cross from execution to rebellion in the midst of struggle.
But as Christianity became more popular within the Roman Empire, it began to take on more traits consistent with that oppressive empire. Most famously, it was raised as a battle flag for the oppressive, conquering empire under Constantine. The cross meant less Conquering Over Death and more Conquering Through Death. Later it would be a rallying cry and symbol of Empire-based Christendom-centric ethnic cleansing movements like the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Conquistadors.
It is in this context that I worry. The incessant blowing of the 9/11 tributes is a reminder that we will never forget the violence perpetuated onto us, but also that we will pay back through conquering. The so-called War on Terror is seen by many as a religious war, and not just those in Muslim-majority countries. In fact, both those who side with American Atheists and ACLJ see it as a way of erasing the “Muslim threat.”
And please remember the fuss created when a youth center/mosque was supposed to be placed a few blocks away. So we already know which religion is allowed and which isn’t near Ground Zero.
So we have two very different meanings of the cross symbol. On one hand, we have a sign of hope and faith in the midst of overwhelming fear and death. I believe this is how many of the earliest Christians saw the cross – and I like to think this is how many of the first responders saw the symbol in late 2001. An opposite meaning, shared by Constantine and an unfortunately large section of Christianity – particularly the Religious Right – sees it as a sign of conquest and death. In the context of the War on Terror and a memorial that constantly reminds us that we need to keep the fall of the Twin Towers always fresh in our minds, this meaning is inescapable. And this refreshing of unforgiving memory is contrary to the message of Christ – to love our neighbors and enemies.
As my friend David Henson puts it:
There is a threat implied in refusing to forget. It is a threat against others, a reminder that our collective memory is as deep as our desire for vengeance. We refuse to forget with war, drones, and torture. We refuse to forget with the erosion of civil liberties. We refuse to forget by reminding the entire world that retaliation — not freedom — is our nation’s most treasured value.
Never forgetting is also a threat against ourselves, for it reminds us that no matter what happens we will never be allowed to forget.
When Christians use our icons – like the Ground Zero Cross – as a symbol of never forgetting, we are witnessing that the center of our faith is not forgiveness, it is hating our enemies.
And maybe that is good enough for the ACLJ. I don’t want to be associated with that kind of Christianity or cross.
*Why, yes, it is a counter-effort to the ACLU. What tipped you off?
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