Who Really Has the Power to Empty the Cross of Its Meaning?

I’m sure we all know people who wear a cross around their neck – or perhaps even have a cross tattooed somewhere on their body – not because it’s a symbol of their faith but simply because they think it “looks really cool” or otherwise makes some sort of desired fashion statement. Professing Christians may feel a bit unsettled to see the cherished symbol of Christ’s self-sacrificial love for humankind regularly co-opted for rock star photo shoots and snazzy-looking key chains but, whatever our misgivings, we all knew for sure that the cross had “gone mainstream” back in 2006 when the stage show for Madonna’s tour featured a brightly-lit, electrified mock-crucifixion.

It’s tempting to look outward at such deliberately-provocative and irreverent attacks on the Christian faith as blasphemous and appalling. Indeed, that is exactly what they are often intended to be. You think an aging rock diva mocking the crucifixion of our Lord is bad? My love for Jesus (and plain old decorum) prevents me from printing the name of a highly-controversial 1987 photo by Andres Serrano that depicts a crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist’s own urine, an endeavor for which he famously received $15,000 in taxpayer money via the National Endowment for the Arts. Has the launching of countless attacks such as these – along with “secular overexposure” of the central symbol of our faith – effectively emptied the Cross of Christ of all meaning?

Last week, in a blog posting for The New York Times (When Is a Cross a Cross?), Stanley Fish did a tremendous job, in my opinion, of unmasking the jaw-dropping level of hypocrisy which informs much of what now passes for distinguished legal proceedings in our country. More than that, though, I think Fish opened up the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Salazar v. Buono to reveal how the United States is desperately double-minded, simultaneously embarrassed for the obvious, historical influence of the Judeo-Christian worldview on American culture…and yet equally determined not to let go of it entirely (at least for the time being). Reading between the lines, one could get the sense that our culture’s initial enthusiasm to jettison faith entirely in the last half of the 20th century is being reconsidered…a bit.

Consider the fancy footwork that took place to make sure that a cross that originally had been erected in 1934 to commemorate fallen World War I soldiers stayed put. I can’t possibly do a better job than Fish in drawing out the blatant inconsistencies contained in this (and other) recent rulings, so I’ll just encourage you to read his article in its entirety. Meantime, here’s an excerpt:

In general, and for the record, I have no problem with the state accommodating religious symbols and I am not bothered by the thought of a cross standing in a remote part of the Mojave desert even if the land it stands on is owned by the government. I do have a problem with reasoning that is patently dishonest and protests too much about its own motives and the motives of those it defends.

I am by no means any sort of legal expert, but if Stanley Fish has accurately sifted out some level of “religious heritage schizophrenia” in this recent Supreme Court decision – and it sure seems like he has – it would only prove to be a loud echo of what may already be taking place across our country in hospitals, universities and corporation board rooms, where the ultimate costs of abandoning any fixed notion of right and wrong can most easily be tallied in terms of lives and dollars lost. As a society, it seems that we have only recently begun to wake up to the deep, deep price we are paying (and will continue to pay) should we decide to completely abandon the Judeo-Christian worldview as a cornerstone for business, law and ethics.

But if the postmoderns among us are right when they say that “all truth is relative,” then who really cares what happens to a World War I memorial cross in the middle of the Mojave Desert? Why not just uproot the darn thing at the very first sign of legal trouble and – for good measure – toss it into a large vat of urine a la Andres Serrano? If symbols carry no inherent meaning, then what’s the fuss? Carrying the relativist way of thinking beyond the merely symbolic, what does it really matter what we do with the weak and defenseless in our midst? What does it matter who we defraud, lie to, or have sex with? The perennial problem for postmoderns and secular society remains: Absent God, we have absolutely nothing with which to anchor our concepts of moral behavior, right and wrong. (Any honest postmodern will be quick to admit this; “all truth is relative” sounds great until your girlfriend cheats on you.)

Today, we find ourselves buried deep in this cultural schizophrenia of wanting, on the one hand, to abandon the tenets of the Christian faith as too restrictive, but then finding ourselves at a complete loss to know how to handle the results: a skyrocketing divorce rate, countless kids lacking at least one of their parents, the loss of 50 million American lives to abortion, the endless corporate swindles, political leaders that can’t seem to keep their pants on, etc. Perhaps the reluctance of the majority Supreme Court justices to take a sledgehammer to a war memorial is a clear demonstration that there are, after all, some things that should be considered sacred. I’d love to have someone explain to me why a war memorial is worth protection…but our marriages and our kids are not.

While it may be oddly comforting to see the current level of cultural confusion as a sign that the law of God is indeed written on every human heart (Jeremiah 31:33), and that we simply can’t toss moral precepts out the window entirely, my fear is that we as a church have largely failed to provide a clear alternative to the tidal wave of sensual indulgence we see playing itself out in the media day after day, week after week. When, for example, was the last time that anyone stopped one of us because we lived our lives in such stark contrast to “the world” that they were compelled to ask us for the reason for the hope we have (1 Peter 3:13-15)? Does our hope in Christ shine forth in a way that demonstrates a loving heart along with a willingness to articulate and defend the non-negotiables of Christianity?

I wonder if all too often many of us put on our Christian faith in much the same way that a nonbeliever tattoos his arm…suiting up for the pious portions of our lives, wearing our belief in Jesus as an accessory on Sunday mornings…but casting it off just in time for the big party on Friday night, the sexual escapade we hope to pilot in under God’s radar, or whatever else may suit our desires but is clearly inconsistent with a faithful Christian walk.

Ultimately, no one truly has the power to empty the Cross of its meaning (1 Corinthians 1:18-19). Yes, blasphemous photographers will use a crucifix in an inflammatory manner just to gain notoriety, legislators under political pressure will force the removal of religious symbols from public property, and entertainers may well continue to give their sagging career a shot in the arm by attacking the faith, stoking controversy and garnering the renewed publicity they crave. I don’t think they are the primary problem. Ultimately, Christ’s detractors will come and go, as they always have, lacking any final victory (Matthew 16:18). Instead, it is the professing Christian who in no way seeks to live a life of obedience to Christ who – to outside observers anyway – appears to drain the Cross of any immediately-perceptible meaning.

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