In a recent post on his facebook page, Rev. Cornel West of Union Theological Seminary invited all people of conscience to join in a National Day of Mass Direct Action against racist state violence. The event is part of Union’s Holy Week of Resistance which seeks to #ReclaimHolyWeek (a week celebrating the death and return-to-life of Jesus) by engaging in direct actions against racist state violence (brutality, mass incarceration, profiling).
Dr. West’s invitation included a note that “To be inclusive of people of all faith and non-faith traditions, crosses will be used not as religious symbols, but rather, as symbols of state violence.” Life-sized crosses bearing the name and last words of a person executed by police, security, or vigilante violence “from Jesus to Mike Brown to Shantel Davis, and more” will be held by protestors during the procession on Good Friday.
Yet I wonder: Is it inclusive to invite all people to carry a cross, regardless of their religious belief?
I ask as a white person fully committed to ending racism, one who works daily for racial justice. I ask as a liberal Christian for whom the cross has a meaning both troubling and profound. I ask as a theologian, scholar and preacher deeply invested in interfaith dialogue. I ask because of the comments which followed Dr. West’s announcement:
“only the delusional would pretend this represents inclusion…the religious language completely undermines this righteous cause”
“Nice way to promote solidarity…base it around just ONE of the HUNDREDS of the world religions…”
It’s difficult to disentangle religious symbology from cultural contexts, especially when the symbols are part of dominant culture. In American culture, a cross is sometimes used to mark the place of a person’s death or burial, from handmade roadside shrines to ornate veteran cemeteries. Perhaps, in those contexts, a cross may not be experienced as a religious symbol but as a cultural one (although the use of Star of David markers for Jewish vets in French World War II cemeteries seems to reinforce the religious symbolism of grave markers). I wonder if it is a form of Christian privilege to assume that a cross can ever be removed from its religious context.
On one hand, I’m excited by the proposal, because I see an opportunity to reclaim/reinvent/subvert the lexicon, to redefine an image that in many contexts represents oppression. I think of the crosses held by Westboro Baptist church, the ones nailed to the walls of indigenous boarding schools. I think of James Cone‘s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, of the cross as a symbol of divine power overcoming racist oppression. The function of crosses in the Holy Week of Resistance seems congruent with their religious meaning as symbols of unjust suffering and death. What would it look like for a cross to cease to be a religious symbol?
I’m suddenly aware that I have no idea how a cross-as-symbol appears to those who are not Christian, or how using a cross to mourn the dead or make a political statement might serve to exclude those for whom the symbol is irrelevant or divisive. Given the brutal, violent oppression of people of color in my country, I wonder how much my white privilege enables me to muse philosophically about inclusivity during this week of resistance. Does it even matter how inclusive we are, as long as we’re on the streets, fighting for justice? What about those for whom a cross is itself a tool of injustice, an instrument of oppression?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, but this blog seems like the right place to ask. So…what do you think? Is it possible for the cross to be an “inclusive” symbol of state violence?
*Image created by Holy Week of Resistance organizers, used with permission.