Can the Cross Be an ‘Inclusive’ Symbol of Violence?

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.

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3 thoughts on “Can the Cross Be an ‘Inclusive’ Symbol of Violence?

  1. Elizabeth, your questions really resonate with me. And I think you hit on something when you write “Does it even matter how inclusive we are, as long as we’re on the streets, fighting for justice?”

    To say that it’s an act of inclusion to use crosses in an ostensibly non-religious manner is deeply wishful thinking. In this country, in this world, it is impossible to carry a cross without making a statement about Christianity. For a Christian to do so in this context is a theological statement, and for a non-theist like myself to do so would feel at best like a deception and at worst like a kind of disrespectful appropriation.

    Ultimately I think that Dr. West’s “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” does not achieve the inclusivity it seeks because it requires participants to join under an explicitly Christian symbol that would misrepresent their religious or moral identity. But also, and maybe more importantly, it undermines the power of the gesture.

    I think the symbolism achieved here could be extremely compelling both because it is slightly jarring and potentially subversive, and because it is a highly visible way to demonstrate that the action is grounded in Christian values. That is, marchers carrying these crosses send a message to onlookers that this action is an act of faith (in a way that carrying a banner or wearing a t-shirt that says as much might not accomplish).

    This is an important message to send, if only because the dominant picture of Christian action in this country isn’t tied to working for racial justice. And so I think that we shouldn’t shy away from such explicitly religious symbolism, even for the sake of inclusiveness and countering Christian privilege. The religious symbolism (the crosses, the timing of the action on Good Friday, the framing of the actions as a reclamation of a Christian tradition) should be fully embraced, because it impactfully communicates the religiousness of the action it is a part of, which needs to be seen.

    After all, it is not my place (as an atheist) to reclaim holy week, though I’m very glad to see it reclaimed in this particular way.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Grace. It is very helpful to me to hear your thoughts about carrying a cross as a non-theist being a kind of deception or appropriation. I agree that the dominant picture of Christian action isn’t tied to working for racial justice, but I wonder if that is because the dominant view is of Christianity as practiced by white people rather than people of color. For example, there is a long, rich history of activism among Black Christian communities and churches…part of the communities’ work to subvert/reclaim sustenance and affirmation out of the religion forced on them by white Christian slave owners. Your comment has given me a lot to think about…thank you!

      1. Yes! There’s absolutely no good reason that when we think of Christian action the dominant picture is of the Moral Majority and not Dr. King (other than maybe recency).

        You’re welcome, and thank you!

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