As we stood in the circle drive of the manse, the clerk of the session said to me, “You know, it was right over there in the middle of your yard that the KKK burned a cross back in the early sixties. We’ve always been kinda proud that they targeted our preacher.” It was the first time I had heard this story.
The incident happened to one of my predecessors. It was in the early 1960s. The minister’s son attended Trinity University, a Presbyterian school in San Antonio, Texas. His roommate was an exchange student from Africa. When the holidays came, the preacher’s son invited his roommate home to spend Thanksgiving with his family. In the pastor’s family that obviously meant everyone went to church on Sunday.
Thus the Presbyterian Church in that Central Texas town integrated. And it did so in the most ordinary manner anyone could imagine.
The members of that little Presbyterian Church were tickled to have a Christian student from Africa come to visit, and everyone wanted to meet him, and word spread all over the small town. And the word that spread was: “Did you hear that the Presbyterian Church has integrated?”
I’m giving the most polite version of the rumor, of course, because I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t the only version spoken. Well, I’m very sure there were some disgusting expressions of the rumor, because like any Southern town, that one had an unseemly underbelly. If you kicked over the wrong rock, you never could tell what might crawl out.
Anyway, the rumor got around. That Sunday night trucks and cars descended on the manse. A cross was erected by the Klan and set on fire. And thirty or so years after it happened, there we stood, the clerk of the session and me. “Yep, we’re pretty darn proud the Klan did that in the yard of our manse. It’s a badge of honor. We didn’t even think we were doing anything radical. We were just welcoming a young man to church.”
This week Bonnie came across an article, which she sent me, titled, “White Nationalists once again using Christian symbols to spread hate.”
The article starts by revisiting the shameful history of Christians in our country using bent approaches to biblical interpretation to justify slavery and racism. We know that this sort of thing happened in the years leading up to the Civil War; we know it happened during the oppressive era of Jim Crow laws; what may surprise some folks is that it continues to happen in some churches. But the article primarily focused on the co-opting and perversion of Christian symbols to prop up and provide a veil of legitimacy to violent racist and nationalistic identity politics.
This issue can’t be addressed with a superficial application of the doctrine of separation of church and state. It goes far deeper.
The primary purpose of the separation of church and state enshrined in the First Amendment of our U.S. Constitution is to ensure a safe and neutral civic space where people can practice their faith (or not) according to the dictates of their own consciences. The separation of church and state guarantees that the government can’t legislate a state church or interfere with the exercise of religion.*
In some ways the separation of church and state boils down to the rather simple business of making sure that a Fundamentalist preacher who sits on the school board can’t force my kids to pray a Fundamentalist prayer at school, and I can’t force his kids to pray a Presbyterian one. It provides the bare ground rules for the sort of pluralism that has enriched and made this country stronger from its very beginning. A variety of values, including religious values, have contributed greatly to our common life, not through the enforcement of a state religion, but through the influence of people of faith.*
When it comes to our own faith, I think (I certainly hope) we can say that for every awful example we can name of Christianity twisting its scriptures and doctrines to do harm, there are examples of men and women of the Christian faith acting for justice and peace and goodwill because of their faith. But the awful examples do enormous damage.
When Christian symbols are co-opted to endorse and promote hatred, racism, nationalism, and violence, however, it is not so much a religious issue as a cultural one. And it isn’t just an American problem, nor an exclusively Christian one.
Religious symbols have been and are used in virtually every corner of the globe to try to legitimize acts of terror and violence, even genocide. I mourn the perversion of Muslim symbols and religious ideas when used by a radical Islamist version of the KKK to enforce their own brand of identity politics, to kill and maim and exclude anyone they disagree with. I am saddened beyond words when I see Muslims slaughtered in Myanmar by people who identify as Buddhists. But when it comes to an American style Taliban using the symbols of Jesus Christ to promote violence, my grief and sadness includes another element, shame.
Of course, when it comes to Christianity, I’m not qualified to say whether someone is sincere in co-opting the cross to justify their hatred, but I am qualified to say that they are mistaken.
I remember hearing my grandfather sing “The Old Rugged Cross” in the little country church I was raised in. Sure, it is a sentimental old spiritual song. But it still speaks truthfully about an “emblem of suffering and shame,” an instrument of torture and execution converted into a symbol of veneration because we believe the incarnate God gave his life on that cross. Rather than hurt his creatures, rather than destroy his creatures, he gave himself to rescue them and redeem them.
The cross is the very opposite of a symbol of conquest and terror. It is the symbol of pain borne, not suffering inflicted; it is the symbol of love extended, not hatred and contempt poured out.
Within a few centuries of its beginning in Palestine, our faith which emerged from within Judaism and which treasured the holy scriptures of Judaism as its core treasury of faith, had spread to include people from every nation, from every ethnicity, in the known world. From Africa to Ireland, from Jews and Greeks to Celts, this faith included and united rather than excluded and divided. And in those first few centuries before the faith of Christ became the official state “Christendom” of an empire, the cross became the symbol of a faith that rejected violence in any form. The cross has been used and misused and abused throughout these two millennia, but it is grounded in the practices of the first generations of Christians as a symbol of love, not hatred.
The hatred that has always existed in humanity, that emerges from time to time, that excludes and seeks to destroy others, especially aliens and strangers, has nothing in common with the Christian faith, except this: it is yet another form of human sin in need of forgiveness and redemption. The cross, that “emblem of suffering and shame” remains as ever the symbol of love divine, all loves excelling. It enshrines the belief that God’s love is ultimately irresistible.
But here’s the clincher:
Aggression, violence, and hatred never breed anything other than aggression, violence and hatred. We cannot use the cross as a tool of aggression even against the most hateful. The cross of Christ calls us to love even those who desecrate the cross in the cause of hatred.
That does not mean we don’t set the record straight. We do!
That doesn’t mean we don’t oppose the hatred and violence whenever it arises. We must!
That certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t rescue and defend everyone who is targeted by racism, nationalism, violence, exclusion and hatred. We should place ourselves between the haters and the hated!
And whatever we do in the name of Jesus Christ must reflect the grace, the forgiveness, the love and the compassion of the one who gave his life on the cross without seeking retaliation or revenge.
Picking up our own crosses and following Jesus is hard and sometimes dangerous work. But the cross doesn’t belong to us. We belong to it.
*The first clause of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
*I know of no one, personally, liberal or conservative or libertarian, who would enjoy living in Cotton Mather’s colonial parish, despite all the myth-making we hear about this country being founded on “Christian values.” Some of those particular “Christian values” led to folks being executed for witchcraft, you may recall.