Is the cross a Christian symbol?

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As ridiculous as the title of this article may seem, the relationship between the cross and Christianity became a hot topic recently because of the Supreme Court case involving the Bladensburg World War I memorial sometimes called the “Peace Cross.”

The cross itself was completed in 1925 as a memorial to the 49 men of Bladensburg, Maryland who gave their lives in service to the United States. The 40 ft. high cross called to mind the rows of crosses that marked the graves of fallen WWI soldiers all over Europe as well as the many crosses that emblazon the headstones in Arlington National Cemetery.

Beginning in 2012, some groups began raising concern about the Peace Cross being located on public property and maintained with taxpayer funds. This concern resulted in multiple court cases with a lower court ruling that the memorial violated the First Amendment, a decision that was recently overturned by the Supreme Court, which determined the cross was not in violation of the Constitution.

Christian and non-Christian Americans have many reasons to celebrate the fact that the Peace Cross will continue to stand as a memorial to those who sacrificed their lives for our country. Christians, however, must also consider some of the interesting and important issues the recent case raises about Christianity and American Culture.

We must begin by stating the obvious: the cross is, of course, a Christian symbol. But is it only a Christian symbol? Do all people who find meaning in the cross understand the connection of the cross to the Christian Gospel as presented in the Bible?

In the recent Supreme Court case, it was the more conservative justices who made the argument that the cross also functioned as a secular symbol. Two of the most liberal justices on the court — Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor — made the argument that the meaning of the cross was inseparably tied to the Christian message.

Ginsburg wrote for the minority arguing that the cross was a symbol exclusive to Christianity. She stated, “Central to the [Christian] religion are the beliefs that ‘the son of God,’ Jesus Christ, ‘died on the cross,’ that ‘he rose from the dead,’ and that ‘his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life.’” The seven justices in the majority all adhered to the opinion that some individuals find meaning in the cross, yet do not adhere to the Christian message summarized by Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

What a curious case this presents for Christians! Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a non-Christian jurist known for a more liberal ideology, gave us an excellent summary of the Christian message. All of the more conservative justices (and a few who are typically associated with a more liberal ideology) argued that, in addition to being a Christian symbol, the cross has secular significance.

Christians need to pay close attention to the way the Supreme Court handled this issue. I think that we see at least three issues in this case that require the attention of American Christians who wish to engage their culture with the Gospel.

The cross is a symbol with meaning to both Christians and non-Christians.

Often, we assume that those who display a cross do so out of solidarity with biblical Christianity and that when people see crosses displayed by Christians, they see it as a symbol of biblical Christianity. The recent Supreme Court case should remind us that this is not necessarily the case.

The confusion in the culture over the symbol of the cross reminds us to think carefully about how we dialogue with the culture.

We must be passionate in our efforts to communicate with others about the meaning of the cross and the Christian faith in general. The cross must not just be a wall decoration or piece of jewelry for Christians. We must realize that we can put it in our homes, on our steeples, and around our necks, and that the world around us may never understand its true significance.

Though we often lament the changes that are taking place in our culture, we need to remember that we still live in a culture saturated with symbols, traditions, and celebrations that originated within Christianity.

We need to dialogue with non-believers about the true meaning of these cultural practices and images. Remember that many of your non-believing friends and acquaintances likely see the cross as the symbol of some sort of fairy tale hope for life after death. Perhaps even many of those who defended the Peace Cross find in the symbol nothing more than hope that our soldiers did not die in vain.

Christians must tell of the full meaning of the cross. It is not an abstract hope. Jesus, the incarnate God, died on a cross for the sins of humanity and then broke the curse of death with his resurrection from the dead. This is the only true hope that the sons of Bladensburg did not die in vain, that our own lives will not end in vain, that there is a purpose to our world.

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