Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The power of the cross

I can understand the logic behind the decision of the European Court to ban the crucifix from class rooms. Legalistically speaking the exhibition of one set of religious symbols in schools discriminates against non believers and other religions.
But looking at this issue from a deeper sociological level, attacking symbols intimitally tied with deeply rooted identities only serves to strengthen neo conservative and racist movements.
We should not forget that we all need symbols. But symbols take time to develop. Perhaps one day society will create new symbols representing the ethical values of truly inclusive civilisation. But when Russian or French revolutionaries tried to invent new symbols or cults of reason they failed miserably. Ultimately the cross managed to outlive them.
It is surprising that the crucifix as a symbol has been retained in a country where Catholicism is no longer the state religion and where both abortion and divorce are legal. Is this simply a hang up of the past or a demonstration of the power of the cross? I think it is a mix of both.
The cross itself also represents many of the universal values embodied in our civilisation. But like all symbols its meaning is subject to negotiations.
For me at least at face value it stands out as one of the most iconic depiction of the cruelty of the death penalty and human rights violations.
On a deeper level it represents universal values like compassion and sacrifice for others as well as defiance against power.
Surely it was also a symbol used to rape, pillage, torture and victimise heretics, witches, indegenous populations and whoever deviated from the norm.
And some today are using the cross simply to exclude others and affirm a white european christian identity.
Symbols tend to have a life of their own.
Ironically to keep the cross in class rooms the Italian government will have to prove that the crucifix is a cultural and not a religious symbol. Would that not amount to the secularisation of the cross?
The danger is that in so doing it will the cross even less inclusive as symbol. For by taking the cross away from its religious context,it will be easier to manipulate it.

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