As Easter approaches, and millions of Christians around the globe prepare to celebrate one of their most important religious holidays, we take a look at the symbol at the center of it all: the cross. A defining symbol of the Christian faith, the cross is recognized globally as a sign of love, loss, salvation and gratitude, and is depicted in churches and in art around the world. In The Cross: History, Art, and Controversy, Professor Robin Jensen examines the two thousand year history of the cross as an idea and artifact—from the graphic images of the crucifixion in the late Middle Ages, to the rejection of imagery during the Protestant Reformation, up to the more recent discovery of the so-called “Ground Zero Cross” in the wreckage of the World Trade Center. As Jensen notes, “The cross’s story is neither simple nor straightforward. Whether as sign, artifact, instrument, or character, the cross has been cast into a myriad of roles.” What role does the cross play today? In the extract below, Jensen concludes her study with a look at the cross in contemporary culture.
Both ubiquitous and tenacious, the cross turns up in the most mundane contexts. Roadside crosses set up by private citizens compete with advertising billboards and mark the sites of traffic casualties—a sobering reminder of the death toll on highways. Shrines with crosses fill the landscape in some parts of the world. A hill in northern Lithuania, completely covered with votive crosses and crucifixes is a testimony to the persistence of Catholic Christianity in this former Soviet-occupied country. The subject of an extraordinarily popular cult, pilgrims flock to this place, climbing the hill on their knees and praying the stations of the cross. At the other end of the spectrum, gaudy rhinestone crosses turn up on denim jeans, handbags, or leather jackets—a fashion trend that may have little to do with religion.
Crosses in the public square can be perceived as communicating Christian triumphalism or religious intolerance. The fiery crosses of the Ku Klux Klan are an extreme example of the symbol being used to terrorize victims, incite racial hatred, and widely regarded as an emblem of hate-based terrorism, especially (although not exclusively) against African Americans. Klan spokespersons have argued, however, that the lighted cross (versus the “burning cross”) is not intended as an act of desecration but rather as a show of allegiance to Christ. This intimidating symbol may have been borrowed from the fiery crosses burned by Scottish clansmen, used to rouse their countrymen to repel the English armies during the Jacobite rising. Its sympathetic portrayal in D. W Griffith’s 1915 epic film, The Birth of a Nation, may have encouraged the Klan’s embrace of the figure. Despite the Klan’s justification of its use, recent Supreme Court decisions have judged the display of a burning cross to be a hate crime rather than an instance of freedom of expression when expressly used to intimidate or if motivated by racial, religious, or gender bias. James Cone’s important work, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, looks at the conflicted connections between the two powerful images of the cross and the tree, noting that some African Americans may find the cross to be a symbol of God’s solidarity with their suffering against the terrifying history of racial violence, perpetrated upon the “lynching tree.”
Jews objected to the placement of crosses at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp in the 1980s, as they evoked painful memories of both ancient and modern persecution. Although the large cross at Auschwitz was originally set up for a convent of Carmelite nuns, and the subsequent placement of smaller crosses may have been intended to commemorate the death of Christians—including many Christian Roma—at that camp, Jews perceived their installation as profoundly disrespectful and demanded their removal. Conversely, the Chinese government’s removal of crosses from the exteriors of Chinese Christian churches, ostensibly only enforcing zoning ordinances, arguably has a different motivation. Journalists have reported that the authorities are targeting Christian churches because they regard their display of religious affiliation too excessive or “overly popular.”