CROSS PURPOSES: Why A Christian Symbol Can't Memorialize All War Dead.

Author:Katskee, Richard B.

Symbols have power. They communicate complex ideas, often more effectively and more forcefully than mere words. They are remembered for decades or even centuries. They speak to the heart, not just the head. And what is true for symbols generally is doubly so for religious ones: They convey at a glance millennia of shared history, collective aspirations and triumphs to those who hold them dear.

To Christians and non-Christians alike, few things are more universally culturally familiar, and perhaps none are more laden with meaning, than the Latin cross. Since the earliest days of Christianity, the cross has been the physical embodiment of Christian tenets of resurrection and redemption --the means to teach religious doctrine while also uniting and rallying communities of believers. Thus, Pope Francis has explained that "[t]he Christian Cross is not something to hang in the house 'to tie the room together' ... or an ornament to wear, but a call to that love, with which Jesus sacrificed Himself to save humanity from sin and evil." It shouldn't come as a surprise, therefore, that viewing the cross can be a profound experience for those who hold it dear. That's the whole point, after all.

For people of other faiths, however, being confronted with an official display of a Latin cross may be a profound experience in a quite different way: It is not sacred to them, yet the government is telling them to venerate it.

So what of the Bladensburg Cross? Sortie private citizens in Prince George's County, Maryland, decided in 1918 to honor 49 soldiers who lost their lives in the Great War. We don't know how they selected those 49, who came from all over the state and yet weren't the only Marylanders or county residents to die in the war. The organizers collected donations from other private citizens, requiring them to sign a pledge recognizing the existence of "ONE GOD" and looking to the "SPIRIT" of the fallen soldiers to "GUIDE US THROUGH LIFE IN THE WAY OF GODLINESS, JUSTICE, AND LIBERTY."

When the organizers ran out of money, the American Legion, also a private organization, took over, completing and dedicating the cross in 1925 in a ceremony replete with Christian prayers led by Christian clergy. Since then, there have been Christian memorial services and Sunday worship services at the site.

To the private groups, the cross, with its many and deep layers of spiritual meaning, served two distinct but mutually reinforcing ends. It allowed them to...

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