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Please don’t honor me with a cross

In the early 1980s, I was teaching philosophy at Stockton State College. At one point, I said something like, “OK, guys, let’s get started — and I mean ‘guys’ in the generic sense.” Afterwards, a couple of the young women in the class came up to me and said, “You can’t get out of being sexist by saying you don’t mean what you said.”

“‘Guys’ stands for everyone,” I said, thinking that my embedded apology had been rather enlightened of me.

“Then next time try saying ‘OK, gals, let’s get started.'”

Got it.

Justice Scalia says of a cross on public land* honoring U.S. war dead: “It’s erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead … What would you have them erect?…Some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Muslim half moon and star?”

He’s right that it’s intended to honor all the war dead. The problem is the assumption that you honor all war dead by putting up the religious symbols honored by some.

Scalia should talk with the young women who set me straight 25 years ago.

NOTE: I posted this at Huffington Post where the comments are, um, interesting.

*The case seems to be turning on whether the land was made private simply to skirt the problem with erecting religious symbols on public land.

11 Responses to “Please don’t honor me with a cross”

  1. Not that I want to get points with you, my brother, but you are the least sexist person in talk and writing I have encountered. And probably in action too.

    You would think there would be many ways, that do not involve a religious symbol, to honor the war dead in a public place. Some of the non-Christian families are likely highly offended by their relative being marked with a symbol that is not part of their belief system. I know I would be offended.

  2. Just adding from the same HuffPo story…

    “‘I think that’s an outrageous conclusion,’ Scalia said,…”

    Being “outraged” seems to be the preferred state of mind of (pseudo) conservatives. It’s a defense mechanism for them. When everything else fails, they default into “outrage”… Can’t argue with “outrage”.

  3. I can only add that in certain part of the world, the majority does not see any problem of such “honoring” to the horror of the minorities. In my country they hung crosses in schools, without any respect to people of different faiths and believes. While the overall atmosphere toward us, people that do not share christian religion, is much better over last 20 years of freedom, in the “visual” public space people seem not even see that some symbols are just not common – to say the least….

    BTW, David, Is there a recording of “Web of Ideas” discussion on Tuesday, Oct. 6 somewhere on the Web ?

  4. Hello David,
    I subscribe to your blog, but unfortunately, I do not always check the feed. I promise to try to keep up in the future-Brownies honor (I never made it to Girl Scouts which I still regret).

    Serendipitously, (Is that even a word & is it spelled correctly?) I checked out the feed to find the subject matter of Religious symbols & Ritual honor-R & R)

    After reading the other comments and thinking about it, I slept on it and came up with this:

    ‘Do Not Honor Me With Your Lips’ (when your heart is far from me) Let’s leave the R & R to Rest & Relaxation

    Love Your Feisty Sense of Humor

  5. On the same story… (from Bloomberg).

    “U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, that towering intellect of the conservative legal movement, sounded appallingly ignorant last week.
    For a Supreme Court justice to convey such ignorance is, to use his [Republican – E.S.] word, outrageous.”

  6. I assume the installation of the cross was a private action upon public land. My statue of the Buddha and my prayer flags are a private installation on private land. A tattoo on one’s arm is a permissible private choice. The same etching on a federal building is a crime.

    Before the designations of public and private lands, indigenous people from every continent painted and engraved spiritual images upon hidden cave walls and exposed cliffs. Some of their art was intended to be private and some was intended to be public, yet indigenous cultures were not religiously diverse.

    The most interesting fact of all is that the oldest known artistic image has been dated to around 77,000 years ago and it is an etching of a series of crosses upon a stone of red ochre. The cross is an ancient and universal symbol of integration that can be found within many cultures. When Christianity arrived it appropriated the cross as a symbol just as it located its churches upon ancient indigenous places of worship.

    A parabola is also an ancient symbol, yet if a Macdonald’s logo was erected upon a public space, for whatever reason, it would be removed.

    Honoring the dead can be a public action marked by the installation of a memorial or it can be a private action marked by the setting of a gravestone. When I walk past graves in a graveyard, I am not offended by different religious symbols engraved upon the gravestones. At the funeral services of a friend last week, I was not offended by the Jewish iconographic imagery encountered upon the walls of the mausoleum. Yet only jews are permitted to be buried at this cemetery.

    The Tibetan flag is bordered on three sides by a strip of white. The fourth side is left open to honor the religious beliefs of others. I am not offended by seeing a cross upon a church. The cross is a sign that a certain type of worship is being practiced in this private sanctuary.

    Zoning laws legislate specific permitted uses for specific parcels of land. Since the law has designated certain pieces of land as public, the law should also designate private religious iconography as an incompatible use of public space. It is a matter of zoning. No Commercial Zone. No Drug Zone. No Religious Zone.Yet here resides the problem. If spirit is ubiquitous, how can one legislate a No Spirit Zone? Perhaps every town should zone a specific public place for private religious memorials.

    Last year my neighbor removed five beautiful trees that were in my landscape yet located on his property. The removal of those trees has changed not only the aesthetic beauty of the landscape but the ecology as well. Birds no longer nest or roost in their branches. There is no longer any cool, summer shade. I finally understood Thoreau’s wisdom when he stated that the farmer owns the land, but the artist owns the landscape.

    We look at petroglyphs as archeological wonders that provide clues to ancient indigenous spirituality even though they are carved on rock cliffs in visible spaces. We are intrigued rather than offended by them. How much more complicated modern space has become. There was a time, as Chief Seattle noted in his famous speech when he signed his ancestral lands over to the US government, when the land did not belong to us but when we belonged to the land. There was a time when spirit descended upon us like rainfall. How much more complicated spirituality has become.

    So I do advocate legislating that there be no religious iconography on public lands.

    But I encourage you to remember that the cross is not merely a Christian symbol, but an archetypal symbol present in every culture designating the horizontal material world and its relation to the vertical spiritual world. I encourage you to remember that the land is neither public or private but is a holistic ecosystem that can never truly be divided. I encourage you to remember that spiritual experience is gnostic and direct and private and that it takes place within the privacy of an individual human consciousness.

  7. […] week: One, on the debate over the cross that “memorializes soldiers” (David Weinberger also touched on that this week, and I solidly agree with his sentiments), and another on images of Saudi women at work (you can […]

  8. Justice Scalia has been involved with religion and public lands before in 1988. On this occasion, he upheld the right of the Forest Service to build roads and harvest timber on land traditionally used by Native Americans for religious ceremonies. Apparently Christian uses of public lands are acceptable but Native American uses, even when they are proven to pre-date the designation of the land as public, are not respected. Here is the decision.

  9. Justice Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun dissented with Scalia and here is an excerpt from their dissent:

    In marked contrast to traditional Western religions, the belief systems of Native Americans do not rely on doctrines, creeds, or dogmas. Established or universal truths – the mainstay of Western religions – play no part in Indian faith. Ceremonies are communal efforts undertaken for specific purposes in accordance with instructions handed down from generation to generation. Commentaries on or interpretations of the rituals themselves are deemed absolute violations of the ceremonies, whose value lies not in their ability to explain the natural world or to enlighten individual believers but in their efficacy as protectors and enhancers of tribal existence. Ibid. Where dogma lies at the heart of Western religions, Native American faith is inextricably [485 U.S. 439, 461] bound to the use of land. The site-specific nature of Indian religious practice derives from the Native American perception that land is itself a sacred, living being. See Suagee, American Indian Religious Freedom and Cultural Resources Management: Protecting Mother Earth’s Caretakers, 10 Am. Ind. L. Rev. 1, 10 (1982). Rituals are performed in prescribed locations not merely as a matter of traditional orthodoxy, but because land, like all other living things, is unique, and specific sites possess different spiritual properties and significance. Within this belief system, therefore, land is not fungible; indeed, at the time of the Spanish colonization of the American Southwest, “all . . . Indians held in some form a belief in a sacred and indissoluble bond between themselves and the land in which their settlements were located.” E. Spicer, Cycles of Conquest: The Impact of Spain, Mexico, and the United States on the Indians of the Southwest, 1533-1960, p. 576 (1962).

    For respondent Indians, the most sacred of lands is the high country where, they believe, prehuman spirits moved with the coming of humans to the Earth. Because these spirits are seen as the source of religious power, or “medicine,” many of the tribes’ rituals and practices require frequent journeys to the area. Thus, for example, religious leaders preparing for the complex of ceremonies that underlie the Tribes’ World Renewal efforts must travel to specific sites in the high country in order to attain the medicine necessary for successful renewal. Similarly, individual tribe members may seek curative powers for the healing of the sick, or personal medicine for particular purposes such as good luck in singing, hunting, or love. A period of preparation generally precedes such visits, and individuals must select trails in the sacred area according to the medicine they seek and their abilities, gradually moving to increasingly more powerful sites, which are typically located at higher altitudes. Among the most powerful of sites are Chimney Rock, Doctor Rock, and Peak 8, all of which are elevated rock outcroppings. [485 U.S. 439, 462]

  10. Here is the entire decision and te entire dissent.

  11. Just a footnote, Justice William J. Brennan attended Harvard Law School.

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