The Offensive Cross

It started out as a business meeting, but it quickly turned personal when the businessman saw the cross around my neck.

I was wearing a brass pendant, the “Peace Cross” – the peace sign with a cross on top of it. It’s the logo of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship, and I’m one of the leaders of EPF’s Atlanta chapter. The businessman shook his head and said, in all seriousness: “Those two don’t go together. Jesus and peace? No way.”

I knew him well enough to smile and shake my head. I took his Bible off his desk, where it was prominently displayed (next to his U.S. Army Veteran paperweight), and opened it to Matthew 5. “Here it is,” I said. “Blessed are the peacemakers. Jesus’ own words.” I held it out to him.

He looked at the book as if it had suddenly turned pornographic. “Yeah,” he said, slowly, “but there’s also a lot of stuff in there about war. Look at King David. He was a soldier. Like me.”

“I guess it depends on who you want to follow,” I replied. “Jesus or David.”

He stared at me for a moment, as if he were trying to decide. Then he quickly changed the subject.

That wasn’t the first time I’ve gotten a strong reaction to my Peace Cross. More than one person has stopped to tell me they were brought up to believe the peace sign is evil – an ancient symbol of “the broken cross,” used by Witches and Satanists for centuries. I was brought up to believe that, too. The idea was spread throughout the American South about 30 years ago by a fellow named Jack T. Chick, who wrote fundamentalist tracts in the form of comic books. The tracts almost always ended with some poor sap being cast into the lake of fire by a spooky, faceless Jesus sitting in judgment on a heavenly throne.

In reality, the peace sign was developed in 1958 by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Far from being a “broken cross,” the symbol merely incorporates the semaphore letters N(uclear) and D(isarmament).

But lies spread by fundamentalists have a way of persisting. Once, when I wore the Peace Cross into a Christian bookstore, the cashier visibly recoiled when she saw it around my neck, as if I were wearing a live tarantula on my chest. (I had the same reaction when I saw the latest incarnation of the “Jesus Fish,” with an American flag incorporated into the design.)

For many people, the idea of Jesus and peace co-existing seems strange, even dangerous. In these post-September 11 days, it seems to be a patriotic duty to wave a flag and say “God Bless America” – but horribly UNpatriotic to actually quote the words of Jesus.

A Catholic church in the midwest found that out recently, when they put up a banner on the front of their church building. The only words on the banner were “Blessed are the Peacemakers,” and, in smaller print, the Scripture reference, Matthew 5:9. Conservative groups quickly denounced the banner as being “political,” and a group of veterans staged a protest, planting American flags around the church door on Veterans Day. Families involved in a wedding and a funeral at the church asked that the banner be taken down during their ceremonies. Apparently they didn’t want their rituals contaminated by such a blatant display of Jesus’ words.

The Rev. Peter Laarman, the openly gay Senior Minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York, has web-published a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek article called “Among the Reasons God May Temporarily Be Unavailable to Bless America.” While some of the reasons given are humorous (“Because God is too busy processing Americans’ prayers for their high school football teams”), at least one deserves our serious attention: “Because God takes it for granted that the bombs falling on Kabul are America’s real prayers.”

Our warmongering President is fond of invoking Jesus’ name at public gatherings, and even likes to trot out the old cliché, “What Would Jesus Do?” Does Mr. Bush honestly think that the Jesus who died on the cross would approve the bombing of hospitals and Red Cross centers, and glibly excuse the loss of human life as “collateral damage”? Would Jesus approve of Christian leaders like Franklin Graham, encouraging the U.S. to use “limited nuclear weapons” against Afghanistan?

Jesus came to teach us, among other things, that God’s justice is based on reconciliation, not retribution. God desires to give us what we need, not what we deserve. In the face of September 11, that seems horribly offensive to many who, like our President, are certain that God will sanctify their desire for retribution.

In the book Desert Wisdom: Sayings from the Desert Fathers, Yushi Nomura translates the sayings of the early Christian desert fathers and mothers, who lived in the fourth and fifth centuries. One story seems particularly apt in these days when patriotism and faith are increasingly confused:

A brother who was insulted by another brother came to Abba Sisoes, and said to him: I was hurt by my brother, and I want to avenge myself. The old man tried to console him and said: Don’t do that, my child. Rather leave vengeance to God. But he said: I will not quit until I avenge myself. Then the old man said: Let us pray, brother; and standing up, he said: O God, we no longer need you to take care of us since we now avenge ourselves. Hearing these words, the brother fell at the feet of the old man and said: I am not going to fight with my brother any more. Forgive me, Abba.

May God forgive us also, as a nation, for praying in Jesus’ name on one hand and firing bombs with the other.