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The Offense of the Cross in Italy

Last month, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Italian public schools have the right to display crucifixes.

The case has been widely viewed as a crucial one. As Roger Kiska of the Alliance Defense Fund put it, “A loss in this case would have meant, in essence, that it would be illegal under the European Convention on Human Rights to have religious symbols in any institution anywhere in Europe.”

Before you start celebrating, though, you ought to know that this may be a very mixed blessing. When you take a close look at the court’s reasoning, it becomes clear that there are some disturbing implications to this ruling.

In the New York Times, Professor Stanley Fish, a liberal relativist, writes that the court based its decision largely on the idea that “the crucifix is really not a religious symbol.” Fish justifiably asks, “Who knew?”

Who, indeed?

It seems the court decided that the crucifix is now an “identity-linked,” “historical and cultural” symbol -- a symbol that stands for “the liberty and freedom of every person, the declaration of the right of man, and ultimately the modern secular state.”

In other words, it stands for pretty much anything but the death of Christ for the redemption of fallen mankind.

For the Christian, that poses a real dilema: If the crucifix is to be stripped of its meaning like this, is it worth displaying in schools, or anywhere at all?

If “the offense of the cross,” as Paul put it, is gone, what’s the point?

And that’s not all. The court went on to state, “In Christianity even the faith in an omniscient god is secondary in relation to charity,” which makes the cross an inclusive symbol.

Even Stanley Fish, who’s writing from a liberal, secular perspective, is driven to wonder about all this. “What we have here,” he says, “is a union of bad argument and bad theology. As a Christian virtue, charity presupposes the God it is said by the majority [of the court] to transcend...Generous though it may be in many respects, Christianity is hard-edged at its doctrinal center and that center is what the crucifix speaks.”

Fish may not be a Christian, but I think he’s pretty much nailed it. Ironically, I think he might just understand it better than many in Italy, where the practice of the Christian faith has been steadily eroding for many years.

Christians believe that everyone is welcome at the foot of the cross -- but we also believe with German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

That’s why Stanley Fish is right in saying that a crucifix can never be what the court called “an essentially passive symbol.”

On that point, I wholeheartedly agree with him. Religious symbols matter because they convey meaning, and that’s why we Christians support the right to display them. Without that meaning, without Christ’s death and resurrection, the cross doesn’t matter -- and neither does our faith.

This is the liberal cause: strip all sacred symbols and words of their meaning.

The real lesson here is that before we take up the fight for the cross, we had better be sure we understand what it is we’re fighting for.

This article published on April 20, 2011.

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