Saturday, February 21, 2015

My Opinion on the Dewey Hill Cross

My Opinion on the Dewey Hill Cross.
From a former resident of Grand Haven.

Obviously, I like the cross because I am a Christian and think it should stay.  I will try to explain those reasons here.  As a caveat, it makes sense that such a symbol on display atop a place like Dewey Hill should appeal to me: it is a fitting crown on the crest of that giant knoll across the river from which many fellow believers worship on Sunday mornings and evenings (on public property!) during the summer.  Still, fairness to others behooves us to consider those who either do not identify with the symbol, or are offended by it, for whatever reason, whether personal or allegedly legal.  So, what if instead of a cross, fastened upon the peak of Dewey Hill stood a looming hammer and sickle, the symbol of Soviet Communism—and a few people liked it?  Or, what if the symbol was that of a giant molecule, with protons, neutrons, and electrons circling around a giant letter A, where A stands for atheism—and a few people liked it?  And so on with the Star of David, and symbols for Hinduism, Islam, etc.—and a few people liked it?   These questions are raised by many, actually.  And even though those scenarios are a bit zany, the point is made: it’s about fairness to all. Well, in order to resolve the issue, we have to ground the argument in three principles: (1) the symbol of the cross and its meaning, and (2) the law: the Establishment Clause, and (3) the will of the people. 

First, the cross is first and foremost an obvious symbol of Christian belief: that Jesus, the divine son of God, atoned for the sins of the world, and is risen from the dead, being victorious over the grave, and coming again to judge the world, putting an end to evil, and making things right.  The cross, from this perspective, communicates an entire metanarrative that makes astounding claims over the true nature of reality, and hence history, and consequently, our individual lives.  The majority of people who “get in the fight” either for or against things like the Dewey Hill cross understand it according to this paradigm.  A second view however, is that the cross is simply a symbol of American heritage, freedom, and prosperity, and it does not necessarily carry the deep, personal devotion of the aforementioned worldview.  Finally, a third view is that the cross is a symbol of hope, good luck, or fortune.  This third category appeals to people who aren’t necessarily “followers of Jesus” per se (similar to folks in the second group), but they simply like the symbol because it stands, in the abstract, apart from a Christian worldview, for victory over oppression, overcoming addictions (for example), or even good karma.  Or, they may simply “like it” for no reason whatsoever.  And that’s ok, too. 

Now, some would argue that in order to keep the peace in Grand Haven, no religious symbols should be allowed in the public square at all, because in order to be fair to all religions, all religions would need space for display in a particular chosen area.  This is impossible, and dies the death of a thousand qualifications.  After all, who wants to see a circus of religious symbols atop Dewey Hill competing for attention?  Therefore, the argument goes, no religious symbols should be had on public property.  This keeps it fair.  Call this view “Thousand Island Nihilism.”  For a thousand religions, let none be present on public property, lest we have the eyesores of kitch scattered like broken teeth along the otherwise pleasant, undulating landscape of Pure Michigan.  However, there are two problems with this view.  First, declaring a symbol to be “religious” is not as easy as it seems, as seen in the prior paragraph: not everyone thinks of a (or, “the”) cross in the same way.  Heck, the ancient Romans had an idea about crosses, and so did Jewish victims or anyone else who got in the way of Caesar.  (Enter here a fourth category: instrument of torture imposed by the State upon dissenters!).  

Therefore, while the cross on Dewey Hill is most certainly a Christian symbol for many, it means other things for others.  In other words, symbols derive their meanings from their history, usage, and interpretation of people, and are therefore not always what they may seem.  The same symbol can be both religious and secular simultaneously: it depends on the origin and history of the symbol, how it has been used by people throughout history, important epochs or events related to it, whether there is text (a written message) on it, and how current understanding is held by the people.  The Nazi swastika is a prime example.  It was a religious symbol rooted in eastern religion until the Nazis used it for their own evil purposes.  No one would try to use the swastika now for good intent as in the days prior to Hitler, because its meaning has been ruined by the Germans.  The point here is that religious symbols may mean one thing to one person, and an entirely different thing to another.  Therefore, the Dewey Hill cross is not necessarily a Christian symbol.  It has American heritage tied to it, and it also has "good karma" tied to it as well.  "But it's hoisted up on Sundays," you say.  Yes it is.  And?  Are Sundays a Christian day to you?  If not, then the time or day of the cross's appearance should make no difference to you.  

Secondly, to the Establishment Clause.  It reads,   

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Historically, this law was enacted so that people coming to America could worship freely without the Church of England imposing upon them any laws with respect to worship in a church (hence, “establishing religion”).  Separation of Church and State (not written in the founding documents) has taken precedent in our nation (rightly so), and merely states that the United States government would not establish a State Church, like the Church of England.  This in no way meant that public displays of religion could never manifest themselves on public property.  Heck, remember Puritan England?  One had to be a Christian in order to hold public office!  I’m not saying that should be the case today, but the point is clear: there is indeed a rich, Christian heritage in our nation, and therefore symbols of such a heritage (#2 above) are more than appropriate in the public square. 

Thirdly, the problem with both Thousand Island Nihilism the threat of a petty lawsuit dished out by a small minority of people that are offended by the cross whether due to personal reasons or by appealing to "Separation of Church and State," is that it leaves out the very important American ideal called the Voice of the People.  It seems clear from social media (at least) that the majority of people in Grand Haven desire the cross to remain.  In America, the people vote, and the majority wins.  That’s a principle that guides our nation, and has done so since its inception.  That's democracy.  Sadly, that cannot occur in Grand Haven with respect to the cross on Dewey Hill, merely due to the threat of a costly lawsuit. 

Lastly, I agree with Mayor of Grand Haven, Geri McCaleb, who is saddened by the petty threat of a lawsuit by Brian Plescher.  The Dewey Hill cross only gleaned attention and adoration from the gazing eyes of the good people of Grand Haven for 15 days out of an entire year: 10 days during summer on Sundays, and 3-5 times over Easter Weekend.  This fact adds more evidence to the obtuse nature of Plescher’s petty complaints. That the majority of the people of Grand Haven desire the cross, that religious symbols on public property do not necessarily violate the Establishment Clause,[1] and that the cross on Dewey Hill makes minimal appearances for a fraction of the year, make a strong, undeniable case that it belongs unchanged, and open to all for public viewing.  

There is an ironic twist to all of this:  the anchor is an adopted Christian symbol that stretches back to at least the 1st A.D.  The letter to the Hebrews makes reference to Jesus Christ as the anchor of our souls (6:19).  The early Christians adopted the anchor as a symbol for their salvation in Christ, and disguised the cross by means of the anchor, mostly decorating their tombs with the mariner's symbol.  I understand that the cross on Dewey Hill will be converted to an anchor.  I wonder if Plescher will be offended by the fact that the anchor has been used as a Christian symbol for nearly 2,000 years?  Will it remind him of the cross?  Will a future complaint be lodged as to the anchor's historical use as a religious symbol and therefore in violation of the Constitution?  The only thing that may rescue the people of Grand Haven from the likes of Plescher is the sheer ignorance that such a symbol is enjoys a rich, Christian heritage, stretching back into times of great Christian persecution, and undaunted Christian ingenuity and perseverance.    

 The above text reads in Greek uncial script, Ichthus, which in an acrostic which stands for  Jesus (I=J) Christ (Ch), God's (Th) Son (U), Savior (S).  The Greek in the middle tier underneath the D and M reads, "Fish of the living."  This engraving is located on a tombstone of the second or third century: Museo Cristiano, Vatican Rome.  Photo taken from Clifford M. Jones, New Testament Illustrations, London: Cambridge University Press, 1966, p.144. 

[1] The Pew Research Center (June 2007) reports: “In 2005, the court ruled divergently in two cases involving permanent displays of the Ten Commandments. In one instance, the court decided that the relatively recent placement of the Ten Commandments in courthouses in two Kentucky counties violated the Establishment Clause because a “reasonable observer” would conclude that the counties intended to highlight the religious nature of the document. In the other case, however, the court ruled that a display of the Ten Commandments that had stood for more than 40 years on the grounds of the Texas state Capitol did not violate the Establishment Clause because a reasonable observer would not see the display as predominantly religious.”  See, Religious Displays and the Courts, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, June 2007,  Accessed February 21, 2015.   

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