Although the symbol of the cross has become very dear to the Christian world, that does not mean that it cannot be misused. In fact, it often has been terribly misused throughout history. To most Christians the cross is a symbol of love, self-sacrifice and the price paid for our freedom. To others it may symbolize pain, war, loss or prejudice.
In the late 90’s I taught English as a Second Language to a classroom of adults who were mostly Bosnian. Many of them had spent time in refugee camps and lost friends and family members in the bloody war that pitted Christians and Muslims against each other. Both faiths were represented in my classroom. Although I am a Christian and my class knew this, I never wore my gold cross necklace to class out of respect for the experiences of my Muslim students. I let my actions display the love of Christ rather than flaunting a symbol that represented violence and imprisonment to them.
Over the past decade, both the United States and Canada has become increasingly aware of the terrible abuse that took place in so-called “Christian” residential schools during the 1800’s and 1900’s. What does the cross symbolize to the survivors of these schools? Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of working with Native American students whose parents or grandparents survived such experiences. What message would I send to a residential school survivor if I met them for a parent-teacher conference with a large, ornate cross around my neck? Understandably, it would not create an atmosphere of safety and mutual respect.
It’s not wrong to ever wear a cross or to share the gospel with people from all walks of life. However it is wise to have an awareness of other people’s experiences and to be respectful of their feelings. If I am interacting with people to whom the cross has become a symbol of pain, fear or degradation, I will be cautious about wearing or using it. I will be open and honest about my faith, and share it with them if they let me. I will display the love of God through my words, actions and attitudes, but I won’t insist on wearing a symbol that may cause feelings of fear, anger or resentment because of it’s misuse. Doing so may actually hinder them from learning the true meaning of the cross.