Safety pin or a cross?

December 6th, 2016

After a contentious election, in which racist, sexist, and xenophobic rhetoric was used, the number of hate incidents reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center rose sharply. Suddenly, safety pins became kind of a thing – wearing them, changing your Facebook profile picture to a safety pin, etc. The concept of a safety pin as a sign to others that you are a “safe” person was allegedly taken from the British where, after the European Union Referendum vote (commonly known as “Brexit”) and a similar rise in hate incidents, the safety pin signaled to those who might be subject to abuse on public transportation that the wearer was a safe person to sit next to.

Pursuant to the modern-day social media cycle, the safety pin was in favor, then it was deemed “slacktivism,” followed by the spread of news that the safety pin was being co-opted by white supremacists, and a backlash to the backlash. Some artists and businesses created attractive-looking safety pins for profit, and the whole thing spun wildly out of control. Now that the cycle appears to have come to an end, the safety pin ended up being more about virtue-signaling than actual solidarity or allying with marginalized and vulnerable people.

The whole debacle around the safety pin caused me to wonder about why people wearing a cross (or in my case as clergy, a clerical collar) might not be considered “safe.” Ideally, if I wear a cross, an instrument of death, around my neck in testimony to my belief that God became incarnate as a brown-skinned member of a religious minority who was executed by an exploitative and violent empire, shouldn’t that signal that I stand on the side of the vulnerable and marginalized in present-day society? Regrettably, that is not the primary witness of Christian culture in our day and age.

Rather than being known for protesting with the Sioux tribe at Standing Rock, as some of my clergy colleagues did, we are known for throwing tantrums about Starbucks holiday cups and people wishing us “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Instead of Christians being known for generosity, we are known for being stingy and tipping poorly, particularly when we go out to lunch after Sunday services. Rather than being known for our commitment to the poor, marginalized and vulnerable, we are represented as close-minded, bigoted and intolerant.

I am aware that these things are not true of all Christians. But when that is what people think of when they think about Christianity, we must do some soul-searching. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “When we Christians behave badly, or fail to behave well, we are making Christianity unbelievable to the outside world.” Yes, we are all sinners in need of God’s grace, and we will all have bad days where we will blow our fuse or make the wrong choice; no one is perfect. But when the predominant narrative about Christians is so far from the fruits of the Spirit that Paul names, it is no wonder that a cross is not a symbol of safety for those who might be vulnerable to hateful attacks.

I dream of a world where seeing a person with a cross around their neck means that he or she is a “safe” person who would protect the vulnerable and stand up against hate incidents, that a person of color or someone speaking a different language could sit next to that person on public transportation and not be afraid of harassment. I pray that the Church’s witness to the world would be more about seeing every person as a bearer of the divine image and less about judgment based on color, bank account, or immigration status.

One of my favorite collects in the Book of Common Prayer reads, “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name.” That is the mission of those of us who wear outward and visible signs of our faith, to reach forth our hands in love that the world might know the love of Christ.

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