Several parishioners have told me a story I want to share. A 17-year-old boy wearing a cross necklace was shopping at a sporting goods store. The Muslim cashier asked him to put the cross under his shirt because it offended her. The manager got involved and told the boy to just put it under his shirt and everything would be fine. The customer refused and left without purchasing anything.
This story is not true but has provided some interesting discussions. I am going to suggest the hypothetical boy should have concealed the cross.
Had the story been about an American flag lapel pin, I would say he should not hide it. Likewise, if government at any level told him to conceal his cross, I’d insist he wear it because we have the right of expression and religious freedom.
In my opinion, however, this fictitious story says something different. It is not about a repressive government taking away a constitutionally guaranteed right. It is about a fictitious Muslim telling a fictitious Christian that the cross offends her, individual to individual and, as individuals, we are called to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbors.
As a congregation, we are reading Jesus on the Margins – daily meditations on chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel. Therein, the righteous people ask, “When did we visit you in prison?” The response is, “When you did it to the least of my people, you did it to me.” As individuals, we give up certain rights to visit someone in prison such as privacy, bearing arms, speech and expression. In some ways, we become prisoners in order to visit prisoners. Would you argue if the guard told you to remove all jewelry, including your cross?
Paul writes to the Church in Corinth that if eating meat causes a brother or sister to stumble, he will never eat meat again. (1 Cor 8:13) That seems like a prison Paul has created for himself in order to help those with weaker faith. At the diocesan Leadership Academy this past Saturday, Fr. Mark McCone-Sweet and I took off our clerical collars in a symbolic attempt to break down walls between clergy and laity. We also sang secular songs to reveal the power of Christ in our everyday lives. Did those actions make Mark and me less Christian or less priests? I hope not because we were trying to help people from stumbling because of rank and position.
Christianity can be represented in different ways by how the teenager responds to the fictitious request from the Muslim cashier. If he conceals the cross because he is ashamed of the Gospel, that is one thing. If he refuses and tells the cashier to remove her head scarf one could say that Christ triumphs over all which is both true and representative of our faith history. Yet, quietly putting the cross under his shirt represents our faith, too, if he conceals it out of respect for another and to further Christian dialog. If after concealing the cross the teen asked, “Why does my cross offend you?” a meaningful spiritual conversation might follow. For example, if the cashier replied that to her the cross represents 15th century Spain and the convert-or-leave approach the Church took at that time, it would be a good opportunity for the teen to exhibit the Christian virtue of seeking forgiveness. And, that could open the door for the teen to share what the cross means to him.
Speaking of spiritual conversations, if you’d like to talk about this, or if you’d like to talk about Jesus on the Margins, I’d be happy to listen to your thoughts. Let’s meet on Sunday right after church.