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Commentary on Marking death: Understanding the Mojave Cross case

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 17, 2010 - As the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Salazar v. Buono, I was at my grandmother’s funeral. She had passed away on Monday, at the age of 94. We held a small graveside ceremony. My father had not planned to speak; that’s not “his way,” as he put it. Yet at the end of the ceremony something led him forward and brought words from him, completely extemporaneous and very touching. I was moved by him, and deeply proud of him.

When everything had been said, there was one thing left to do. It is part of the Jewish tradition that at the end of a funeral, those who wish to share in the grief of those left behind – or who wish to help begin the journey of the departed – are invited to take a shovel of dirt and start the process of filling in the grave.

I freely admit that my faith has many rituals that leave me perplexed. But this is not one of them. This particular ritual has always struck me as note-perfect; a poignant and elegant way of marking the living of life and the transition to death.

The ritual of the afternoon stayed with me in the evening, as I tried to parse the maddeningly fragmented decision. As I read the opinions (all six of them), I recalled the defense of the monument that had been proffered by Justice Antonin Scalia during oral argument:

It’s erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of the war dead. The cross is the most common symbol of the dead …. I don’t think you can leap from that conclusion to the conclusion that the only war dead that the cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.

Scalia was not the only learned legal mind who dismissed the legitimacy of objections to the cross monument. The night of the decision, on a well-subscribed constitutional law professors’ listserv, one prominent colleague labeled those who questioned the propriety of the monument as “zealots,” and further intimated that it was the Christian defenders of the monument who were enduring an “assault on their beliefs and values.”

These dismissals are troubling, for both their bristling hostility for people who object to the monument, and for their palpable noncomprehension of the reasons for the objections.

One need not be a zealot to see death marked on by a cross on public land and feel marginalized if you do not subscribe to the faith that the cross represents. I do not mean to say that marginalization is the message that is communicated; usually it is not. Unquestionably, the veterans group that put up the cross was not trying to say “Jews don’t count.” Yet even though marginalization is not the message that is communicated, it is a message that can be easily received. I understand that Justice Scalia probably means well when he insists that the cross covers my people, too.

But that sentiment itself is belittling.

For those of us of a different faith, when we see death commemorated with another religion’s marker and are then told that we should feel honored by that marker too, that is either to ram someone else’s faith down our throats, or to dismiss as inelegant and forgettable our own faith’s traditions of marking death.

Having recently participated in my own faith’s traditions, I am unwilling to endure that message. And I am especially unwilling to be told that if this is the message that I hear, well then I am just being impractical or irrational.

What Justice Scalia does not seem comprehend is that to many people, that cross sends a devastating message: some deaths matter more.

That message is indeed practical. It is a subtle reminder – an island of subtlety, admittedly, amidst the roiling waters of “this is a Christian nation” rhetoric – a reminder that if you do not share the faith that the cross symbolizes, then you are not An American In Full. The fact that death could have been commemorated inclusively but was instead commemorated tribally was both a choice and a communicative act.

When death is marked with a cross, and when universality is ascribed to that marker, it is entirely understandable for non-Christians to see and hear that as a statement that our own traditions of marking death are second-class. We hear that statement not as a legal matter or a constitutional matter but as civic matter … unavoidably so when one of our civic institutions hurls its full weight behind that statement, as Congress did by passing a law transferring public land into private hands solely for the purpose of guaranteeing the statement’s continued audibility.

The real tragedy here is in the suspicion of motive. As Justice Scalia and my colleague both inadvertently demonstrated, defenders of the monument only hear criticism of it as the detritus of brutish competition among faiths in a pluralist ecumenical marketplace.

This is, as we say in my business, the true teachable moment.

As a Jew, if I question the propriety of a cross as a public commemoration of a nation’s war dead, it is neither an accusation of anti-Semitism nor an attack on Christianity. If a Jew – if any non-Christian – questions the propriety of a cross as a public commemoration of a nation’s war dead, it is simply a request for the sponsors of that cross to remember: There Are Other Faiths In The Room.

As it happens, America itself is “the room.” In this room, it is a core civic principle that the other faiths – as well as the lack thereof – matter. It is a related core principle that the other faiths, and lack thereof, should not be placed in a position of reminding the sponsors of a public cross that they do matter.  And it is also a related core principle that when others do present such a reminder, their motives should not be characterized as an anti-Christian plot or mindless descent into victimhood.

In the end, then, it is about understanding someone else’s perspective. That’s a process that requires effort, and patience. But it’s worthwhile. I happen to enjoy explaining the beauty of shoveling dirt into my grandmother’s grave.

Steven Lichtman is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Shippensburg University.