Don't Know Much

Of Columbus Day and Crosses

“It’s the — the cross is the — is the most common symbol of — of — of the resting place of the dead.”

Those were the words of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia during a Supreme Court questioning session. The case involves a cross honoring veterans that has been placed on federal lands. The fuller context of Scalia’s exchange with an attorney arguing the case can be found in Professor Geoffrey Stone’s recent blog on the Huffington Post.
I’ll leave the legal aspects of this comment to others, like Professor Stone. But I am not sure if Scalia’s assertion is even correct. In many cemeteries –certainly many of those around old New England—a headstone, often devoid of any religious marking, is quite a common symbol of a resting place.

To be precise, we should say that a crucifix and not simply a cross is in question. The empty crucifix is, of course, the central symbol of Christianity as it represents the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I was pondering crosses before I read Scalia’s rather extraordinary remarks about the cross being such a common symbol.

Crosses –or crucifixes—come to mind whenever Columbus Day rolls around. One of the things they never told me back in grade school when we drew pictures of those three iconic sailing ships, was that Columbus used to crucify the natives –the people he misnamed “Indians”—in rows of thirteen; one for Jesus and each of the disciples. This technique was part of Columbus’s work incentive program. If the natives didn’t produce enough gold, he would cut off a hand. Crucifixion was the next step.

In the Caribbean, under Columbus, Justice Scalia may have been right. The cross was the symbol of the resting place of the dead. But I’m not sure that’s what Justice Scalia had in mind.

The catalog of the cruelty of Columbus and the Spanish conquistadors who followed in his wake has been well documented, even in Columbus’ own time. Far less familiar is the story of the French Protestants executed by the Spanish near St. Augustine, Florida on October 12, 1565. The spot where this atrocity took place is now marked by Fort Matanzas, a national monument whose name comes from the Spanish word for “slaughters.”

The point is not that the Spanish had any monopoly on religious cruelty or sectarian violence. The Protestant majority in America has a lengthy victims list as well –Quakers, Catholics, Mormons and other minority Christians and other groups of believers and nonbelievers have all felt the sting of secular violence. The litany of sectarian killings and religious intolerance that has been such a grotesque but significant piece of America’s “hidden history” is exactly the reason that some of the Framers thought the First Amendment was so necessary. George Washington said so himself to a group of people who did not recognize the cross – the members of America’s first synagogue:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.

You can read more about Columbus and his impact in Don’t Know Much About History and the story of the Fort Matanzas massacre in America’s Hidden History.
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