Who Owns a Symbol?

Over at Bad Catholic there’s an interesting attempt to repurpose symbols. In a piece titled 5 Things People Think Make Them Hardcore (And why they actually make them Christian), Marc lists several symbols, including the pentagram, the Guy Fawkes mask and the swastika, that he wants to claim as Christian symbols.

It’s a light piece, so I don’t want to push it too far. For example, I suspect that Marc realizes that Alan Moore repurposed the Fawkes mask in V for Vendetta, playing up the “destruction of government” aspect and playing down the Catholic aspect. That representation has gained more cultural currency outside of Britain, which means that trying to make it a symbol of Catholic resistance is unlikely.

And that’s the nature of symbols. Just as with words within a language, the meaning of a symbol evolves within a culture. Sometimes the meaning of a symbol becomes a point of conflict, such as in the case of the American Confederate flag, which either represents southern heritage or treason and slavery. Winning the conflict means somehow convincing the majority of your community to associate the symbol with your definition.

Marc’s post can be seen as an attempt to jokingly reclaim some unpopular symbols for Christians. For example, he wants the swastika to be a cross. The cross is an ancient symbol; Ötzi, the 5300 year old corpse found frozen found in the Alps, had one tattooed on his knee. And the swastika has long been used, and was still in use at the time of the Nazis, as a symbol of good fortune. But the Nazi’s very succesfully repurposed the symbol, and the general culture is not about to go back on that.

That’s not to say it can’t be done. Arguably, under the Romans the cross represented imperial authority, since Rome used crucifixion to turn rebels into living (or rather, dying) billboards for Roman power. In a bit of semantic jiu-jitsu, the early Christians turned the cross into a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice and triumph over sin and death. But getting everyone outside of the small Christian community to accept that redefinition required the very imperial power that the cross once symbolized. That power is no longer available.

That’s the problem that Marc is dealing with, and no amount of eye-rolling is going to change that. He needs to not only convince the neo-nazis to put down the swastika – not likely – but also the general population to not think “Hitler” when they see one. The juveniles who draw pentagrams and inverted crosses on their school notebooks are doing so because if freaks out their peers, and they’re going to do it until their peers stop freaking out. Good luck changing that.

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  • UrsaMinor

    *Sigh*. Everything is so Western these days. Just once, it would be nice to see a dispute over who owns the symbology of the taijitu.

  • kessy_athena

    Considering that Christianity freely stole from every culture they were in contact with until relatively late in the medieval period, I would imagine you could probably find a christian connection for virtually any symbol in Western culture if you really look for it. By the same token, you could probably equally well connect those symbols to, oh say, Buddhism, or really any other institution with similar geographic, cultural, and historical range. I mean, isn’t that basically the same thing the conspiracy theorists are doing when they find Masonic symbols sinisterly inscribed on manhole covers?

  • wintermute

    Maybe we should point out to them that donzens of Pre-Christian religions used the cross as their symbol, and so (by the logic of that article), everyone who wears one is a pagan.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    If he wants to claim the Swastika as a Christian symbol, great.
    It seems like the Christians have set out to monopolize the symbol market. Fish? Fishers of men. Lamb? Lamb of God. Star? Star of Bethlehem. And so on and so on. There are few symbols left that the Christians have not made a grab for.

    • Kodie

      Christians have also tried to make words belong to a whole set of values, like “values”, family, marriage, freedom, tea (for crap’s sake!), and children; they’ve appropriated “scientifish” stuff to further their own agendas (like anti-abortion and “micro-evolution”) and dismiss actual science when it differs from the bible; they’ve appropriated sex as something beautiful god created for a husband and wife. But they had the rainbow and it was taken from them by people for gay rights. Excellent.

      Christians can’t keep all the generic symbols and words, that’s just that they put everything they see in a framework. It reminds me of this only with Jesus: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qayjR8Qbyfc

      The world looks mighty good to me
      ’cause Tootsie Rolls are all I see
      Whatever it is I think I see
      Becomes a Tootsie Roll to me
      Tootsie Roll how I love your chocolatey chew
      Tootsie Roll I think I’m in love with you
      Whatever it is I think I see
      Becomes a Tootsie Roll to me.

  • Kodie

    I had the idea that we could use crosses until they don’t mean anything anymore, sort of how Christmas was inflicted on the culture until it doesn’t mean “baby Jesus’s birthday” to nearly anyone, and Christians think we should just not celebrate Christmas if we do it our way. Too bad.
    tttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttttt Take some, make some, put them all over. If they want to keep their crosses up on public property and for situations such as that, claim that the cross is not a religious symbol, I don’t see why we can’t make that come true.

    • UrsaMinor

      Crosses make passable backscratchers. Maybe we should pursue that.

  • Star Foster

    Pentagrams make you Pythagorean. And probably vegetarian.

  • Andrew G.

    Given that the (sparse) available evidence suggests that Roman crucifixion was done on a T-shape (tau cross), and that early (~2nd – 3rd c.) Christian written references to crosses also referred to the tau cross (some of those references are explicitly to the letter tau itself; crosses were not used in early iconography), it may actually be an interesting question to ask where Christianity got the symbol from itself.

    • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

      I heard back in Catholic school that some of the apostles, St. Andrew (patron saint of Scotland and Russia) among them, were crucified on X-shaped crosses for various reasons, so I wonder if early figures in Christianity being put on these shapes led to the adoption of the ‘cross’, which merged with the tau to form the icon so familiar today. Just a guess, though, and I don’t even know if those stories of St. Andrew were true.

      • Andrew G.

        The X-shaped cross is not associated with early accounts of St. Andrew, it’s a later addition.

        Note that the X-shape already has a place in Christian imagery due to the Greek letter Chi; especially in the Chi-Rho monogram (first two letters of “christos”).

        • http://themikewrites.blogspot.com JohnMWhite

          That’s not what they told me in Catholic school, but I had a feeling they didn’t really know what they were talking about either and were just going on tradition.

    • vasaroti

      A T-shape would certainly require a lot less fiddly carpentry to create, and the Romans were all about efficiency. No need to waste time and wood on rebel scum. In fact, the reason for any crossbar eludes me. You’d get most of the unpleasant effects of crucifixion with hoisting your criminal up on a simple stake.

      • http://blog.luigiscorner.com/ Azel

        I believe that in addition to its unpleasantness, which could be obtained by executing the victim at the stake, crucifixion was used for show, as a deterrent to wannabe rebels. In the case of the tau cross, if you already have pre-planted stakes, you could have the victims carrying the crossbar in a procession in the town, then put the crossbar on the tau and crucify the victim.
        And you have to admit that unless you go for overkill like Vlad Dracul did, a bunch of rebels crucified is a more spectacular sight than a bunch of staked rebels.

      • kessy_athena

        Actually, sometimes they did exactly that, use a single stake. There wasn’t an official blueprint for how to crucify someone, the exact procedures varied from place to place and time to time.

        And Azel is entirely correct, the main point of crucifixion was to make an example of someone, thus why it was designed to be more slow and horrifying then extremely painful. The Romans wanted the locals to be able to see the criminal die slowly. And crucifixion was never the standard form of execution, it was an extreme punishment reserved for the worst of the worst.

  • Beau Quilter

    Even if the general population stopped associating swastikas with the Nazis, it is quite bad enough for us to associate swastikas with the church. Nazi antisemitism was not some odd one-off historical aberration. The Nazi’s learned to hate the Jews from the Church. The violent persecution of Jews has a long Christian history that predates Nazism by centuries.

  • smrnda

    The idea that a particular group can claim total ownership of a symbol is a ridiculous assertion. It would be as if I claimed that the meaning of the world “Gift” in English is “a present” and then demanded that German language speakers quit using the world to mean “poison.” Symbols attain a meaning in a cultural and historical context. The swastika used to mean all sorts of things to all sorts of people, but since Hitler it’s now possibly the most offensive symbol on the planet to the greatest number of people. I wouldn’t, however, go to a Buddhist temple and argue that because they have a swastika on it they must be Nazis, however, I would probably advise them that swastika’s don’t go over too well in the States.