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.

Martyrs for Science
Bob Cargill on the Holy Grail
I Cannot Tell a Lie
The Dome Overhead