By Joel A. Harrison, PhD
In a 20-year saga that never ends, on December 12 U.S. District Judge Larry Burns ruled that the cross atop Mt. Soledad was unconstitutional. Burns ordered the cross removed within 90 days; but then stayed that order until all appeals have been exhausted. And on December 19 an article in the San Diego U-TA reported an appeal is underway. A similar controversy in EastCounty several years ago was resolved when a cross atop Mt.Helix was transferred from public ownership to a private group of area homeowners. (Privatization is not an appropriate option for Soledad, since the site is a U.S. military memorial.) Instead of rehashing the Constitutional pros and cons, I would like to reflect a moment on my view of the meaning of Christianity—and the most appropriate monuments to faith and humanity.
Symbols vs. the Living Christ: The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer summarized the message of the New Testament with the Sermon on the Mount. For Bonhoeffer, to be born-again meant to die as our own egotistical selves and allow Jesus to live through us, to become the Living Christ. His writings often refer to Matthew:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me. I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.
Nowhere in the New Testament are we asked to build monuments. In fact, Jesus says “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray . . . to be seen by men. I tell you the truth; they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room close the door and pray to your Father.”
At best, symbols, such as the Cross, are meant to remind us of something, not to substitute for them. With so much suffering in the world, what should we be using our limited resources of time and money for?
Keep in mind that it wasn’t until the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire that magnificent temples and symbols were erected. The cathedrals of Medieval Europe are magnificent works of architecture; however, built by the spoils of war and oppression of the peasants.
Honoring Veterans: For those claiming that the Cross on Mt Soledad is to honor our veterans, I would remind them that there are approximately 2,000 homeless veterans in San DiegoCounty. With the gentrification of downtown, the single-occupancy hotels have disappeared. War not only kills and maims bodies; but singes souls. Instead of fighting over a symbol, why not devote the time, money, and effort to erecting new single-occupancy hotels for our homeless veterans with chapels, cafeterias, nursing stations, and social workers? Why not direct our efforts as the Living Christ to helping “the least of our brothers?”
Is Opposition to Christian Symbols on Public Lands an Attack on Christianity? Everywhere I go in San Diego there are churches. On TV and Radio, at any time day or night I can find sermons and religious music. During Christmas manger scenes and other symbols of Christianity adorn many a front lawn. No group has ever challenged these. In San Diego County, perhaps five percent of the land area belongs to the commons, to all of us, including our military cemeteries. It is absurd to claim that a challenge to a cross on the small amount of public area belonging to all of us represents an attack on Christianity. An offer was even made by a church only a few hundred feet from the memorial to move the cross to their property, equally visible from the harbor.
What Would Jesus Think? I imagine Jesus returning to Earth with his first stop in San Diego. People flock to Him as he walks around. Some say to Him, “Lord let us show you what we have done for you!” Jesus replies that He wishes to look around. As He walks, he notices one of our homeless sleeping in a doorway. The people respond saying, “Yes, we know; but we can’t do everything. Just wait to you see what we have done for you!” Unfazed Jesus walks on. He comes upon a child wheezing from asthma, to children playing in the streets for lack of decent supervised recreational facilities, to dilapidated schools, public housing, always with the same refrain from the crowd, “Yes, we know; but we can’t do everything. “Just wait until you see what we have done for you!” Finally, Jesus is driven to Mt. Soledad where the crowd proudly shows him the Cross. Jesus looks, shakes His head in disgust and walks away.
The Living Christ as the Monument to Christianity: The New Testament is permeated with messages of love, compassion, and charity. Catholics have the doctrine of the “Preferential Option for the Poor.” In Matthew, when Jesus calls on us to give food, clothing, shelter, and medical care to those in need, I believe He intentionally included caring for the prisoner to remind us not to judge, not to decide who is deserving or undeserving. Nowhere in the New Testament are we called to build monuments. The greatest cathedrals, crosses on every hilltop fail to demonstrate the Christianity of a community. The only true monument to Christ is each and every person becoming the Living Christ, not at Christmas time or other special occasions, but in our everyday lives.
Instead of continuing to fight and waste resources to maintain the cross where it is, move it a few hundred feet away to a nearby church where it will be equally visible from afar, or, even better, start with building single-occupancy hotels for our homeless veterans and place it on top of one of them. In addition, one can always construct a foundation for people of all faiths to place their religious symbols while conducting services at the military memorial. Then devote your time, energy, passion, and money to making sure that everyone has decent shelter, food, education, and medical care. That will be the true monument to Christianity.
The Mount Soledad Easter Cross: One final thought. The Cross, when installed in 1954, was originally called “The Mount Soledad Easter Cross.” Only in the 1980s was the word “Easter” dropped. Individual memorial stones display symbols of many different faiths. No one has or would ever challenge this. With “Easter” in the title, it is clear that the Cross was erected as a Christian symbol. It is disingenuous of its supporters to claim otherwise.
Editor’s note: A version of this commentary originally appeared in East County Magazine in February, 2009. It has been updated to reflect the most recent rulings on the Mt. Soledad Cross lawsuits, and lightly edited for clarity.
Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH, a native San Diegan, is a retired epidemiologist. He has worked in the areas of preventive medicine, infectious diseases, medical outcomes research, and evidence-based clinical practice guidelines. He is currently active in supporting the adoption of a single-payer health care system in the U.S. For more information on single-payer go to Physicians for a National Health Program’s website at www.pnhp.org .