Symbols of Oppression

The latest uproar in our society is the controversy over “symbols of slavery and oppression” in our culture, primarily statues of Confederate civil war heros.  Ironically, the critics are correct when they claim these men were traitors to the United States, and yet their images have been enshrined in our cities.  Personally, I usually don’t give statues much credence in general.  To me they are something that birds crap on in the park.  It does make me wonder about the motivation for these images in the first place.  My guess would be they were there to promote the healing of our country after the civil war, to re-unite our country, re-enfranchising the south.  While it may have done that in the past, our society has changed and the sensitivities of others have come to the forefront.  To the descendants of slaves, these images do not represent Southern culture; they represent the southern oppressors of their ancestors.

Personally, I’m not invested in the issue of confederate statues.  I am not southern, so they don’t represent my heros or culture.  I am not a descendant of southern slaves, so they don’t represent oppression to me.  The fact that I don’t have a “horse in this race,” does not free me from recognizing there is more than “history” at issue.  I would have a lot of problems with people erecting statues to Hitler or other prominent Nazis.  People can easily dismiss what does not apply to them.

One of the hardest symbols for me personally, is the cross.  Jews have been tortured and killed under the symbol of the cross for over 1700 years.  The fact that the persecution and murder had nothing to do with Yeshua and His gospel itself, doesn’t matter.  In the name of the cross, Jews; men, women and children, were butchered.  The cross is a symbol of oppression.  It is so much so, that whenever our congregation rented a worship space from a church, we had to cover up the cross, because it is a sign of oppression and bloodshed.  We didn’t want to have that symbol staring us in the face as we sought to worship God.  Granted, churches who have crosses don’t intend any anti-semitic message with the sign of the cross, but it doesn’t matter.  That’s the history.  You can ignore it, you can cover it up, you can remove it, or you can learn to practice mutual respect.

In spite of the cross symbol, I respect my christian friends.  My friends respect me as well.  I realize what they hold dear, and yet offends me, is not meant to be offensive to me.  Ultimately, it’s not about symbols, but what they represent.  Neo-nazis brandishing the swastika claim they are just upholding their identities, yet they preach hate against Jews, Catholics and Blacks.  Yeshua said, “You will know them by their fruit.”  When a symbol communicates other than what you intend, you need to use something else to communicate your intention.  Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”  Yeshua said it another way; “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Loving is not so easy, but it’s always worth the effort.

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4 thoughts on “Symbols of Oppression

  1. Hello, Rabbi, you just had to know you couldn’t post anything here for long without hearing from me about it.

    I like your comments as to tolerating something that offends you but probably wasn’t meant to do so, such as the cross. At first, it does seem like a good analogy, but this time I have to question your reasoning.

    I spent almost 7 years in the Navy back in the 60s, and I served with many, many men who came from the South. They had two things in common: a visceral hatred for Northerners, and a view of Black People as less than human and hence worthless other than as servants. Jews weren’t too popular either. The Civil War was still very much alive in their hearts. They revered Robert Lee, Jefferson Davis, etc. Most of them kept pictures or emblems of the Confederate flag in their lockers, and were very quick to voice their hatred of the North. Today, hatred of Black people is something that remains strong in the hearts of many Southerners, but is publically suppressed due to political correctness.

    They, or maybe their parents, were the people who put up the symbols of the Confederacy around the South, and I don’t believe there was anything healing or re-uniting about their intent. I think they did it to ensure that the beliefs and hatreds of the old South would remain alive as long as possible. I see it much the same as I would see posting a swastika near a synagogue, as an in-your-face reminder of hatred. Don’t forget, legal slavery in this country only ended 152 years ago, but the end of organized persecution of our people under the symbol of the cross ended long before that. Don’t forget we’re talking about the cross not the swastika, and swastikas are absolutely not acceptable now.

    I think we should compare a black person having to face a statue of Robert Lee similar to a Jew having to face a swastika, rather than a cross.

    • David, we have learned to live in peace with the Christian world as they have learned to live in peace with us. The reality is, the cross as a symbol of persecution has been just that for so many centuries. I spoke with Holocaust survivors who told me of guards in the camps wearing crosses. When I think of the statues, it reminds me of Ukraine where their money has their national heroes on it. On the 5 Griven note it has the face of Bogdan Chmelnitzki, who was responsible for the murder of over 100,000 Jews. A prominent district is also named after him. To me, it’s indefensible.

      • Yes, it is utterly indefensible. but so is Southern hatred of Black people, Jews and Conservatives. Jews, Blacks, conservatives, and all the hated groups need to forgive and then ignore the haters, and also need to be very sure we aren’t returning hatred for hatred.

        By the way, Rabbi, I do enjoy discussing this stuff with you, because you are a good and decent person, who should be an example to others, as you are to me. Thank you.

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