Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Is wearing the cross as a non-believer cultural appropriation?

Rachel Choi
Illustration Rachel Choi

Opinion editors are not responsible for agreeing or disagreeing with their writers but rather elevate each individual’s specific voice. 

This is a question that I’ve been asking myself for the past few months. It is one that many people believe has much more gray area than the symbols and customs of other cultures do, whether it’s African hairstyles, wearing a hijab, or wearing the Star of David. 

There are many pop culture references to the cross, including Sabrina Carpenter’s music video for “Feather,” where she dances on an altar at a church with the words “rip bitch” splattered on a cross, and advertisement campaigns like BoyleSports, which depicts the hand of Jesus nailed to the cross for an Easter sale.

A larger phenomenon is the widespread, decorative use among goth communities that choose to wear the cross upside down.

According to Gothist.com, “The cross, for some goths, offers a way to reclaim a powerful symbol and transform it. Their use of the cross can be seen as a subversive act, a way to defy mainstream interpretations and challenge societal expectations linked to religion.” 

Such expectations may often range from stereotypical gender norms, to sexuality.

When speaking with 30 randomly-selected Emerson College students on campus about whether cross-wearing should constitute as appropriation, 24 percent of the students said yes, while the other 76 percent said no. When asked why, most of the reasoning was similar to that of freshman Nuala Dougherty’s, who said they didn’t think it was possible to appropriate the dominant culture. 

“Christianity has been used to persecute many different forms of people,” Dougherty said. “It’s difficult to discern whether it’s disrespectful, or just a form of protest. [Christianity] is also predominantly white.”

Senior Caitlin Farrel, who was raised in the Catholic church, is also part of the 76 percent that said no.

“To me, cultural appropriation is picking and choosing from marginalized groups out of context, where you’re taking parts of someone’s marginalized identity and commodifying them as part of a trend or an aesthetic to sell and to buy,” she said. “When we talk about Christianity, there tend to be a lot of Christian people in the U.S., and those people tend to have a lot of power in their communities from a religious and political standpoint, and a lot of marginalized groups have their safety compromised because of that.”

Farrell says that because it is not an identity that’s at risk of being attacked or marginalized, it is okay to use the cross symbol as a cultural commentary.

So should the cross be an exception, since it is “not a culture that is at risk?” 

When considering this, it’s important to also reflect on whether the mistakes of Christians in the past and present should be a steady excuse from appropriation classifications, as a form of reclaiming power.

If we consider virtually every major religion throughout history, we come to find out that each has oppressed people at some point in time to varying degrees. The Ottoman’s, a Muslim empire, enslaved millions of Christian Europeans between 1200 and 1900, and killed up to 1.2 million Armenians alone in an attempt to ethnically cleanse them in 1915. The list goes further on if we’d like to dissect the horrific brutalities performed, which parallel the everlasting impact that the Christian “Manifest Destiny” had on the lives of Native Americans in North America.

However, it is crucial to emphasize that religion in and of itself is not the source of such atrocity, and that texts like The Bible and The Quran are in direct opposition to such behavior. They have been used by people in powerful positions to abuse groups through the manipulation of people’s faith in an effort to funnel control and often greed.

The historical abuse in the case of The Ottoman’s does not justify the encouragement of people wearing the hijab outside of its proper context, or often without being part of the community.

So why should it be the case with Christianity? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer why, and this has led to the normalized appropriation of it within American society.

These kinds of symbolic Christian references often fall outside of the cross, as we often see endless Halloween costumes of people dressing as “sexy nuns,” Jesus, priests, and more prominent figures from the religion. Unfortunately, in a society that constantly and increasingly produces micro-aggressions towards Christianity, costumes like this aren’t considered problematic. 

In a Buzzfeed article that warns of the offensive nature of religious costumes, it consists of a Hindu Goddess and a Rabbi, but no Christian figures. 

It is important to also note that 79 percent of Black people in the United States are Christian, along with 77 percent of the Latino community. When individuals are quick to separate minorities from Christianity, this can also be very problematic, considering that a vast number of minority groups have practices deeply rooted within the religion. One example of this includes the strong role that Christianity had within Black liberation, by providing people with solace and a place to meet and rally during the civil rights movement.

To establish a clear line of how much violence one group must perform or experience in order to be protected from appropriation is virtually impossible. The second we begin enforcing historical oppression measures to justify the use of symbols out of context, we lose the sight and meaning of what that symbol or image represents in the first place.

We often forget the positive things that come from religion, and far too many Emerson classes have only discussed the oppressive “nature” of Christianity, without ever discussing the amount of lives that the religion changes for the better.

Several studies consistently show that those who take part in rituals like prayer are much less likely to be depressed or anxious, and that prayer often reduces long term stress levels. 

Apart from individual benefits, there are also social ones. Christian charities are often the ones providing aid to communities in need, with 63.2 percent of food pantries in the United States being Christian-faith-based. Faith-based hospitals also account for 17 percent of hospitals in the US as of 2016.

A question within this conversation also rests on whether widespread adoption of a symbol or custom, in separation of its meaning, has the potential to diminish the value of that item or practice. One of these potential examples is the evil eye. 

Krusha Menta, an Emerson student who answered “yes” when asked if cross-wearing can be a form of cultural appropriation, described how she felt when people wore the evil eye, which she holds close to her Indian culture. 

“There are so many fashion trends that have taken over the evil eye, and a lot of people can be ignorant because they don’t know the context of it,” she said.

The evil eye’s origins are rooted in Africa and the Middle East, and also has various adoptions from other cultures, ranging from Greece to Russia. It’s a blue circle with many different names that comes in the form of an eye, that many pagans, agnostics, and even atheists wear, often unaware of its stories and origins because of its widespread use. 

There are many symbols that have had their meanings lost or abused throughout the course of history, like the Buddhist Vitarka mudra or the Swastika, which was once predominantly known for its role in Buddhist and Hinduist religion and art.

Because meanings can change through the misuse of a symbol or a practice, it is important that such misuses are held to a standard, regardless of the culture or religion. And although the cross may be seen as a universal symbol of faith, it is important to be aware and respectful of its associations when using it.

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Comments (2)

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  • H

    Harry / Apr 25, 2024 at 8:15 am

    Wow, what an interesting insight. I have never thought about people wearing the cross to be cultural appropriation, but now that you mention it, you’re really on to something. Great job!

  • A

    Anthony P Oertel / Apr 24, 2024 at 11:26 pm

    Pick up the Cross, the living Cross.
    Please encourage forgiveness in Israel and Palestine.

    Revenge should not replace bombs when the war ends.

    There is no hope without forgiveness. President Biden, families of hostages, and residents of Gaza all speak of hope. They hope for harmony – a life in balance.

    Forgiveness is like the wind that moves the blades of windmills. The wind is invisible, but it starts a process. Too often people look at what happens inside the windmill without noticing that the blades of the windmill have stopped. Forgiveness must constantly circulate for a balanced society to function.

    My message of forgiveness has been posted in Tel Aviv at 20 Rabbenu Hanan’ El and across from the Banksy Hotel in Bethlehem.

    كنت عبدا
    للرجل الذي في القبر
    ثم غفرتُ
    كي أنقذ حياتي

    I was a slave
    To the man in the grave
    Then I forgave
    It was my life to save