Ever since the kerfuffle at the March for Life last week between a group of Catholic school boys in MAGA hats and a Native American veteran, I’ve been thinking a lot about symbols — how they get their meaning, and how the same object or slogan can mean different things to different people.
I know the media has shown different versions of what really went down that day. But I don’t want to focus on that.
However, I will admit that I was initially unwilling to give the boys the benefit of the doubt — that they weren’t shouting racist epithets, that it was all a big mix-up — because of the MAGA hats. At this point in Trump’s presidency, I see the “Make America Great Again” slogan as having real racist connotations.
Maybe that’s judgmental of me. But if it’s socially acceptable for black men in hoodies to be perceived as thugs (unfortunate, but true), it’s not fair to judge people who perceive white men in MAGA hats in a similar way. Right or wrong, there are very legitimate reasons to have that reaction.
That’s probably an extreme example. On a day-to-day basis, most people wear or display symbols that are far more innocuous: cross jewelry, COEXIST bumper stickers, sportswear. Most of us probably don’t think too much about the messages we’re sending when we put on these things — we do it mostly for ourselves.
But sometimes symbols can have consequences. I learned this early in my faith when I wore a Star of David necklace with a cross inside of it. For me, it symbolized the merging of my ethnic identity with my new religion. It felt appropriate for where I was spiritually. But it shocked and alienated my Jewish friends, who felt it had evangelistic undertones. It alienated the very people I wanted to still keep in my life. I realized then that, no matter what the symbol meant to me personally, it wasn’t worth losing friends over. I stopped wearing it.
A friend gifted me a cross necklace when I got baptized, and I started wearing that instead. It was amusing to me, because in my childhood, which was peppered with incidents of Christian kids threatening me with hell to get me to convert, I felt threatened by the cross. But my faith was new, and I wanted something to show for it.
That didn’t last too long, either. Honestly, crosses still make me uncomfortable — mainly because, while it’s now considered a symbol of redemption, it’s also still a torture device. We’re so used to seeing them that it’s easy to forget this. To put it in context, imagine if Jesus died in the 20th century, and everyone started wearing tiny electric chairs around their necks. It’s just not something I’m comfortable with (no offense intended if you wear one).
It wasn’t until a spring break trip to Rouen, France that I found “my” necklace: a small pewter pendant of Joan of Arc, my hero from childhood. She exemplifies the kind of bravery and conviction I aspire to have.
Of course, when I wear it, people probably assume I’m Catholic — though being Episcopalian isn’t so far from that.
I also have a teardrop pendant that has a six-pointed star etched into it with the word “faith” underneath. It was an impulse-buy because it was just so different; you don’t typically see religious words like “faith” with anything other than a cross or a Jesus fish. I don’t wear that one as often — it’s a larger necklace that doesn’t pair as well with my usual jeans and T-shirts — and yet it’s still special to me. It subtly shows how Judaism influences my faith, in a way that won’t immediately alienate other Jews.
I probably think way too much about this (thanks, OCD!), but it remains true that symbols have power. Ultimately, though, it’s not the symbol that does all the speaking — it’s the individual herself.