Symbols that Unite or Divide

At my ordination service a friend gave me a cross he had made from two nails. I wore that during the time I worked as a county jail chaplain in the Bay Area. It was a thoughtful gift, but it wasn’t the most appropriate thing for the interfaith service we were providing. I found symbols from Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish and Chinese religions and added them to the cross. That was always a good discussion-starter as I walked among inmates.

After a few years that “cross-plus” began to get a bit heavy, and too cluttered with symbols, so I took it off. The next symbol I had to face was the clergy collar that I wore inside. It was clearly the best way for inmates and staff to know I was present, but it could also be too exclusive.

The final symbol I wore in those chaplaincy years was rather unusual: a Greek fisherman’s hat. I was easily recognized even from a distance down the cellblock. When the local paper did a story on me, it mentioned my identifying marks: collar, Birkenstocks and hat. It fit my image as a very California-kind of chaplain.

Transitioning to the street chaplaincy, I brought the sandals and hat with me, but dropped the collar. The hat became a black beret. Over time, everyone from the street community to congregations, social workers and police recognized me with that beret.

Symbols of identification are slippery. We need to be careful what these symbols are and what they say, about us, about our role, our beliefs. Do they invite people through an open door or nail up a “Keep Out” sign?

Do symbols draw out curiosity and questions, or, as we heard over and over in the jail, do people sense the “same old same old”? By that I mean, does the symbolism open up conversations or close them down? Are the symbols of identity so familiar they’ve lost their meaning, or come to mean something very different, the antithesis of the original sense?

Take that cross I wore. Everyone knows it and knows what it means: Christianity; the Church; Christian faith. Suffering and death; forgiveness; sacrifice; new life. That it was an ancient tool of execution on which thousands of Romans and others were nailed up to die is lost in identifying any cross as The Cross—the death of one person in history, Jesus of Nazareth. Catholics display the crucifix with the body of Jesus “fixed” on it to focus on sacrificial death (atonement). Protestants display an empty cross to emphasize the resurrection (hanging an open tomb might not have the same impact).

The Church has been “hung up” on the cross for centuries.  Christendom has hung up the cross as a theological symbol for so long it is the essential identification for anyone and anything “Christian,” associated with one faith. Yet, the cross also has a history of being used in a secular manner, usually for memorials or gravesites. Some argue that particular crosses on public lands are only monuments with a “secular meaning.” Interesting viewpoint, but I wonder what happens to the theological implications.

What symbols do we wear or hang up for identification? They may be heavy with meaning, or merely ornamental. What do we do when people fight over the symbols? Do people actually live and die for pieces of metal, wood, stone or cloth? It’s what we place upon those material things that gives them meaning. Maybe we ought to stop to think about what we are doing.

What symbols do we hide behind or use as weapons?

What do we expect from our symbols? Are they “sacred” or “blessed”? How does that happen, and when, by whom? It’s easy to see why symbols generate so many questions. They have to—it’s the power of symbolism itself.

The word “symbol” comes from Greek, literally “to throw with.”

What can represent or stand for (throw alongside) you, or me, our values and beliefs? What could we stand under or hold up that would tell the world who we are or what we think? How can we share symbols, to unify rather than cause division? It’s important to choose our symbols carefully. They can do more harm than good.

That county jail I entered was built underground. The county literally removed a hillside, built a jail and covered it back up. I often wondered how that felt for prisoners knowing they were underground, hidden, with trees taking root over their heads, with deer and coyotes walking up there. Was that a symbol of being dead already?

I think back to the symbols I wore. Is it possible I somehow embodied, symbolized the good in the community, as I sought to represent that goodness, no matter what I wore, carried, or even what I said or believed?  Who is doing that in our world today?

Chris Highland, 2020

Categories: essays, UncategorizedTags: , , , , ,


  1. Powerful; Amen; and wonderful questions. I have not come up with an inclusive symbol for pancompassionist freethinker : ) I hope you do!… Thanks so much as always

  2. I’m not sure, Chris… seems like it would need to somehow include the universe or universes, as some theorize. Staying tuned to your channel : ) Thanks again!!

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