Christian Hegemony and Symbols

The following is excerpted from Living in the Shadow of the Cross: Understanding and Resisting the Power and Privilege of Christian Hegemony, by Paul Kivel.

Christian symbols such as the cross, nativity scenes, knights in shining armor, the fish symbol, an apple to indicate temptation and images of the devil are not just signs of the presence of Christians or Christian buildings. They carry history.13 The historical use of the cross in Western societies demonstrates this easily.

Christian missionaries did not just arrive with the “good news.” Once Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, the cross sanctioned the sword, which then allowed the cross to be effective.14 Constantine’s Roman soldiers marched with crosses on their helmets. Crusaders had crosses embroidered on their clothes (the word crusade means marked with a cross).15 Columbus sailed with crosses on the sails of his ships, immediately planted a cross in the beach of the islands where he landed and claimed he was on a holy (as well as mercantile) mission. The Virginia colonists marked Jamestown with a cross.16 The Inquisition tried and condemned people under the sign of the cross, burned people on a cross and required many of those who were not killed to wear a visible cross at all times on their clothes. Before enslaved Africans were dispatched onto boats for the Middle Passage they were baptized under the sign of the cross, and many had crosses branded on their arms. 

As Argentine theologian and historian Enrique Dussel has described it,

Planting the cross on an island, on a beach, in a village, in the square of Aztec Mexico or Inca Cuzco, is an act of “dominion”, of possession; it proclaims the sovereignty of the Spanish state in the person of the King. It is a “social relation” of domination.17

The frequent use of the cross by Christian anti-abortion and white supremacist groups like the KKK and their current racist counterparts is not accidental.18 A burning cross is more than a symbol; it is a reminder of this history and threatens similar violence to come.


[13] For example, knights in shining armor were originally members of Christian orders fighting in crusades to defend Christendom and womanhood.

[14] At times there were militant Christian orders, such as the Knights Templar, whose members carried both cross and sword.

[15] Glynnis Chantrell, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories. Oxford, 2004, p. 129.

[16] David E. Stannard. American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. Oxford, 1992, p. 101.

[17] Enrique Dussel. “The Real Motives for the Conquest,” in Leonardo Boff and Virgil Elizondo, eds. 1492-1992: The Voice of the Victims. SCM, 1990, p. 37.

[18] For example, in 2012 abortion provider Dr. Julie Burkhart had a giant cross erected in her backyard as part of a campaign of threat and intimidation. Amanda Robb. “Bringing Abortion Back to Wichita.” Ms. (Winter 2013), p. 13.

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