One of the things I've noticed trending on my Facebook this week has been the controversy over the 9/11 cross at the memorial in downtown New York. Atheists are upset about its presence at this national place of remembrance, as they are often upset any time the cross shows up in some grand scene. Last week on the news, they reported the story of a small town somewhere in Indiana that has a cross on - *gasp* - public town property and is therefore being sued by an out-of-state atheist group with no interest in the town except that it stop displaying the cross.
And I noticed that one of my friends commented on one of the 9/11 pictures with something to the effect of: "I don't get it. Why are atheists so offended by the cross?" So offended by the cross that they throw a tantrum every time they see one and demand it be torn down. Offended by something they don't even believe in.
As someone who grew up heathen, devoutly atheist and decidedly pagan (did I get all your preferred words in there?) and is now humbled, devoutly Christian and decidedly still not perfect, I find myself in a unique (though not exclusive) position to offer a bit of an answer to this kind of question. Because I have both rolled my eyes at yet another cross popping up...and rolled my eyes at those rolling their eyes at yet another cross popping up.
So here goes:
An atheist is offended by the cross in a place like the 9/11 memorial or the town square because that's not the story they are telling. That's not their cross. That's not their story. It's just not. And in a way, having that cross there is an invitation to exclusion. Exclusion is our greatest fear - not belonging, not having a place, not being a part. To an atheist, that cross symbolizes the way the faithful responded to the terrible things that took place on that site. Then the world is looking to the faithful, searching for the story of these two beams that held together, while the percentage of survivors (hint: it's more than 1) who have not chosen the cross yearn to tell their stories, too. Stories the world isn't looking for once they see those crossbeams. Stories that are now marginal, at best; useless at worst. Hearts left on the outside because though they were there and felt every bit of that pain, the burning, the heartache, the fear, the terror...don't seem to have a story any more. The cross changes the story, and in doing so, it leaves out those who deserve to be a part of it.
That's what the atheist knows. The atheist knows that with that cross standing there, everyone's waiting for the stories of those looking to God in those terrible moments. And they are afraid they're now excluded...because they weren't looking for God or crosses; they were looking for the exit.
Imagine if you were part of the women's Gold Medal-winning Olympic soccer team. You'd been with these girls for years, practicing and perfecting your game for this big opportunity and the details of things like personal belief and politics never really came up. You win, and ten of your teammates run to the sidelines and pick up the Rebel (Confederate) flag and start running onto the field in victory. Now, you're on the outside. You want to share your absolutely bursting heart with the world, but the only story people want to hear is about that flag. But that's not your flag. That's not your story. ...And that doesn't matter. By an emblem, the story has changed. Now you get to spend your post-Olympics interviews talking not about the game, but about a flag you don't believe in and its polarizing story. Your story? Your game-winning goal? It's somehow less now.
It's a terrible thing to be trapped in your aching heart. It's hard to feel like you don't have a right to your experience, to your pain, to your opinion or memory or story. It's awkward. Like people might listen to what you have to say, but it would only be an interruption. They would smile and nod and pretend like they heard you, but you haven't been heard. Your perspective is so bizarre, so out-there, that they can't relate to it and so the world is only being polite while your heart is absolutely imploding, longing to be a part of what you were a part of in the first place! Before the story changed.
And we know the cross absolutely changes the story. It always does. It always has.
Now, from the Christian side of the coin, the problem is this: we still kinda want to tell the cross story. It's not that we're trying to offend or exclude anyone. We're not demoting the relevance or deservingness of anyone's being there. We're just trying to tell our story, too. By the atheist protest, now we feel like we're on the outside and our story isn't relevant. Why do we have to leave the tale to just history, we wonder, when we want to tell the story of hope, too? We don't understand why it has to be one or the other, why we can't have our place alongside.
And that's the rub. The clash of wounded hearts on both sides seeking to keep their place in the story, even if neither is able to articulate that that's what this is really about. Wounded hearts afraid of being left out...laboring to leave out other wounded hearts to protect their own woundedness.
I'm going to say this and this is where I know that I'm going to lose some of you (if I haven't already with the Rebel flag reference): This is where Christians have failed. It is. This is where we have failed to love well, and it's showing in the turmoil and the tension between atheists and Christians. It's showing in the controversy over the cross.
We have failed to be a people who are willing to tell a side-by-side story. We have failed to show the unbelieving world that we're just as engaged in their world with them as we are in God's world with Him. We have labored and sermoned and door-knocked to death trying to convert the whole world, turning our backs on the "heathens" still on the other side, and looking down on the percentage (hint: it's still more than 1) of this world that doesn't believe in the same God that we do. That doesn't believe in our cross.
The love of God is free, and we have been free to receive it. What we must also remember is that we have also been free to reject it, and there are many among us who have exercised that freedom. The God who created love responds to them the same as He responds to us - with tenderness and mercy. So where do we get off giving unbelievers any less? I have seen and, yes, been a part of (repenting....) in the Christian world our faith denying the stories of the unbelievers. Excluding them. Feeling superior and therefore, exclusively worthy. We think this story we're trying to tell, this God we're trying to follow, this Jesus we believe in is so much better than any other story out there (it's true; it is a fantastic, deserving, and wholly good story) that no other story deserves an ounce of attention. We've shut out unbelievers, and now they're pushing back.
The truth is that their stories need told, too, and it is grace to embrace them. It is love to hear them. It is honor to draw them into us. The stories of God's people have always been told from both sides - from the camps of the Israelites to the wayward town of Nineveh to the wicked colony of Babylon. From the Jews to the Gentiles to the Jew-killer-turned-apostle. There were unbelievers at 9/11 who cried just as hard, screamed just as loud, and fell just as fast as any who looked up and saw that cross...and as any who didn't get that chance. They're offended by the cross because they know it's trying to change their story, and all they want is to be acknowledged as having been there. To not be trapped in their hearts and their memories and to know they still have a place in the footprints of those towers, even if they're not bowing at the foot of the cross.
And while no, that shouldn't allow them to prevent Christians from telling their stories, too, we have to remember that wounded hearts pushing against each other are only going to break both. Somewhere in the midst of it, as has always been, there is grace. There is love. There is mercy. And yes, there is God..