Battle of the Crosses

When the communist tyrants held power in Poland, they ordered all crosses removed from classroom walls, factories, hospitals--all public institutions. But the Polish people rose up in a great wave of protest, and all across the land officials backed down. But in one small town, officials were determined to prevail. They insisted on taking down the crosses hanging in school classrooms. Students responded by staging a sit-in. Heavily armed riot police chased them out. Then the students--nearly 3000 of them--carried the crosses to a nearby church to pray. The police surrounded the church. Violence was averted only when photographs of the confrontation were flashed around the globe. With grit like that, no wonder Poland was the first country in Eastern Europe to throw off communism. Now listen to a story from our own country. In 1963, the Supreme Court banned prayer from public schools. Many people took the decision to be a signal that religion was no longer welcome in public places. Ever since, the courts have been busy ordering Christmas creches removed from public parks and the Ten Commandments taken down from courthouse walls. One small town was enmeshed in lawsuits for years. Zion, Illinois, was founded at the turn of the century as a religious community. Streets still bear names like Ezekiel, Gideon, Galilee. The city seal still bears a cross, along with other Christian symbols. Or I should say, it used to. The seal came under the scrutiny of a group called American Atheists. Their Illinois director noticed it on one of his many trips, which seem to take him to and fro throughout the state looking for Christian symbols to remove. The man took the city of Zion to court, demanding that the seal be purged of its cross. After years of court battles, this summer the American Atheists finally won. As we speak, the crosses are being removed from city stationary and police cruisers. But what is this resounding silence I hear? Where is the outcry that greeted Polish authorities when they tried to remove crosses throughout their country? The residents of Zion are disgruntled, to be sure. They rather liked the religious imagery, in a cultural sense--as a reminder of Zion's unusual history. And the police department grumbles that it will cost a lot of money to replace the city seals on all those cruisers. That hardly constitutes a ringing protest. The courts say the state has to maintain strict neutrality toward religion. But removing religious symbols from public places is not neutrality. On the contrary, it sends a highly negative message--that religion is something shameful, embarrassing, or at best strictly private. We've come a long way from the day of the American Founders, who regarded religious freedom as the "first liberty." What they meant was that without the liberty to express our most fundamental beliefs, all other liberties inevitably crumble. Alas, today the people of Poland, and all of Eastern Europe, understand that better than we do here in America. Christians ought to be leading the struggle both educationally and politically, for the "first liberty."


Chuck Colson


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