While doing some research recently, I came across reference to the crucifix as a “passive symbol” by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in its 2011 decision in the Lautsi v. Italy case.
The context was the Grand Chamber’s pronouncement that the Italian law requiring the display of crucifixes in classrooms did not infringe on the rights of parents to ensure that the education of their children is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. According to the Grand Chamber, the display of the crucifix, unlike compulsory religious instruction or religious oath- taking, did not require action, prayer, or reverence from those who view it. Hence, according to the Grand Chamber, “it cannot be deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to didactic speech or participation in religious activities.”
(The Grand Chamber gave other reasons for its decision. For a more thorough discussion of the Lautsi case, please see “The Case of Lautsi v. Italy: a Synthesis” by Gregor Puppinck in Issue 3 of the 2012 volume of The BYU Law Review, available online.)
Whether the Grand Chamber realized it or not, the phrase “passive symbol” in relation to the crucifix is rich and deep in meaning. In more ways than one, the crucifix is indeed a passive symbol – although it is passive, like all other symbols it communicates meaning.
The crucifix tells the story of a God Who, out of love for humanity, freely became Man and allowed Himself to suffer the worst cruelty that humanity can think of. On the Cross, Christ rendered Himself powerless. He Who is God deliberately refused to display His omnipotence to a hostile crowd who was daring Him to show that He is Christ by coming down from the cross and saving Himself. Christ passively, albeit freely, suffered and died.
The crucifix shows Christ madly in love with us, yet too helpless to coerce us to respond to His love. He could only hope that the sight of Him nailed to the cross would move us to love Him in return.
This is His way of winning us over, because He wants us to love Him freely and without coercion. Indeed, we can and do reject His love. With or without realizing it, perhaps the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights was on to something more when it ruled that the mere display of the crucifix “cannot be deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to didactic speech or participation in religious activities.”
Ironically, perhaps it is precisely the self-effacing love that the crucifix symbolizes that makes some people uncomfortable at the sight of it. For we can be incapable of responding to such love which begs to be repaid with love.
The crucifix depicts the apparent defeat of God and at the same time is powerful proof of His love for us. The sight of a crucifix and the meaning it conveys can be disturbing, consoling, or inspiring. Christ may be passive on the crucifix, but the sight of Him there does not leave people indifferent.
Because of these, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights correctly referred to the crucifix as a “passive symbol”. The image of a God Who allowed Himself to be treated the way He was treated communicates a lot of meaning.