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Permanently offensive

Atheists opposed to 9/11 cross may understand it better than some of its defenders

Permanently offensive

(Associated Press/Photo by Bebeto Matthews)

Two days after 9/11, workers going about the awful task of clearing away rubble and identifying bodies uncovered a 20-foot cross of steel beams, made by the fusing of structural remnants in the heat of the building's collapse. Pictures of it sprang up all over the internet. Workers made a practice of pausing there to pray and leave messages: God has not forgotten us, read one of them. Father Brian Jordan, a Franciscan priest, blessed the cross as a symbol of hope, faith, and healing. Like the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol moved several times over the years but is now slated for a permanent home at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

That's where the trouble starts, according to American Atheists, Inc. In a 19-page legal brief filed the last week of July, four individuals and the group at large claim that they have "seen the cross, either in person or on television, and are being subjected to, and injured in consequence of having, a religious tradition that is not their own imposed upon them through the power of the state." Defendants include Gov. Chris Christie, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Father Jordan, and various entities involved with the museum. All these may have been surprised to learn that they were responsible for the plaintiffs' "dyspepsia, symptoms of depression, headaches, anxiety, and mental pain and anguish" owing to the trauma of feeling excluded from the ranks of the affected.

The plaintiffs also claim that they were rebuffed in their offer to provide, at their own expense, a memorial honoring atheists who lost their lives on 9/11. It's interesting to speculate on the content of such a memorial: "They died unbelieving to the last"? (As if anyone could know that.) The atheists assert their rights on behalf of other faiths as well, but Buddhists, Hindus, animists, wiccans, and even Muslims-all of whom were likely represented in the casualties-are sitting this one out.

It's hard to imagine any judge that will take the claim of physical harm seriously, which some see as a positive sign. Militant unbelievers have won lawsuits in the past over hurt feelings alone. Now, apparently, they must raise the bar to absurdity. Progress, no?

Maybe, but what's interesting to me is that the atheists understand one thing better than the majority of Americans who roll their eyes at this latest tantrum. Those who have no problem displaying the cross as an artifact or symbol are missing that point. The atheists are offended by the cross as a declaration and a demand. And they should be.

For the cross has two beams. The horizontal beam shows God's arms open wide to forgive sinners and take their death upon Himself. No other "faith tradition" confronts death head-on; they placate it, anesthetize it, or explain it away, but can't defeat it. That's Christianity's distinction, and may be one reason why other religions did not challenge such an obvious symbol of comfort.

But it's also a declaration of judgment. That's the vertical beam: God's blade, plunged into the world. Believers look to the blade and see God Himself impaled on it. To unbelievers, like American Atheists president Dave Silverman, it's "a reminder that their god, who couldn't be bothered to stop the Muslim terrorists or prevent 3,000 people from being killed in his name, cared only enough to bestow upon us some rubble that resembles a cross. It's a truly ridiculous assertion." If ridiculous is all it is, why be offended? Why suffer palpitations and upset stomachs?

Because it's more than that; enough to make them furious. "No God!" says the fool of Psalm 14. "Get out of my face!" say litigious atheists, and they're closer to the meaning of the cross than secularists or religionists who are vaguely comforted by it. The cross was in everyone's face who died on Sept. 11. It's in everyone's face today-which is not a reason to take it down but to leave it up, as the only remedy for all who will likewise perish.

Where were you on 9/11? Share remembrances with your fellow WORLD readers and view a slideshow of images from Sept. 11, 2001, featured in WORLD's Remembering 9/11 10th Anniversary Special Issue.

Email Janie B. Cheaney