Symbols matter—more often and with deeper influence than we realize. The objects we use to represent beliefs and values impact our lives with such force because they’re the material means by which our hearts connect with immaterial truths. That’s why soldiers will give their lives for the American flag. Or a young woman will stare at her engagement ring for hours on end.
The power of symbols is the reason the people of Michigan should be concerned by what’s going on this week on their Capitol grounds.
Here’s what happened. Sunday morning at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing the Detroit chapter of the Satanic Temple, offended by the Nativity Scene traditionally placed on the Capitol grounds during the Christmas season, placed their own version of a seasonal display as competition.
They call it a “Snaketivity Scene.” In the group’s re-interpretation of the Nativity Scene, a snake is wrapped around a satanic cross—a cross with Satan’s symbol at the top. At the foot of the cross is a book called “Revolt of the Angels,” referring apparently to Satan’s rebellion against God.
(Photo: Robert Killips | Lansing State Journal)
The inscription on the cross substitutes the biblical title, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” with the phrase, “The Greatest Gift is Knowledge.” What sort of knowledge isn’t made clear. Then again, maybe it is. The symbolism of the Snaketivity Scene is obvious to anyone paying attention.
Those not paying attention take a more pragmatic approach and see the Snaketivity display as the price paid to the few in order to purchase the religious freedom of the many. That calculus makes a certain kind of political sense. But it ignores the power of symbols to affect the beliefs of the larger community. What’s really at stake in the dueling Nativity Scenes is how the distinctive convictions of the many are being confused, distorted and eroded by the perverse notions of the few. The losers are the next generation, left without any firm idea of what’s true and what’s not.
Jez Blackmore, the Satanic Temple spokesperson, explained her group’s display. “I think that this holiday season is a time of year that is celebrated in many different ways. Having our government endorse one singular viewpoint or method of celebrating the season is problematic when we have a diverse community of people in Michigan,” said Blackmore. “We wanted to add to that conversation by having our representation of how we may celebrate this time of year.”
Trying to parse Ms. Blackmore’s statement is what’s really problematic. What we can say for sure is that she doesn’t explain why desecrating Christian symbols is necessary in order to express her group’s idea of freedom. The “knowledge” the Snaketivity Scene endorses doesn’t lead to freedom. It leads to death.
Christmas is celebrated with more symbols than any other season. You can quibble about the origins of those symbols—the Christmas tree, evergreen wreaths and the custom of gift giving come to mind as originating in non-Christian contexts—but the fact is we celebrate Jesus’ birth with such a rich variety of sights, sounds, smells, displays, customs, practices and objects that it would be hard to imagine Christmas without them. Each one bears testimony to the beauty and the truth of the gospel: Jesus was born to redeem this broken, darkened world.
Michigan’s citizens face a difficult choice. Should they continue in their uneasy political arrangement that places the Satanic Temple on the same level as historic Christian beliefs? Should the real Christian Nativity Scene continue to occupy one side of the Capitol grounds while the demonic imitation occupies the other?
Or should they opt not to play that game and support instead a policy that doesn’t allow Christmas expressions of any kind on public property? That would be a travesty on so many levels, not the least of which is ignoring the religious history of the people in the state. But given the alternative, that may be the best course of action.