As a pastor who is also a firefighter I understand the power of symbol. The same symbol can evoke both positive and negative reactions depending on the background or attitude of the person observing. But you can't entirely predict what that reaction will be. Wearing a clerical collar can get me cold stares or polite people holding doors for me. However, some objects with symbolic value do not necessarily bring out negative reactions. They simply identify, or so I thought. Like the Roman Catholic rosary, for example. At least until this latest trend picked up by the RNS showed differently.....
Police say rosaries are newest gang symbol
By Esmeralda Bermudez
ALBANY, Ore. -- Never did Jaime Salazar imagine that wearing a rosary-like crucifix to school would provoke a national stir. But when the 14-year-old and his 16-year-old friend, Marco Castro, were suspended recently for refusing to remove the religious beads because they were “gang related,” it thrust Oregon into the headlines and has triggered questions over the evolving role of rosaries in religion, fashion and street gangs. In the latest cultural take of a symbol that's gone from Catholic altars to Britney Spears' bosom, the rosary is blurring the lines of liberty and safety on campus. Some call the rosary-gang connection a stretch. But for educators and public safety officials charged with blocking fluid gang trends, rosaries in the past few years have become one more marker to track suspicious activity.
This brings up an interesting issue for society as a whole. If symbols are negatively used, or if they are adopted by violent and criminal factions, do they immediately become something to be legally banned? The cross, for example, has been used in countless places, including questionable tattoos, biker insignia, not to mention a certain socialist government from the 30's and 40's. Madonna has worn it in sexually provocative scenes, and it has been immersed in urine and called art. Yet the cross still remains a positive and universal symbol for the faith it normally represents.
Banning the rosary in schools because some gangs may use it is simply an unrealistic stretch, at best. Symbols are impossible to control, and one can not begin to predict how they will be used or interpreted. I remember some years back in my last parish where the public school asked that when we held their classes or events at our parochial school we should provide "symbol free environments." How do you interpret such a directive? In the end the personnel from the public school that came to our school did not have an issue with our "symbols" and we never covered them up or removed them. After all, they lived in a community that was full of it, and like most citizens they were free to ignore it, as many do every day they pass a church with a cross on the steeple.
So what are these administrators supposed to do with the rosary if it is true that some gangs have begun to wear them? Nothing. I think the issue is just another example of a society gone to extremes of paranoia.
BTW, the discipline and use of the Rosary has long intrigued me, but I have never figured out how one might adapt it for Lutheran usage. It would seem that it could have potential for the devotional life of Lutherans, but can a Catholic rosary be effectively "reinterpreted" to fit a different theology, or is it simply not doable? One purpose of the Rosary, as I understand it, is to provide focus to prayer. There is a more recent tradition of Anglican Prayer Beads (example to the right), which are based upon the Rosary concept, but assign different prayers, and leave the precise prayers to the discretion of the person. Darel E. Paul has actually worked out an interesting adaptation of the Rosary called the Lutheran Rosary. It's a pdf document that includes a helpful diagram of the traditional Rosary with an evangelical interpretation.