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When is it no longer personal?

Nov. 30, 2005

At the risk of sounding paranoid, I am beginning to wonder when symbols of personal faith are really personal and when they become a kind of gang symbol.

There is no clear dividing line. Gang "colors" are the markings or patterns worn by people who belong to undesirable groups -- specific markings on motorcycle jackets, bandannas, scarves and so on. Insignia are the markings or patterns that people who belong to desirable groups wear -- specific markings on football jackets, bandannas, scarves and so on. They could be made in the same factory or worn by the same person on different occasions. In our school system, we ban headgear in general in the school, but specifically headbands or bandannas, because they are often gang related. On the other hand, we don't ban personal symbols of faith -- crosses, stars of David, or even Neopagan pentagrams. What is the difference?

Well, remember, a crest worn by someone we like is an insignia while one worn by someone we don' like is a gang mark. There are legitimate reasons for this, of course. Some groups are clearly undesirable because they promote violence or drug abuse or some other anti-social behavior. Allowing them to intimidate people with their symbols or just use them to identify each other is not in society' best interest. Usually the distinction is quite clear. We don't even think about seeing a police officer in that "gang's" uniform wearing a gun while we would run for cover, dialing 911 on our cell phones, if we saw a member of an undesirable gang with a gun. We turn a blind eye to many marks and symbols. Thus, the normal religious symbols are seen as an expression of personal faith and, therefore, are acceptable.

In our school, it is common to see students of both genders wearing crosses on chains. I have always felt there was no reason to comment on these since they are expressions of personal faith. Mind you, there have been occasions when I paused for thought after seeing a faculty member wearing a cross. Professional guidelines say that we teachers are not supposed to make political or religious statements in school. Obviously, the response would be that it is an expression of personal faith and therefore O.K. If I wore a happy human pendant, would I get the same reaction? First of all, few people would recognize its significance so it would likely get the same reaction as from the one on the back of my car -- none. Were I challenged about it, a dilemma would arise for me because even I don't consider it a symbol of my beliefs or philosophy in the religious sense. For me it is just an identifying logo. I wouldn't feel entirely comfortable with the "expression of personal faith" defense.

However, of late, the crosses worn by some students have been becoming larger and male students often wear them hanging outside their sweaters or shirts. Given that there have been incidents in our school of Christian students challenging students of other faiths and as well as non-believers about their personal philosophies, I wonder if there is a connection. When does a simple expression of personal faith become a symbol of intense loyalty to a group and when does the group become a gang?

I have raised the question tentatively among my colleagues and there was as groundswell of disinterest although a few declared that they hadn't noticed. The only utterance approaching an opinion was that the question was stepping into dangerous territory. However, the question remains and I think it is a serious one. If those symbols of personal faith are morphing into statements of belonging to a dominant and sometimes aggressive group -- a gang -- then we are seeing a troublesome problem.

So much depends on the attitude of the person wearing the symbol. A football jacket worn by a bully has an entirely different effect on people than one worn by the athlete of the year as he receives a community volunteer award.

To some extent the size of the insignia is significant. A small cross is a visual, "if you notice and you know what it means, you know I'm a Christian." A large cross might be a visual, "Hey! I'm Christian, see, and if you aren't then...!" I am tempted to say that the very large crosses worn by priests during services are benign, but there is that history of the Christian church, and its oppressive activities to think about.

The design is also a clue, I think. Some of them are serious pieces of jewelry and if they are real silver, a temptation to grab-and-run thieves. Are they just flaunting their affluence? Recently I have seen some that have obviously been made by the student. Usually crudely cut from soft steel, polished and clear coated in some way, these tend to make me feel that the person is just a tad aggressive when it comes to matters of faith. Is the rough nature of these things an indicator of the skill level of the manufacturer or is it a rough statement of the person's attitude? Not all the people who wear these things exhibit the charitable behavior that Christianity tries to claim as its own.

I also have never seen a star of David in our school. There are very few Jews in our community and I know that the few in the local high school keep a very low profile. Some even bring notes attesting to their illness the day after taking their holy days off. As it happens, my daughter is Jewish and she has told me that she is glad she went to the performing arts program in a nearby city school rather than to the local high school because of the attitude of the students here. If I saw any stars of David, I'd feel a little better about the whole thing. On some spirit days, students are invited to wear the colors of their favorite sports team and good-natured bantering between Leafs and Canadiens fans (and, yes a few other teams) are the order of the day. I wonder if the same thing would happen if a student wore a star of David the size of some of the crosses I have seen.

There are some neopagan students who wear their pentagram, but it escapes notice, hidden in the irony that those ignorant enough to be bigoted about it are also ignorant of what it means. None of the neopagan pentagrams are large, by the way, so they won't work as my test case.

While I have been approached to sponsor a student non-Christian club, the enthusiasm of those students hasn't actually extended to a meeting yet. They are either not as concerned as I initially thought, have too many things to do, or are too intimidated to rock the boat beyond wearing their symbols of personal belief hidden in their clothing. Presumably they are ignoring the blatant Christian symbols in the hallways. This makes me wonder if I am overreacting.

The situation has become a classic Agnostic problem, then. I have the question, but I don't have the evidence to form or even propose an answer. So, when does a symbol of personal faith become a gang insignia?

Doug Thomas is an English teacher and novelist who lives in Elmira, Ontario, Canada. He is an agnostic member of the Kitchener-Waterloo, Cambridge, Guelph Humanists Association (KWCGH) and of the Humanist Association of Canada (HAC). He is the author of The Bloody Boy. Doug sometimes describes himself as a "Canadian Nationalist Fanatic"; the only qualification for this title is knowing all the words to the Canadian National anthem in both official languages. His column on humanism in Canada appears weekly at

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