I remember visiting my hometown, New York City, many years ago and noticing the ubiquity of graffiti that marred buildings, signs and even subway cars. I think this kind of illicit and usually provocative graphic art was symptomatic of something deeper in our contemporary society.
When the graffiti fad had finally run its wide course that inner need to be noticed or acknowledged in the broader context of the human condition moved to a place much more personal—the human body. Tattoos or tats for short can hardly be called a fad. Their use is far more universal more prevalent than the graffiti of the 1980s and 90s. One cannot walk 10 feet in any large community and not be visually assaulted by designs, elaborate pictures and aphorisms, decorating visible parts of the human body. In its own way each makes a personal statement its wearer.
Occasionally a large Christian cross will adorn a person’s extremities. It is difficult to fathom if these crosses bear any significance for its human canvas. Hollywood took a highly critical road in the 1991 film, Cape Fear. Robert DiNiro played a psychotic stalker whose brawny back and chest was festooned with elaborate apocalyptic verses, dominated by a large cross on his back.
For those who do not want to make such a permanent statement on their bodies, clothing or perhaps costuming to be more accurate, serve as a much less permanent billboard. The coffee shops, fast-food restaurants and grocery stores are inhabited daily with a million sociological examples of people drawing attention to themselves through their garments. I have seen countless women drinking a Latte while dressed in tennis outfits, running shorts and the ever-present leggings or tights.
The older tradition of wearing tee shirts or sweatshirt to advertise one’s support of the hometown sports franchises or on occasion rival teams is more ever-present than ever before. These personal billboards also can advertise a person’s profession, a favorite charity or the most recent marathon they had run.
The same holds true for college and university affiliations. Others proudly wear double-meaning ads from such companies as Nike, which exhorts young men and women to Just Do It or Coco-Cola’s upbeat, Have a Coke and a Smile. They can be ironically humorous, such as one I saw that read: I can’t wait to procrastinate. During every political season, our clothing and even bumper stickers designate our advocacy for candidates, issues and life styles.
I have seen pregnant women with tees that have an arrow pointing downward toward their baby bump. I have several tees from our extensive travels. I especially favor the three I bought at Gettysburg, in anticipation of the 1863 battle’s sesquicentennial anniversary. I also have another tee from the San Francisco wharf that adverted tasty salty pig parts. The eatery was called Boccalone, which means Big Mouth. Though it flows against the tide of political correctness, all these shout Hey look at me!
All of these forms of personal public expression have one thing in common. They aim to present a particular identity or self-image to the public. In other words, what we wear is how we want the public to see us. It is a form of proud self-revelation.
We have all seen women wear plain crosses around their necks but for too many it is a fashion, not a religious statement. Like the empty Cathedrals in Europe, the plain Cross has lost much of its religious significance. Now a visible crucifix with a dying Jesus in view, is something completely different.
It was not too long ago when clerical men and women wore uniform attire that said to people: I have dedicated my life to God. Come follow me. Except on religious feast days and within the walls of a church or a convent these sartorial symbols seem to have vanished as our culture has become much more intolerant of overt religious expression.
During our last episode of March Madness, I got passionately involved in the NCAA Basketball Tournament that highlights the college basketball season. Everywhere I went I proudly wore my Holy Cross College regalia as the school’s team made its improbable run for its 13th invitation to the Big Dance.
It was an exciting two weeks and while my school could have been the religiously indifferent Boston College, Villanova or Georgetown, the very fact that the Holy Cross represents the most important religious artifact in Christendom was part of my motivation. Even after all these years, there still is a lot of the Crusader left in me.
When I wear the sweatshirt, hat or jacket that says Holy Cross, I want people to see and hear my witness for the faith. I want them to see the words Holy and Cross and just maybe for a second think about what they mean. I want the Holy Cross, not the Budweiser nor the Nike to serve as my public identity.
In a very small way, maybe opportunities like these may be an easy way to evangelize to a world that seems to be deafening to the words of Jesus Christ and his Church.
This last thought reminded me of the atrocities inflicted on many of the native Christians during the Korean War. After the teachers and priest had been summarily shot, the soldiers forced bamboo shoots into the children’s ears so that they could never hear the word of God again. Isn’t that what we do figuratively when we stick, not bamboo into our ears, but Ear Buds that drown out the world of reality and with it, religious faith? Maybe the next time you venture out, wear a Saint Mother Teresa sweatshirt someone and maybe someone will turn and ask you about her?
WILLIAM A. BORST has taught at virtually all levels of education from elementary school through university, published commentaries in many local and national publications, and hosted a weekly talk show on WGNU radio for 22 years. Having recently served as editor of the Mindszenty Report, Dr. Borst is the author of two prominent books: Liberalism: Fatal Consequences (1999) and The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy (2005). He holds a PhD in American History from St. Louis University.