Complex symbols often carry more than one meaning and are frequently understood in a variety of ways even by those who utilize them within a common belief system. It is dangerous to attempt to interpret a symbol from outside the system in which it has meaning.

The late 2nd century C.E. document called “The Octavius of Minicius Felix” describes a debate between a Christian and a “pagan” at the Roman port of Ostia. In the course of this debate the “pagan” Caecilius reports to Octavius a common charge brought against Christians saying,

You Christians are the worst breed ever to affect the world. You deserve every punishment you can get! Nobody likes you. It would be better if you and your Jesus had never been born. We hear that you are all cannibals–you eat the flesh of your children in your sacred meetings.

The cannibalism charge emerged from a complete misunderstanding of the words of of the Christian celebration of the eucharist.

Octavius the Christian replied to the charge of cannibalism saying,

That story is probably based on reports that we share together a meal of the body and blood of Christ. That we do. But it is not human flesh we eat. It is bread and wine we consecrate to commemorate our Lord’s death.

In the early years many observers out of ignorance, fear, malice, or just a failure of understanding, grievously misinterpreted the meaning of Christian symbols.

The assumption that the dominant culture has the capacity and the right to designate the significance of particular religious practices and symbols has led to grievous harm in the past.

It is hard to imagine many Canadians today agreeing with the 1880 Section 3 of “An Act Further to Amend The Indian Act” which dictated that

Every Indian or other person who engages in or assists in celebrating the Indian festival known as the “Potlach” or in the Indian dance known as the “Tamanawas” is guilty of a misdemeanor, and shall be liable to imprisonment … and any Indian or other person who encourages … an Indian or Indians to get up such a festival or dance, or to celebrate the same, … is guilty of a like offence …

Those who feel qualified to interpret the symbols of another belief system need to be deeply honest about any self-serving agenda or prejudice that might lie behind their chosen interpretation.

Starting in the 12th century in Norwich, England up into the 20th century Jews have been routinely accused of “blood libel”, the practice of murdering Christians, especially children, to use their blood for ritual purposes, particularly in the baking of matzo bread.

This egregious lie was motivated by prejudice, fear and xenophobia. None the less, the “truth” of blood libel was held strongly by many non-Jewish people. The need for protection against the threat of Jewish blood libel is one of the factors that has enabled the horrendous violence against Jewish people that has been characteristic of much of Jewish history.

The frightening thing about these examples is that, in every case, the perpetrators were not evil people. They were ordinary people who genuinely believed the practices they were attacking were dangerous and wrong. The “pagans” who believed Christians were cannibals were outraged at people who had at the heart of their symbol-life, the instruction to “eat my body and drink my blood.” The settler people’s who occupied North America were convinced that the practices of the indigenous people they found in the land were damaging and barbaric. The purveyors of the blood libel myth were genuinely frightened by the threat they perceived from Jews.

Fear seldom makes for clarity of thought or charity of action.

Symbol systems are complex and sensitive. When you add the barrier of different language and vastly varied cultural backgrounds, the complexity of understanding symbols from the outside is daunting. No one from the outside has the right to dictate what a particular symbol may or may not mean for those who find in that symbol a meaningful expression of faith. If we are going to avoid doing harm, we must approach the symbols of faiths that are not our own, with deep humility and with a gentle listening heart.