What does the cross mean to you (if it means anything)? I’ve heard this question asked a few times recently, and have been surprised at some of the answers. For some, you see, the cross is a disturbing symbol of the violence of the ancient Romans, who tortured people to death on these things; in other words, it’s an instrument of execution. We might as well have a lethal injection table set up at the front of our churches, if we want to update the symbol! So why would we, especially since we’re a peace church, for crying out loud, want to have crosses in our places of worship? Some people even wear them around their necks. Isn’t it morbid and kind of bizarre?
I suspect that this view comes from the ways that the cross has been misused in the Christian tradition. In the most popular atonement theory (theory of what the cross is all about), Jesus is understood as the sacrificial victim who dies in the place of sinful humanity, to satisfy divine justice. In this line of thought, God (the Father) is understood to require or even cause the death of the Son. Some interpretations even speak of God’s joy at Christ’s death on the cross. This theory, as theologian Dorothee Soelle argues, is in fact sadistic, since it makes God the ultimate “torturer” and “executioner,” the one who enjoys inflicting pain on others, even God’s own Son (see her book
Suffering). And if even God is this violent and uncaring, people are likely to start thinking that dominating power and violence are the way to go – which is why the cross and the sword were seen as interchangeable throughout most of Christian history, especially during Christendom, the time when (supposed) Christians ruled Europe (in a style suspiciously similar to that of the Roman empire…).
The flip side of this idolizing of domination is of course that those in power use it to keep everyone else in check. Jesus is described as passive and submissive, and an emphasis on his suffering is used to teach those who lack power that God wants them to be in such a position, that all types of suffering bring a person closer to God, since all suffering comes from God. This is a pretty handy way of explaining the faith to, say, the Aboriginal peoples that Europeans conquered, or women in situations of abuse, or those who are disadvantaged economically. In other words, it’s used to foster a sense that masochism is equivalent to faithfulness – at least for those who are supposed to stay in their (subordinate) places. This is one possible interpretation of Catholic crucifixes (crosses with Christ hanging upon them) which stress the blood and gore of Christ’s death; some crucifixes, complete with painted-on blood, are images of glorified suffering.
But even though the cross can be misused in these ways, that’s no reason to throw it out. I agree that the cross is disturbing, but I also think that in a sense, it should be disturbing! If we don’t recognize the tragedy and awfulness of the torture and suffering and death of Jesus on the cross, then chances are, we’re unaware of the ongoing suffering and tragic deaths of other people in the world today. The cross (or even the crucifix), you see, can be a reminder that Christians are called to face injustice and suffering, and work together against it – a difficult task that often involves the risk of our suffering as well. Jesus wasn’t crucified for being submissive – people don’t get crucified for doing what those in power tell them to do – but for being defiant, for resisting submission and teaching a different, peaceful way of life. The cross, then, is a key symbol of the dangerous and difficult peacemaking we’re called to. It’s a way of reminding us that though we don’t believe in killing other people for our beliefs, we do have a history of giving our lives (in terms of working or even dying) for what we believe.
It’s interesting, though, that we don’t have crucifixes in Mennonite churches, with Jesus still suffering upon them, but empty crosses (like the one above, found here), which symbolize the resurrection. So, the cross represents the way God chooses to be God – by becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ and walking with us, even through the terrifying experience of a violent death. As Soelle states, God is not the one who requires or causes the cross or other types of suffering. Instead, God is the one who is crucified, the one “hanging on the cross.” But there is a promised end to this suffering, and ours as well. Because God has shared human pain and death, they have been overcome and are in the process of being overcome, so that sin and death and violence don’t have power over us anymore. These “powers” don’t have the last word anymore. As John Howard Yoder states in his infamous book The Politics of Jesus, “No powers can separate us from God’s love in Christ. Unmasked, revealed in their true nature, they have lost their mighty grip on us. The cross has disarmed them: wherever it is preached, the unmasking and disarming of the Powers takes place.” That’s what the cross is capable of representing: God’s incarnation, life, death, and overcoming of violence and death through resurrection. It’s a complicated symbol with layers of meaning: it’s disturbing and tragic, it challenges us to share one another’s pain and work to overcome it, and it reminds us of the difficulty of living out our peace-oriented faith – as well as the profound hope and promise it brings.
So I think that maybe we should keep the crosses at the front of our churches. What do you think?