In the gospel of Mark, Jesus speaks of the cross and ties it to the meaning of discipleship: "If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34).
Think for a moment what the cross meant for those who were listening to Jesus and for those who were reading Mark's gospel some 30 years later. Ched Myers puts it this way: "The cross in Mark's day was neither religious icon nor metaphor for personal anguish or humility. It had only one meaning: that terrible form of capital punishment reserved by imperial Rome for political dissenters." Myers goes on: "The cross was a common sight in the revolutionary Palestine of Mark's time; in this recruiting call, the disciple is invited to reckon with the consequences facing those who dare to challenge the hegemony of imperial Rome."
With this ominous invitation, the cost of discipleship got much, much bigger. Embracing Jesus means embracing that cross. Mark doesn't say it, but I suspect that after these words, the crowds around Jesus got smaller.
Paul takes up the theme of the cross in his first letter to the church at Corinth: "For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Corinthians 1:18). Taking up the cross and following Jesus not only entails great cost, it is also viewed by the world as an utterly foolish thing to do.
I attended some of the first meetings held at Sojourners out of which the organization Witness for Peace was formed in 1983. Witness' first office was in the same building as Sojourners. Today, Witness for Peace is a grassroots organization of people who work for changes in U.S. policy and corporate practices in order to support peace, justice, and sustainable economies throughout the Americas. But at its birth more than 20 years ago, its singular founding purpose was to literally stand between the guns of the U.S.-supported contras and the Nicaraguan peasants at whom the guns were pointed. Two people from Sojourners were part of the first Witness for Peace team that went to Jalapa, Nicaragua, along the border with Honduras, where the contras were encamped.
Initial U.S. press coverage of Witness was not very positive. To most journalists, what Witness was doing made no sense. After the first team went to Jalapa, I remember a political cartoon that ran in the Los Angeles Times. The cartoon caricatured people standing along the border in front of contra guns, holding a sign that said, "Witness for Peace." The caption read, "Witless for Peace." When I first saw it, I laughed out loud. I loved it. The cartoonist, without knowing it, had hit upon a fundamental truth of the gospel, exactly as 1 Corinthians says: "The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." To stand in the way of bullets like that, to risk getting killed over something not directly affecting you, seems like one of the craziest, most foolish things anyone could do. Witless indeed!
RIGHT-WING TALK SHOW host Rush Limbaugh doesn't get it either. In November 2005, four members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq were abducted. Like Witness for Peace, Christian Peacemaker Teams are committed to reducing violence by "getting in the way." Limbaugh's response to news of the abduction was more crude and cruel than the LA Times cartoonist's response to Witness' presence in Nicaragua. He first called it a publicity stunt, but then said if the kidnapping was real, "I like it. I like any time a bunch of leftist feel-good hand-wringers are shown reality." Unreal, crazy, witless, foolish. Standing up to this system of violence may have made the hostages fools and outcasts to some people in the world, but for those who believe in the power of the gospel of peace, it makes sense. The foolishness of the cross is far more real than Rush Limbaugh's version of reality.
There is something inherently paradoxical about the cross. William Stringfellow, in A Simplicity of Faith, stresses that at the heart of the gospel is a "sense of absurdity—an instinct for paradox—a conviction that truth is never bland but lurks in contradiction." To lose your life is to save it. Unless a grain of wheat dies, it can not bring life. To take up the cross is to embrace the power of God. It doesn't make sense; it's foolish—unless you see it from the eyes of faith, from the converted heart. For believers, it is the very power that transforms lives.
Shortly after describing the foolishness of the cross in verse 18 of 1 Corinthians, Paul goes on to quote from the end of Isaiah 29:14. Verses 13 and 14 in Isaiah are more compelling together, and in their entirety:
The Lord God said: Because these people draw near to me with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote; so I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing. The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning shall be hidden.
When following God becomes reduced to following commandments by rote, be ready for God to shock.
Søren Kierkegaard, the great Danish theologian, addresses this point beautifully. "Christianity," he writes, "has taken a giant stride into the absurd. Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it is altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable neither of inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them. It's when the absurd starts to sound reasonable that we should begin to worry." He goes on to name a few of Christianity's shocking, absurd assertions: "Blessed are the meek; thou shalt not kill; love your enemies; go, sell all you have and give to the poor."
Even embedded in the Ten Commandments is the absurd, the foolish, the paradoxical. The Ten Commandments don't begin with "Here are ten commandments, learn them by rote," or "Here are ten commandments, obey them." Instead, they begin with a sweeping announcement of freedom: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery" (Exodus 20:2). We will probably always think of the declarations that follow as the Ten Commandments. But we could, and probably should, think of them as invitations to God's liberation. Because the Lord is your God, you are free to not need any other gods. You are free from the tyranny of lifeless idols. You are free to rest on the Sabbath. You are free to enjoy your parents as long as they live. You are set free from murder, stealing, and covetousness as ways to establish yourself in the land.
But that's not how we think of the Ten Commandments. When the late Kurt Vonnegut was interviewed on National Public Radio about debate on placing the Ten Commandments in courthouses and the like, he responded by saying: "Why the Ten Commandments? I haven't heard any of these people talk about putting the beatitudes up [on the walls of government buildings]." He continued, "'Blessed are the merciful' in a courtroom? 'Blessed are the peacemakers' in the Pentagon? Give me a break! Not exactly the stuff of Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney."
IF I'M HONEST with myself—perhaps if we are all honest with ourselves—there are ways in which we, each in our own way, resist the foolishness of the cross. The cross, Paul says, seems like foolishness to the part of us that is attached to the world, the part of us that is perishing. The cross is God's foolishness and is wiser than our wisdom. The cross is God's weakness and is stronger than our strength. Yet to the part of us that is inculcated with the assumptions and values of our culture, the cross doesn't make sense. Rarely do we choose to be foolish or weak.
Will Willimon has asked some good questions about this foolishness of the cross. What kind of sense does it make to worship a God who, instead of rescuing us out of trouble, rescues us by entering into the trouble with us? A God who, instead of helping us to avoid pain, heals us from our pain by entering the depths of our pain with us? A God who, instead of fixing things for us, addresses them by becoming weak with us in our weakness?
But this is the foolishness of the cross. All of us know pain and grief and disappointment in our lives. Our human wisdom wants a God who will heal us and make us feel better. The foolishness of the cross is a God who enters into our pain and bears our pain with us. To the part of us that is human and perishing, this is incomprehensible and we want something more. But to the part of us that is being saved, it is the very power of God.
And even more foolishly, this very same God expects us to do the same with each other: to enter into each other's pain, to bear each other's burdens and those of the world around us. To the world, that is an utterly foolish way to live, but to those who embrace the cross, who take up their cross and follow Jesus, and who are ready to lose their lives to save their lives, it is the only way to live. It is the power of God within us.
Each of us bears the responsibility, daily, of taking the cross more and more upon our selves, losing ourselves and finding ourselves in the process.
If we want to take Jesus seriously, if we want to go deeper in our discipleship, we must follow in the way of God's foolishness. That's where God calls us to be.
As Frederick Buechner writes: "In terms of human wisdom, Jesus was a perfect fool. And if you think you can follow him without making something like the same kind of fool of yourself, you are laboring not under the cross, but a delusion."
Joe Roos was head of the religious education department at Kodaikanal International School in India when this article appeared. This article was adapted from sermons delivered at Hyattsville (Md.) Mennonite Church.