Just as the cross has inspired millions of Christians to stand up for life, to fight for freedom and to come alongside victims of oppression, there have also been times when the cross has been twisted. And a twisted cross becomes a swastika.
A symbol of love can become a weapon. The icon of redemption can become an instrument of terror.
Pope Francis embraced survivors of 9/11 in the footprints of the Twin Towers, then prayed for peace at an interfaith service beside the last column of steel salvaged from the fallen skyscrapers.
Arriving straight from his speech to the United Nations on Sept. 25, Francis met with 10 families from the 9/11 community — people who survived the destruction, rescued others from the inferno, or lost loved ones in the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history, executed by religious zealots.
Have we made God into a monster? And as a result, have we taken the holiest of weeks in the Christian year and dressed it up as a celebration of bloody, violent sacrifice?
If so, I'm afraid we've gotten Easter all wrong.
I lead a small group discussion every Sunday morning at First Christian Church, Portland, where my wife, Amy, is the senior pastor. It's one of my favorite hours of the week, partly because of the common bonds of trust we're building that transcend our many differences. But it's also become a very safe place to ask hard, disturbing questions and to express ideas that, in many other contexts, might be shouted down or even excluded entirely from the conversation.
This week, we were discussing whether one could identify as Christian, in that they follow the example and teaching of Jesus, while also claiming no belief in any sort of metaphysical divinity (i.e., God). One member of the group, Heath, raised something very thought-provoking, particularly given the context of Holy Week and what it means to so many.
“If we are to believe that God sent Jesus to die for our sins,” said Heath, “it's easy to understand why so many would want to distance themselves from such a monstrous God.”
That led to a lively discussion about what Easter — and more specifically, Good Friday (when Jesus died by crucifixion) — meant to each of us, and how that understanding informed our understanding of the nature of God.
If God sent his only son first and foremost to die for our sins, then the climax of the Gospel narrative at Easter is the defining point at which we are left with what Heath called “Fifty Shades of God.”
Here we are left with what I call the conundrum of substitutionary atonement, which is the belief that Jesus took our place on the cross — deserved by us, not him — in order to satisfy the price someone had to pay for our sins. And although many who call themselves Christians claim this belief, it raises some hard questions we tend to overlook when embracing such a claim.
To the dying church,
Sometimes you have to get worse before you get better. You are dying because you’ve been applying band aids for a far deeper problem. You are consistently doling out superficial remedies for surface wounds when the source of pain lays untreated.
Church, you have confused biblical hope for optimism. When hurting people walk through your doors, you play the positive thinking guru and dispense quick fixes with inspirational quotes. You provide cheap grace and empty promises that are driving people out your doors.
You have mistaken confidence with certitude. When people come with authentic questions, you forsake healthy dialogue in exchange for a veneer of harmony. You post your doctrinal statements at your gates and demand unsure people to come in or stay out. The resulting homogenous bubbles you’ve created are sure to burst.
I used to hate Good Friday. Jesus dying a gruesome and unjust death didn’t seem particularly “good” to me. Even now, when I watch a Jesus movie like The Greatest Story Ever Told (or let’s be real: Jesus Christ Superstar), I find myself secretly hoping that someone in the crowd will say “wait a second! Just four days ago we really liked this guy. Crucifixion is a terrible idea, let’s go have Passover.” Mic drop.
The idealist and optimist in me would prefer to be reminded that the cross was empty, that Jesus was alive, to focus less on Good Friday and more on Easter Sunday. But I have come to appreciate the image of Christ on the cross much more now that I’m an adult and there are things that I have said and done in my life that deserve a reckoning. Jesus is there, gladly bearing my sin on the cross.
I’ve come to appreciate that there are so many broken and twisted places in this world that need a Redeemer. And Jesus is there, undoing the power of sin and evil on the cross.
The Cross is an inexhaustible mystery, but among the many things it does so well is make visible the love of God.
In Jesus Christ, God is not an abstraction, concept, or idea. The Unknowable is made known. The Invisible is made material. All mysticism is now grounded, and all agnosticism now countered, in this particular Person; there is now, paradoxically, a Measure within Measurelessness.
"For in Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body." (Col. 2:9) "For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ." (Col. 1:19)
Conversely, whatever is not revealed in Jesus is not the Triune God.
Contemporary Christians (of all sorts of persuasions) tend to de-couple God from Jesus.
Abram left his homeland on a promise and a prayer. God called. Abram went. The Biblical text makes it seem so simple. There are no signs of struggle or doubt. There is no grief over what is left behind, only the forward look toward a new land and a new future. Leaving home for Abram seems so easy.
As I reflect on this week’s scripture, I’m in Lebanon listening to stories of Syrian refugees who left their countryand their kindred to find a place of refuge. Unlike Abram, they did not leave on the promise that they would become a great nation. They left because bombs fell on their houses. They left because food became scarce. They left because they watched their loved ones die in the rubble as buildings fell to the ground.
As we enter into this season of Lent, it is fitting for us to pause and listen to their stories. Remembering Christ’s suffering is more than an exercise in gratitude. It is a chance for us to stand in solidarity with those around the world who suffer each day. It is a challenge for us to take our own suffering (be it large or small) and connect it to the suffering of others and to the suffering of Christ on the cross.
Atheists are challenging plans to include a 17-foot, cross-shaped beam that became a famous symbol of Ground Zero after 9/11 in a display at the national memorial museum that is scheduled to open this spring.
Last year, a lower court rejected a lawsuit filed in 2011 by the New Jersey-based American Atheists that said the cross was an unconstitutional establishment of religion.
In his appeal, Kagin said his organization is seeking a similar object to be displayed at the museum, something like a plaque that would say “atheists died here, too.”
The Christian cross has become little more than a piece of jewelry worn around the necks of celebrities, said Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.
In the foreword to a new book about Christianity, the head of the world’s 85 million Anglicans presents the symbol of Roman torture upon which Jesus died as “the moment of deepest encounter with radical change.”
And he regrets that after 2000 years, the cross has become trivialized.
There’s controversy at the mound at Busch Stadium, and it has nothing to do with who’s pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Last month fans started seeing a cross etched into the pitcher’s mound at the stadium. Since then, the club has asked that the etchings stop.
“It is not club policy to put religious symbols of any type on the field or in the ballpark. When we became aware of this practice, we asked that it stop so that it would not be confused as an official expression of the club,” the Cardinals organization said in a statement.
Hester Prynne would be so proud.
The red letter “A” that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s heroine was forced to wear as a badge of shame in the classic novel The Scarlet Letter is now proudly chosen by atheists to wear on jewelry made from ceramic, silver, gold, and wood.
Christians have their crosses and crucifixes, Jews their Stars of David, Hindus their oms, and Buddhists their lotuses. Atheists ask, why shouldn’t they and other nonbelievers have their own symbols as well?
“It is the most recognized symbol in our community right now,” said Amy Roth, a Los Angeles atheist who makes ceramic "A" pendants for her “Surlyramics” jewelry line that she sells at atheist conventions and meetings, as well as online.
Biting and unbelieving comedian Bill Hicks challenged Christians about wearing crosses around our necks. He chided us that when Jesus comes back, the last thing he would want to see is another cross. Not unlike Hicks, liberal theologians get squeamish about the saving power of the cross and distance themselves from it with critiques that attack academic euphemisms like blood atonement.
My friend, colleague, and our “religion and culture” book-discussion leader assigned our Sunday school class homework this week: Consider and contemplate our understanding of and relationship with the cross. And do this in the context of a compelling and challenging chapter called “The Cross as Futility, Not Forgiveness” in an excellent and provocative book we’re reading by Robin Meyers called Saving Jesus From The Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus. This post serves as part of my response to that homework.
Crosses as powerful symbols predate Christianity and are not the singular insignia of our faith. Some Christians prefer the fish to the cross as an identity marker for Jesus followers. I confess I simultaneously love the empty cross and accept brutality of the bloody crucifix. As contradictory and ubiquitous its grip on our consciousness, we cling to it in comfort. As theologically problematic as we might render its salvific power, we sing of “the rugged cross” and need “nothing but the blood.”
From my enormous sympathies for Meyer’s intentions and investigations, I’m ultimately left lingering with discontent at his conclusions. I easily devoured Saving Jesus, and alongside my mixed reactions to the text, our class discussions have helped me to wrestle with not just my responses to the book in particular but to clarify my faith and theology more generally.
Repentance has a public aspect and a private aspect. Jesus speaks very clearly about doing one’s repentance in secret -- not chattering on in public about how hungry your pious fasting has left you. At the same time, the church also has a ministry to call -- publicly -- for repentance, to sometimes play the role of John the Baptist. Calls for repentance happen every week, every day, inside religious buildings, inside religious communities. Sometimes calls for repentance need to happen out on the street corners, too.
Still, this is a strange thing to do, this liturgy outside a hospital. It does not feel entirely comfortable to me -- but I am not sure anything about Ash Wednesday ever feels entirely comfortable.