Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Power of the Cross

In my post a couple of days ago I used this picture of a Celtic cross and received several very appreciative comments.  For the record, I bought it at a Michael's arts and crafts store.  It is cast metal.  And ever day, beneath my shirt, I wear this cross.

But I'm an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, right?  Do I really buy into all this Christ-died-for-our-sins-on-a-cross stuff?  No.  But for me, at least, that's not the point.  As I noted yesterday, my favorite definition of what it means to be a Christian is the one Marcus Borg devised, "it means taking seriously what Jesus took seriously."

If that's so, then what's the big deal about the cross? 

In Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth -- chapter 1, verses 23 and 24 -- he wrote, "we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God."  Scholars believe that this letter was written around 55 C.E., or roughly 20-25 years after Jesus was crucified.  According to Marcus Borg and other New Testament scholars, this letter is the third oldest piece of Christian writing in the official canon.  (Only the first letter to the Thessalonians and the letter to the Galatians are thought to be older.)  That would make this assertion that "we preach Christ crucified" to be an extremely early expression of Christian theology.

What makes the message of "Christ crucified" so important?  You might think that the answer is, "Christ resurrected," but that's not necessarily true.  The earliest of the Gospels -- Mark -- doesn't mention resurrection at all and, at least according to scholars like John Dominic Crossan, the Greek word that's used later for the idea of "resurrection" is not the same word that would be used to describe, as Crossan puts it, the resuscitation of a corpse.

Besides, if it's the resurrection that's important then that wasn't unique to Jesus.  After all, in Luke's Gospel we're told that Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, and both Luke and Matthew tell of him bringing back to life a little girl who'd died.  And in Matthew's telling of the crucifixion of Jesus there's this detail -- at the moment of Jesus' death, "the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many."  It seems to me, then, that the resurrection really isn't the most important part of the story.

I think it's the crucifixion itself.  Not because his death "redeemed" humankind from our essential nature as sinners.  I'm too much a Universalist to think that God demanded a blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of humanity -- both corporate and individual.  (And, while we're at it, I don't believe that "sin" is our essential nature, but that might need to be it's own topic for another post.)  I think that the real importance of the crucifixion is the cross itself.

Jesus was not the only person who was crucified, of course.  Shortly before Jesus’ birth, the Roman General Varus quelled a peasant uprising in Palestine by attacking the cities of Galilee and Samaria, selling their inhabitants into slavery and publicly crucifying two thousand of the uprising’s leaders. In her book Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, Paula Frederickson said this about crucifixion:
Crucifixion was a Roman form of public service announcement:  Do not engage in sedition as this person has, or your fate will be similar.  The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching.  Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.

That's what makes the cross such a powerful symbol, and why "preaching Christ crucified" would be thought of as a "stumbling block" and sheer "foolishness."  Getting crucified was not a sign of God's favor.  If anything it would be a sign of God's rejection and abandonment.  There was nothing worse that could be done to you than to hang you on a cross.  (And John Dominic Crossan adds the detail that the bodies of the victims of crucifixion were unceremoniously dumped outside the city wall and left there for wild dogs to scavenge.)

Yet the early Christians were saying something utterly astonishing -- that God was with Jesus on that cross.  That God could make even something as horrific as the cross of crucifixion into a symbol of hope.  And as you can imagine, to embrace the cross as a symbol was an act of bold defiance.  It says, "You may want to terrorize us.  You may want to demoralize and dispirit us.  You may want to crush our will, but we will rise again.  Your instrument of torture holds no fear for us.  Do your worst.  We will survive."

Two more thoughts.  First, to paraphrase Jesus, you have heard it said that Jesus' death was preordained and that he had to be crucified for God's plan to manifest, but I say to you that Jesus most likely did not want to die.  He did not go to Jerusalem so that he could get arrested, tried, and executed.  He did not commit, as one person has said to me, "suicide by cop." 

I believe that Jesus didn't want to die, but was willing to.  That's a distinction I made in my recent sermon "I May Not Get There With You."  Martin Luther King made clear that he did not want to die.  In his last speech he said, "Like anybody I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place."  Yet he also made equally clear that he was not going to let the threat of death stop him from the work of building the Beloved Community.  I cannot but believe that this was true of young Yeshua ben Miriam, as well.

The last thing I want to say about the cross -- for this post at least -- is that I believe the cross has largely lost what power it once held.  When Constantine looked up before a battle and saw a cross in the air, the cross ceased to be a bold declaration of defiance against "the powers that be" -- it became the sign of the powers that be.  It was no longer heretical and counter-cultural.  We need no proof that this transformation is complete than to see how often the cross, today, is used simply as a fashion accessory. 

Having recently read James Cone's groundbreaking book The Cross and the Lynching Tree I can't help but wonder whether a noose might be a better symbol today.  The cross was originally a shocking symbol of God's presence with the lowest of the low, a promise to the oppressed that there oppressor did not wield ultimate power.  The cross was a tool of the oppressor; it became a rallying sign of the opposition.

Especially in the United States, who has been more marginalized than African Americans?  And what tool was used most often, in the words of Paula Frederickson, as "a form of public service announcement?"  The lynching tree.

Christianity is supposed to be challenging, is supposed to be daring, is supposed to be risky, is supposed to engage in the work of overturning the status quo and ushering in a very different kind of kingdom, a radically new kind of commonwealth, a truly transformed nation state, a new world.  It is supposed to be subversive.  Yet Christianity as it is most commonly found today seems to have forgotten all of this.  (And, I would argue, this seems especially true among liberal Christians.)  The work, though, still needs to be done.

Perhaps it would help if we stopped looking at the image of an innocent, poor, and marginalized Jewish man hanging on a cross (when we know the man is really God in disguise and the cross is a fashion statement).  Perhaps, instead, we should look at the image of an innocent, poor, and marginalized African American man hanging from a tree.  In both cases an innocent man was murdered to maintain a system of oppression that desperately needs to be overturned.  In both cases we are promised that death is not the final word.  In one, though, the death is merely a story and, so, the promise is not something to believe.  In the other, though, the horrific reality of the death may serve to shock us awake to the reality of that promise of life.

Pax tecum,


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