What Does the Cross Mean for Us?
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
25 February 2007
Let’s begin with what the cross is not.
First, it is not your personal burden. Often you hear people mention that something is their cross to bear and that something is maybe an illness, a bad relationship, a difficulty at work, or some other sort of personal burden. Like Aunt Myrtle’s rheumatism.
But the cross as presented in the New Testament is not that. I fully understand how for Aunt Myrtle viewing her rheumatism as her cross can be a helpful metaphor. Or for any number of people, viewing their personal burden as their cross to bear can give them comfort and courage. So, as a pastor I don’t want to rob Aunt Myrtle or anyone else of an image that might help them to cope with the difficulties of life. However, I want you to understand that if you do use the cross in such a way that you are extrapolating from the New Testament, that you are some remove, some distance away from what the New Testament means by the cross.
Secondly, carrying one’s cross does not mean suffering silently at the hands of an abuser or oppressor. That misinterpretation has long been used to keep women, minorities, and the poor from claiming their rights and privileges. In fact, as you will see, the cross is the direct opposite of this idea.
In this Lenten season as we examine ourselves and prepare for the Resurrection, we are going to be asking ourselves some key, important questions about our Christian faith. And there may be no more important question than this one, “What does the cross mean for us?” I believe how one answers this question affects almost everything else about one’s life – the rest of one’s theology, one’s politics, and even one’s relationships with other people.
Tonight I’m going to answer this question by developing a series of seven truths.
1) Violence is always evil.
No matter what form it takes. No matter the reason or the explanation or the supposed justification, violence is always evil.
One might argue that some violence is less evil than other violence, but even then, violence is still always an evil -- a sin -- requiring confession, forgiveness, penance, and reconciliation.
Violence ruptures the fabric of creation. It takes what God pronounced to be very good and rips it apart.
The great French philosopher Simone Weil wrote about malheur or affliction – that suffering that is so intense and so deep that it defies reason and purpose. It has no explanation but just is. In this category we would include such things as rape, torture, the sexual abuse of a child, and the bombing of civilian populations. This leads us to truth number two.
2) Affliction defies rationalization.
This form of intense suffering merits no explanation, no justification, has no purpose. There is no sufficient reason for affliction to occur. It is a surd fact of the universe, arising from the finitude of the created order. It is evidence of the fallenness of creation.
The Holocaust did not occur as part of some cosmic plan. A child is not abused in order for a greater good to be achieved. A human being is not tortured so that humanity can improve through redemptive suffering. The attempt to use such explanations and justifications in the face of affliction is itself an evil that perpetuates the suffering and continues to rip open the fabric of creation and defy the goodness of God. This brings us to truth number three.
3) The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is a case of affliction, thus an evil that defies rationalization.
The one good thing I can say about Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is that it should make my truth number three abundantly clear. Crucifixion is among the cruelest, most inhumane, most evil practices that human beings have ever inflicted upon each other.
The crucifixion of Christ is a scandal, a stumbling-block, a tragedy, an evil. As such it is not part of some great cosmic plan. It was not done to achieve a greater good. Its purpose is not redemptive suffering.
To make these arguments one would have to believe that God is a cosmic child abuser. One would have to believe that violence is a necessary part of the created order. One would have to believe that salvation only comes through violence. One would have to believe that violence is not always evil.
And because fundamentalism makes precisely these arguments, fundamentalism is an inherently violent doctrine. Since fundamentalists, whether Christian or Muslim, believe that the created order can only be saved through a bloodbath of affliction, then they feel free to perpetuate great evil on humanity. Fundamentalism justifies war, excuses torture, overlooks abuse, tells women to submit, and oppresses anyone who is different from them.
But it isn’t just fundamentalism, many forms of Christianity, including many liberals tolerate violence, especially in the form of war, because at root their theology is one of violence. If a person believes that salvation requires a bloodbath of affliction, then they can learn to excuse almost anything. This mistaken theology of the cross is Christianity’s original sin and lies at the root of the evils we have perpetrated including crusades, inquisitions, witch burnings, slavery, colonialism, patriarchy, homophobia, and nuclear annihilation. Whenever the Christian church participates in, justifies, or excuses violence, it is acting as anti-Christ not as Christ.
As we look at the world around us, then, we see violence, suffering, sin, and evil everywhere. Not just that perpetrated by human hands, but even affliction in the form of tsunamis and hurricanes. In many ways religion exists as a way to cope with the evil and suffering of this world. Humans seek explanation and salvation.
Around twelve thousand years ago when the Indo-European people were still living in the steppes of the Caucasus, their tribal religion began to develop a higher level of sophistication, particularly under the influence of a man named Zoroaster or Zarathustra. The religion that he developed continues to exist and is the oldest of the great religions. It also had profound influence on most of the other great religions of the world. This influence is largely due to migration as the Indo-European people moved out of the Caucasus and spread from Europe, through the Near East, northern Africa, and on into India. Zoroastrianism influenced everything from Greek religion and philosophy to Hinduism and had a profound impact on the religion of the Jews.
Zoroaster taught that good and evil are two cosmic forces in battle. There were two deities, one good and one evil, who personified this battle. This view is known as dualism and has been highly influential in human history.
And for good reason, I think. It is a rational position based upon the best empirical evidence. Good and evil both seem to be eternal, powerful forces engaged in battle.
The Essenes of first century Judaism were somewhat captured by this idea. They viewed history as a cosmic battle between good and evil, thus they withdrew into the desert to prepare for the great battle that would come when the Messiah appeared to claim his kingdom.
And there were the Manicheans of the fifth century. They practiced a form of Christian dualism. They viewed the God of the Old Testament as the evil god and the God of the New Testament as the good god. St. Augustine was a Manichean for a time. In fact, many scholars feel that St. Augustine never completely got over the dualism of his Manichean period and that this view persisted into his Christian theology. Since Augustine was the most influential Christian thinker other than St. Paul, we have, for fifteen centuries lived with the mistakes of Augustine.
Christianity has declared dualism to be a heresy. Despite that fact, it permeates our contemporary consciousness. We see it in the Star Wars films where the Dark Side competes on something of an equal footing with the Jedi view of the Force. We see it in the language of Muslim and American fundamentalists engaged in the death struggle that is called the “war on terror.” It is a part of our pop-theology.
As I said, dualism is completely rational and based on overwhelming empirical evidence. But it is a betrayal of the Christian vision. What is that vision? That brings us to truth number four.
4) Christians believe that goodness, truth, beauty, love, and peace, as embodied in the Triune God are sovereign.
Grave, where is thy victory? Death, where is thy sting?
We believe in a comedy, not a tragedy. Our story is one of joy and celebration.
The Judeo-Christian view is that evil is not an eternal, powerful force at battle with good. Only God, who is good and loving is sovereign. Evil is real, it does exist, it must be overcome, but it has no ultimate power. Evil is the result of a fallen creation. Fallenness is not intrinsic to creation.
The Christian view is actually the irrational one, the one not based upon empirical evidence. The Christian view is based upon faith. It is our belief, despite all appearance to the contrary, that evil, that violence are not sovereign. To believe this way requires hopeful, courageous faith.
This belief is rooted in our view of God as sovereign creator of the universe, as risen firstborn of a new creation, and as Holy Spirit that is poured out upon all flesh. A God who is essentially self-giving, communal love.
We in the GLBT community are pretty good at enjoying and celebrating life despite the crap we have to deal with. For example, Paul Thompson, who has participated with Pride for twenty years loves to tell the story of that first year when the Ku Klux Klan announced that they were going to come beat up the queers. Paul said that the few hundred people who walked that first year, reached the crown of 39th street and were looking down upon the strip below them. And there, on the corner, were twenty members of the Klan. Paul said that those twenty saw the few hundred and got back in their cars and drove away. As Paul tells this story he laughs and laughs because he doesn’t think the Klan thought there were more than twenty gays in all of Oklahoma, but they got a lesson that day. And they’ve never come back and the party has gotten bigger and better for twenty years.
This brings me to truth number 5.
5) It is God’s will for the creation to be like God.
Just as the Triune God is a communion of self-giving love, this is God’s will for creation. All creation is to live in loving, peaceful communion. This is the way of God preached by the prophets. It is the reign of God proclaimed and modeled by Jesus.
Over the last two months I have preached about this way of God as proclaimed and modeled by Jesus. It is a radically transformed social order with political and economic implications.
One aspect of the way of God is that it declares that we are all sinners – that we have all participated in the evil and violence of this world. This is a freeing concept, because it means that no one of us is greater than the other and that we all stand in need of the grace of God. It says that there is nothing that we alone can do to save ourselves or our world, but that it must be done as part of God’s re-creative process. And that is embodied in the life of Jesus.
Now for truth number six.
6) Because Jesus preached the way of God, he generated opposition that led to his death.
From early in his ministry Jesus encountered opposition that was religious and political. The authorities viewed Jesus as a social revolutionary, a threat to the order and stability of the Empire and killed him in the way that they killed such social revolutionaries. He was a disturber of their false peace.
This is the simple truth of the crucifixion -- it was the result of a life lived according to the way of God. As the way of God confronts a violent world, that violent world will often crucify the messenger of God.
You see, when Jesus called for his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him, he was predicting that if their movement continued, they would be killed by the authorities. He was clearly hoping that this wouldn’t happen, as his struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane reveals. But he also was a realist and new that if he kept on the way he was, then he would be executed as a disturber of the peace. What he was telling the disciples was that if they were going to follow him, then they needed to understand that they were probably going to be executed as well. I believe that if the Twelve had really understood Jesus, then they would have all thirteen of them been crucified on Golgotha that day. As it was, they did eventually understand and every one of them but St. John was martyred, and he was tortured and imprisoned, so he’s no exception either.
Though the powers brutally tortured and executed Jesus, that isn’t the end of the story. God raised him from the dead. In the resurrection Christ defeats the powers and principalities, thus guaranteeing truth number four that goodness, truth, beauty, love, and peace are sovereign. The resurrection heals the ripped open creation and restores it to God’s intention. In the resurrection we are ransomed from the power that this violent world has over us; no matter what anyone may do to us, we are alive in Christ.
In fact, the cross is reappropriated. What was a symbol of affliction becomes a symbol of life. It’s the same thing that we’ve done with the pink triangle. Or with words like fag, dyke, bitch, and queer. We take something meant to hurt, fill it with humour and joy and life, and it becomes a powerful force for good. It’s why drag is such an important part of the GLBT liberation movement. It’s why we have to be campy and silly and fun. These are our declarations of freedom and new life. As I said a couple of years ago in my pride sermon, why do we party and act silly? “Because we can.”
This leads me to the final and seventh truth.
7) We must participate in the struggle against evil by walking the way of the cross as part of the church empowered by the Holy Spirit.
It is not that all of us will be martyred. Fortunately, society has changed enough in two thousand years that the occasions for martyrdom are, in some areas of the world, less than they used to be. That anything has changed at all is the result of God’s way being embodied by genuine Christians. Dorothy Day, Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu, John Paul II, and many others have all lived full lives. This shows that creation is being healed. However, the relatively recent examples of Martin Luther King, Jr, Oscar Romero, and Margaret Hassan should serve as reminders that death is still a possibility.
Confronted with a violent, unjust world, we are presented the same options as those in the first century.
• We can cynically participate with the powers that be.
• We can be quiet and go along to get along.
• We can withdraw from society and wait for it all to blow up.
• We can engage in violent revolution.
All of these options were rejected by Jesus and the early church because these ways were themselves complicit in the violence of the world.
Jesus’ message was initially directed against the Pax Romana. The Roman Empire claimed to have brought peace to the world. They defined peace as order and stability. But it was a peace at the point of the sword. It still included oppression, slavery, patriarchy, exploitation, and a host of evils. This is not genuine peace.
And how often has humanity attempted to create this false notion of peace through the overwhelming power of the state? The Pax Romana, the Carolingian Empire, Inquisitorial Spain, Calvin’s Geneva, radical reform Munster, early Puritan Massachusetts, the French Revolution, the Pax Brittanica, the international workers revolution, Leninism, the Third Reich, the Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge, Baathism, and the Pax Americana are all manifestations of the demonic force of violence wielded by the overwhelming power of the state in order to bring a false peace. They differ very little when compared with the way of God.
Instead of taking one of the traditional alternatives, Jesus and the early church presented a fifth alternative. We can live a nonviolent, loving, joyful, peaceful life in communion with others, a life that directly confronts and rebukes our violent world, a life of hopefully courageous faith, a life of radical inclusion, extravagant grace, and relentless compassion.
So, what does the cross mean for us? It means that if you call yourself a Christian you cannot:
• participate in the exploitation and violence of the powers that be
• you cannot go along silently in order to get along
• you cannot withdraw from society
• you cannot participate in violent revolution.
It does mean that you must freely choose to live the kind of life where the cross is
a possibility -- a life that will encounter opposition, ridicule, mocking, prejudice, oppression, and maybe abuse. If the living of this life brings you affliction, that affliction will not be redemptive suffering, it will simply be tragic evil.
Again the cross is not the necessary outcome of such a life, but it is the distinct and freely chosen possibility. This week the minister’s coffee group got to discussing this very topic, I interjected that it was my sermon topic this week and asked them to answer the question; Kathy McCallie offered the following. What it means to live the life of the cross is that when they come for the innocent they have to step over your dead body.
Hopefully as more of us live a life of radical inclusion, extravagant grace, and relentless compassion, society will be reshaped according to the cross and less of us will have to endure the cross. Let that be our earnest prayer, but also the rallying cry.
So, here are our orders. We must live as people of humility, love, peace, and generosity. We must be people of overwhelming joy. We must laugh and dance and party in the face of the world’s oppression. We have to pray. We have work diligently for justice and peace. We must live courageously, unafraid, standing up for who we are and who God has called us to be. We must create community. Genuine, loving community. We must bless each other with hugs and kisses and words of encouragement.
This sort of life is a scandal, an absurdity, a stumbling-block to reason. But that’s what it means to be a Christian.