I have a good friend who has asked some very good questions, and given me permission to think about answers here.
“Why is there so much emphasis on the cross in Christianity? It makes sense if the focus is on Jesus’ suffering and the way he died for us to make us forgiven of our sins, etc. (Which maybe is your focus? Don’t want to assume one way or the other. If so, I’d be interested to hear about what that holds for you.)
“But I also know Christians who don’t see that as being the important message in Christianity, and seem to focus more on the redemptive message of the resurrection. If this is more your point of view, as it is theirs, why would the cross hold such meaning?
“It seems to me that, while it’s a very important reminder of Jesus’ suffering, it’s a very depressing icon with which to represent the faith. Wouldn’t it be more true to the message to focus on a symbol of redemption and hope and love and grace and justice — all the things that Jesus’ life represented — as opposed to Jesus’ death at the hands of sinners?”
To short-circuit thousands of years of theological reflection, let me pitch two short answers. One, there is so much emphasis on the cross in Christianity today because there was so much emphasis on it yesterday, last year, last century, last millenium. In other words, there’s been an emphasis on the cross since the beginning of Christian reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection.
Two, there’s been an emphasis on the cross since the beginning because it has always been – as Paul put it – such a stumbling block. It was a stumbing block for the earliest followers and witnesses, and it has been a stumbling block ever since, challenging each generation hearing the Christian story to struggle anew and find meaning in it. I’ve stumbled over it; my friend is stumbling over it now.
First century Jews could not reconcile their vision of the Messiah with this Jesus who was executed by the state, a subversive criminal subject to the death penalty. Gentiles couldn’t get their heads around a god who went to a shameful death.
But enough followers stuck with the Jesus way, even after his execution as a criminal, perhaps by holding on to the teachings of his ministry, perhaps reassured by experiencing the Jesus of the resurrection: seeing him appear in the flesh, hearing his promises to return soon, experiencing the ongoing life of the communities that held together after his death.
But even the faithful continued to struggle with the cross. Some understood it as a fulfillment of prophecies in Hebrew scripture (particularly the suffering servant songs in Isaiah).
Some understood it as a battleground where Satan threw his worst at Jesus, a prolonged agony that should have had Jesus calling for the angels to rescue him – a battle won by Jesus choosing death, and by God choosing the resurrection.
Some understood the crucifixion as God the Father letting God the Son (Jesus) atone for the sins of all humans in all times, thereby satisfying God’s need to be both just and merciful.
Some understood the cross as revealing the true nature of God: that God’s way of loving said no to death, that God’s grace forgave even God’s executioners, that God sought not to overpower but to seek peace with, that God’s way of being wise would always look like foolishness in the world.
The understanding that has held the most traction with most Christians in most times – especially in modern era – is the notion of substitutionary atonement, a simple transaction in which Jesus takes on all the sins of everyone who ever has or ever will live, and accepts death, in our place, as the punishment for those sins. All we have to do is believe that Jesus did this for us, and our sins are forgiven and we will enjoy eternal life.
Critiques of this understanding abound. It makes God out to be a child abuser, and sadistic. God creates a problem only God can solve; why make a creation that puts humanity on an impossible hook? What does Jesus’ life and ministry matter, if all that was needed was a perfect sacrifice? Why be concerned with trying to live a good life or love others, if salvation is such a snap?
Of course, the theory of substitionary atonement does not answer my friend’s question; it doesn’t say why Jesus choose a road that led to such a public, awful, shameful execution, or explain why the cross is more than church décor or jewelry. (We get a curved handle on the question from Lenny Bruce, the Jewish comic who once quipped, “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.”)
I grew up wearing a cross that my mother gave me, and then went through a period of wearing a not-so-Christian looking cross, and then went through years of refusing to wear a cross at all, out of a rejection of the little I knew about salvation. About the time I left the church because it wouldn’t let me ask questions, I was beginning to be afraid that I really was a heretic, because I couldn’t love a God who would intend any of God’s children to die. Much less The Kid. Much less on my behalf. I could not come to terms with that guilt. I turned my back on it, along with the church, and walked away.
About 15 years later, I had a kid. And then another one. And something about learning new shades and shapes of love reopened the God questions. In the middle of a struggle over being a working parent, I found a book called Also a Mother: Work and Family as Theological Dilemma by Bonnie Miller-McLemore. I was more intrigued by the work and family part, but as I got into the book, I was amazed to find that theology was all about those God questions I had gotten in trouble for at my childhood church. Miller-McLemore brought up other people’s questions, too, like Riane Eisler asking, “What if the central image of Christianity were a woman giving birth rather than a man dying?”
Well, in hindsight, I can see there’s problems with that question, too … although it expands our perspective to think about how women’s lives image the divine, it does so in a biologically essentialist way, that – worse yet – can appear to reduce women to being valued for or imaging the divine only in giving birth, something not all women can or want to do. But, at the time, it was a helpful crowbar to begin prying open my thinking about God.
And yet, even as I began to explore new ways to think about God, Jesus, and just what was happening on the cross, I still had to come back around to deal with the seemingly overwhelmingly “popular” Jesus-died-for-our-sins interpretation. Over the years, I have found other understandings of the cross that have persisted or developed, and I have found two that speak profoundly to me, making meaning not only of Jesus’ death, but also of the fact that his death was by crucifixion, thereby justifying to me the ongoing emphasis in Christianity of the cross, in symbolism and in reality.
One understanding is very simple: Jesus was a consistently faithful lover. Jesus lived in a community under imperial occupation, by the Roman Empire. Some of the leaders in his community were working for the occupation, and part of their role was to make sure the Jews – subjects of the Roman Empire – remained subjected. Communities that did not remain subjected were harshly penalized, if not completely obliterated. Jesus grew up knowing that to rock the boat was to risk death. To name someone a Messiah among the Jews was to name him a king, a rival to Caesar. Jesus did not seek out this title, but his actions nonetheless disrupted both the religious and political status quo, offending both the Jews and the Romans. Nonetheless, Jesus went on doing what love does: feeding people, healing them, teaching them – even raising the dead. It was consistently following the laws of God – to love God with everything he had, and his neighbor as himself, by caring for the least of these – that got him killed.
On some level, Jesus knew that was a distinct possibility; but to allow an inconsistency somewhere along the way – to violate the precepts he had established, for instance, in the Sermon on the Mount – would invalidate his entire ministry, and make of him just another magician or would-be Messiah.
So, he died as he lived … and that – as he told us more than once – is what love does. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. And that’s what Jesus called us … friends.
Another understanding is slightly more complex, but related (certainly in effect). It grows out of Latin American liberation theology. I began to learn this perspective in the writings of Jon Sobrino, a Salvadoran Jesuit (originally from Spain) who argues that Jesus reveals a God who is concerned for those who are suffering. God takes a stand for those who are suffering, for those who are oppressed, because of God’s compassion and mercy. God’s intent to save humanity is ultimately a desire to save those who are suffering. However, Sobrino argues, the church has lost sight of this mission, focusing instead on the perspective that God has come to us primarily to save sinners, despite the Gospel’s focus on salvation for suffering human beings. Sobrino quotes J.B. Metz:
“From being a religion sensitive to suffering, Christianity increasingly became a religion sensitive to sin. Christianity no longer focused on creaturely suffering, but on blameworthiness. Thus it lost its sensitivity to the suffering of others, and its biblical vision of God’s justice.”
Sobrino is not arguing that God doesn’t care about sin; after all, sin contributes to suffering. Rather, Sobrino argues that God saves differently even as God loves and saves all. What people are saved from varies depending on whether and how we are sinners and/or sinned against.
Jesus as God incarnate entered into the reality of suffering people, completely. Fully. And risked everything humanity risks, wherever and whenever people are oppressed by powers and choose resistance in the search for justice. Jesus bore the consequences of choosing this stance, all the way to Golgotha. Just as Martin Luther King, Jr. bore the consequences of choosing this stance, all the way to a hotel in Memphis, where he was assassinated. Just as Oscar Romero bore the consequences of choosing this stance, all the way to his death at the altar of God from an assassin’s bullet 30 years ago today.
Where Sobrino takes this theology of the cross a step further comes from his long working and theologizing association with fellow Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuría, who described the oppressed people of El Salvador as “the crucified ones.” In these people – disappeared, murdered, raped, dispossessed, hungry, disenfranchised, dislocated – Ellacuría perceived God. The same God who was present in the crucified Jesus is equally present in the crucified ones, equally part of their struggle for justice and life. We find God today among the crucified ones, and to walk with God is to walk with them in their struggle. To love God is to take the crucified ones down from the cross, by stopping and dismantling the powers oppressing them.
Our salvation, then, is tied up with theirs. The cross still matters today – as a symbol – because people are still dying in reality by the same oppressive forces that executed Jesus. Including Ellacuría, who was serving as president of the University of Central America when he was murdered in a political assassination in 1989, along with five other priests and two lay women associated with the Jesuit community.
Including the millions of women experiencing (the crucifixion of) domestic violence each year. Including the people of color lynched (crucified) for no other reason than a white-supremacist society’s racist disregard for them as less-than-human. And including all the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered folk murdered (crucified) for how they looked or who they loved or who they were suspected of loving.
Crucifixion is unfortunately all too real today, despite our attempts to prettify its symbolization.
As we stand on the edge of Christianity’s Holy Week, may we fully enter into the reality of Good Friday – and the death-dealing nature of the powers we are dealing with – before we rush into the glory of Easter’s allelulias. We need the promise of resurrection; we need to be living in the reality of God’s resurrection power available to us even now. But even as we hold on to that bright hope, let us not forget all those – from Jesus to Matthew Shepard – who turned a bloodied cheek and died alone in the dark.
If we can hold both these realities in hand, perhaps we can walk and not stumble on the stone that is the cross.
References for the curious: Bonnie Miller-McLemore, Also a Mother: Work and Family as Theological Dilemma (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 135, quoting Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), pp. 20-21.
For a comprehensive orientation to Ellacuría’s life and thought, see Kevin F. Burke, S.J., The Ground beneath the Cross: The Theology of Ignacio Ellacuría (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2000). See also Kevin F. Burke, S.J. and Robert Lassalle-Klein, eds., Love That Produces Hope: The Thought of Ignacio Ellacuría (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2006).