The Cross

Paul reports that Christ crucified is a stumbling-block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. I’m beginning to wonder if the Jews and Greeks had a point. Everything that is most destructive about Christianity comes from the Cross — the fetishization of suffering as an end in itself, the valorization of sheer obedience as somehow morally salutary, the conformism that stems from the instinctive embrace of the “necessary evil” as the ultimate good. In my darker moments, I wonder if Christianity was always heading inexorably toward Constantine, just as I wonder whether the Civil Rights movement was always headed toward ritualized protests where people stay in the “free speech zones” and line up to be arrested in an orderly fashion.

In famously convoluted syntax, Paul declares, “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). In practice, the power of God has been the power of his own self-vindication, the satisfaction of his wounded honor or his desire for vengeance against a rebellious race, and the wisdom has been the opaque wisdom that trusts “God’s will” in an open-ended, incomprehending way. For Paul, though, at least in my reading, the power was God’s ability to dethrone the demonic powers and the wisdom was his ability to hit them precisely where they thought they were strongest — in their ability to terrorize, torture, and murder. God sends his messiah to be crucified under Roman law, with the complicity of the co-opted Jewish authorities, and in so doing he exposes the naked illegitimacy of the Roman order.

As with the emergence of the strategy of martyrdom under Antiochus Epiphanes, however, a necessary concomitant is the energetic development of a new form of life. The Maccabees chose the route of armed rebellion to reestablish an always-embattled theocracy. Paul, facing much greater firepower from the demonic worldly powers, chose the more indirect route of establishing little avant garde communities in as many Roman cities and provinces as possible — communities that do not rebel against the law or seek to overthrow the powers in order to replace them, but live in simple indifference to them.

Neither strategy proved durably effective. The Maccabean kingdom was ultimately reabsorbed into the imperial system, as were the successors to the Pauline communities. But at least they tried! At least they were able to conceive of a meaning to suffering and oppression other than the need to continue to submit to suffering and oppression as an end in itself. There’s such a narrow window within which something like the Cross can counter the Powers rather than simply reinforcing them — all the moreso in that so much contemporary theology, at least among my fellow white men, seems addicted to the “contrarian” gesture that enthusiastically submitting to the powers that be is the most subversive thing of all.

What has me thinking along these lines is my sense that the “hands up” gesture of the Ferguson protestors is a distant echo of the early Christian stance toward the Cross. And I see in mainstream white responses to protestors a repetition of the taming of the Cross, in the insistence that protest much be completely “peaceful,” in the refusal to recognize police violence as violent and the tacit view that it is natural and necessary, etc. I don’t know what conclusion to draw. I’m more gesturing toward the potential usefulness of thinking through past examples and trying to figure out where they went wrong — including apparently very distant and foreign examples.

9 thoughts on “The Cross

  1. Adam, does a Girardian approach to Paul perhaps appease your thoughts on ‘the cross’? That the point of the cross being a God that demands blood sacrifice is one of the grave errors of Christendom? In the context of 1 Cor, I take Paul as to say that the knowledge of the cross is different than Jewish and Greek paradigms, though your point about being indifferent communities rings true, at least for me….

  2. I’ve never studied Girard closely, because everything I’ve heard about him makes me think his reading is just too simplistic and reductive. People reach for Girard much too easily, I think, and I try to do my reflection in this area in consciously chosen indifference toward his work.

  3. I was a big fan of Girard once upon a time, mainly because it kept Christianity relevant to me for awhile, but his ideas wear thin and they do not really do justice to the complexity of desire like he wants them to.

  4. I think the issue of willing and unwilling martyrdom is troubling, too. First, there’s the aspect of the Passion according to which Christ enters into it “willingly.” I would think that, nowadays, such an attitude of willingness is—more often than not—an attitude of smugness, similar (if not exactly the same as) the smugness of the white dude’s “contrarian” gesture.

    Then you have the “unwilling” martyr, a person who is killed, who wasn’t necessarily wanting (or willing) to be a martyr, but who’s turned into one after the fact. There’s something simultaneously courageous and terrible about such a gesture. This person didn’t aim to be a martyr, yet with the rallying cry of martyrdom there’s a chance to galvanize others to action.

    Recently, at a rally, one of the organizers invoked the names of MLK Jr., Michael Brown, and Eric Garner, but she specifically demanded they not be called martyrs, because, as she said, “that would mean they gave themselves willingly.” Instead, she asked us to consider their deaths in terms of a lack of recognition given to the “divinity of brown skin.” It was only a remark, but it certainly seems an alternative to the language of martyrdom.

  5. I’m not sure you’ve got Paul’s strategy quite right, Adam. The “little avant garde communities” are a byproduct, not the point. The point is preaching–that’s his strategy. It’s right there in the verse you quote in 1 Cor., and in many others (esp. 1 Cor., though there are big swipes through this in Romans and in the first couple chapters of Galatians). Note how many of those references aren’t directly to the cross, but to the “preaching of the cross,” the “foolishness of preaching,” etc. That’s also why Paul will so often speak of himself as preacher, etc. The peculiar focus is on the preaching, not on working out precisely what the form of life will be to follow it.

    If anything, this seems even less “durably effective” in the sense you’re looking for.

  6. Not necessarily saying it should–this is an open question for me as well–does a book like James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree at all factor into or change the way you think about these questions/problems?

  7. I have not read that particular book as of yet, but for Cone to embrace the kind of destructive views I’m talking about, he would have to be saying that black suffering was a positive good that was redeeming America vicariously — and surely he would never say that. I view Cone and other liberation-oriented theologians as trying to find a way back to something like the paradoxical pre-Constantinian view.

Comments are closed.