The Cross: That’s How They Get You

Long-time readers may know that part of my path out of evangelicalism involved a Catholic phase. I went so far as to convert and was very devout for several years, then slowly let go of it after starting at Chicago Theological Seminary. It’s not part of my life or identity anymore, except for one thing — I use the prayers of the rosary as a kind of calming mantra, for instance when I’m having trouble sleeping. I sometimes even keep count of five “decades” for a full rosary, though I don’t meditate on the “mysteries” (which have somehow inexplicably changed in the meantime? They can do that?). One night recently I was having a lot more trouble sleeping and was trying to remember what the specific “mysteries” were. I calculated that it was probably a “Sorrowful” day and then remembered the sequence: the agony in the garden, the scourging, the crowning with thorns, the crucifixion itself (i.e., nailing him up), and his death on the cross. And something within me said: No. This is not what I am going to direct my attention toward. This is disturbing and wrong.

To me, that felt like a watershed moment, showing how alienated I had become from Christian piety and its deep presuppositions. I was rejecting, at a gut level, the most theologically and emotionally charged moment in the Christian story — a moment that serves as the affective “hook.” The old me, even the early post-Christian me, would have heard a response like I was now giving and seen it as evidence that I just didn’t get it. The cross is precisely the most liberating and radical and anti-imperial thing about Christianity! It’s the thing that’s just too real to handle. In fact, the real problem with Christianity is that people don’t take the cross seriously enough.

There’s a lot to be said for that line of theology — which, after all, represents my deepest intellectual formation under Craig Keen and Ted Jennings. It’s certainly a far cry from the typical pietist stance that enjoins young children to worry that they are re-crucifying Christ every time they commit a minor transgression, for instance. It definitely feels healthier than the medieval piety that concluded that the Cross meant that God really likes suffering and so we should perform suffering as vigorously as we can. And yet, at the end of the day, the radical Christian stance, the contemporary revolutionary “theology of the cross,” is still contorting itself to find a way to valorize a broken, abandoned man being publicly tortured to death. It is still holding up a symbol of imperial state terror from two millennia ago and asking us to meditate upon it, as though it’s something edifying.

It’s often said that using cross symbolism is like using electric chair symbolism today. Surely that would be radical and too real to handle! I wonder how that would actually work, though. We’ve seen what happened with George Floyd, for instance, whose violent death sparked massive protests — that culminated in the leadership of the Democratic Party kneeling, absurdly, in kente cloth, in a virtual reenactment of the officer’s illegal chokehold, then thanking him for sacrificing his life. People talk about the power of “making martyrs,” but martyrs are very easily recruited by the powers that be, to shore up their own legitimacy. And within the first generation of Christians, even as they were living under Roman persecution, the Christians themselves were helping out with that process. You can find the outlines of an anti-imperial account of the cross in the synoptics, especially Mark, but even in Mark you already see the beginning of the effort to deflect culpability from the Romans to the Jews.

I’d propose that the real effect of the cross imagery in history has been more akin to the imagery of the fetus in pro-life circles (which obviously overlap heavily with Christian circles) — a fantasy of victimhood that incites fantasies of revenge. The cross has incited more pogroms than revolutions, it seems, and when it has inspired revolutions, Christians have been among its greatest opponents. Among more well-meaning Christians, the cross seems to underwrite a kind of magical thinking about redemptive suffering, as though being beaten up by the police and arrested will somehow in itself produce social change. It turns the performance of state terror into a performance for the state, which will somehow shame it into doing the right thing. The very sign of a social order that is irredeemable — the fact that it publicly tortures people to death in order to terrorize populations into submission — becomes a sure method for helping the powers and principalities to find their best selves. And it cuts off in advance more radical modes of resistence — because after all, we don’t want to make anyone into a martyr! That would mean they automatically win!

At the end of the day, there just are not a lot of non-fucked-up directions to take the idea that a guy getting publicly tortured to death was the best thing that ever happened. On this Good Friday, I would ask you all to meditate on that.