Cruciform: The Politics of the Cross

We’re in the second week of our series on the cross. I don’t know if you were messed up by Pete’s teaching last week, but he did a nice job of showing how God isn’t and never has been a God who wants human sacrifice – the primary way Christianity has interpreted the cross for hundreds of years. So then the logical next question is, “If the cross wasn’t about a God who needed human sacrifice, then what is it about?” 

Like any good symbol, the cross has layers of meaning. It flexes and changes as we encounter God in new ways. Ancient Jewish teachers had a metaphor that might be helpful. They talked about scripture being like a thousand sided diamond, that as you turn, reflects light in different ways. That light (the divine) can look different depending on how you turn the diamond, but the light is the same. We could say the same thing about the cross. We can turn it, and experience the divine in different ways. So, now that Pete has maybe wiped away your understanding of the cross, we’re going to turn the diamond during this series and see how the cross reflects the divine in some beautiful and unexpected ways. 

Let’s start from the beginning. Before the cross was ever a religious or spiritual symbol, it had some really different implications. Ones that had a lot to do with power and politics. Marcus Borg once said, “Good Friday has more than a political meaning, but it does not have less than a political meaning." Don’t get hung up on the word politics. I’m not talking partisan politics. The cross doesn’t fit neatly into any current political ideology. But it was originally a political symbol used by Rome. 

The cross was one of Rome’s primary ways to keep the people they oppressed and controlled in place. It was a horribly brutal and public way to die. You were dragged through the street, beaten, and then hung up in front of everyone to slowly die. Then, after you died, your body was generally left up in public to be consumed by scavengers. The entire ordeal was a very public punishment that was meant to show everyone what happened when you tried to go against Rome. 

Theologian James Cone gives us an analogy from our recent history to help us understand the cross. He suggests that the cross was used just as the lynching tree was used in the south throughout the 20th century. When a white community felt that a black person had stepped out of line, even if it was just looking at them the wrong way, a mob would kidnap, beat, torture and hang the person from a tree as a reminder of who was in control – white people. If that image disgusts, angers or overwhelms you, it should. And it’s probably how someone would have felt when they saw a cross in the first century. 

So then what did Jesus do that deserved such a brutal, political death? History tells us that Rome used the cross for two offenses: political rebels and defiant slaves. We know that Jesus wasn’t a slave, so he must have been seen as a political rebel. But why? Let’s look at what Jesus did right before his death to find out. 

Jesus died at Passover. A festival where thousands of Jewish individuals descended on Jerusalem to remember how they were liberated from the bonds of slavery in Egypt. The occasion already had political implications. So Jesus and his followers were headed to Jerusalem for the same thing, and he entered the city in a very interesting way. 

Mark 11:7-10 tells us how it went: 

7 They brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes upon it, and he sat on it. 8 Many people spread out their clothes on the road while others spread branches cut from the fields. 9 Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord! 10 Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!”

When a first century Jewish person saw this, they probably would have thought of two things, both of which were very political. First, they would’ve thought about their history. Two hundred years earlier, Judah Maccabees rode into Jerusalem to the waiving of palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna!” What we need to know about Judah is that he was nicknamed “The Hammer”, and for good reason. He was a guerilla warrior who, at least for a short time, overcame Israel’s oppressors on the battlefield. So, when the crowds greeted Jesus this way, it said to him, “Lay down the hammer on Rome!” 

Second, they would’ve thought about what was happening, probably at the same time, on the other side of the city. Jerusalem was a gated city. Jesus came through one gate, and historians tell us that, probably at the exact same time, Pilate was entering the city through another gate, with similar fanfare. Now, Pilate was Rome’s ruler and enforcer in Jerusalem. So we have this charged image of Jesus, Israel’s hope, entering on one side, and Pilate, Rome’s heavy-handed representative, entering on the other side. A collision is immanent. 

In this tension filled moment, people probably thought Jesus would make some big anti-Rome statement, or organize a revolt. But he did something else. He went to the temple – the center of Israel’s spiritual and communal life – and overturned tables. He turned his rage to the religious leaders who were spiritually and economically oppressing them. And then something weird happened. Those spiritual leaders colluded with their oppressors to crucify Jesus. Imperial power merged with religious corruption, because Jesus threatened both. So, together, the religious elite and a dictatorship crucified Jesus. 

A quick side note here: Christianity has a really ugly history of anti-Semitism, and it often is rooted in this story. Jewish people have been blamed for Jesus’ death, which has been used as an excuse for some really hateful acts. The story isn’t meant to condemn Jewish people. It’s meant, in part, to make us have the courage to question those who oppress others, whether religiously or politically. Ironic then that we’ve used this story to oppress others when it should shine a light on the way we oppress others.

When we look at the cross through first century eyes, it looks like Jesus was crushed and defeated as a political rebel. His followers went into hiding, seemingly overwhelmed at Rome’s victory. Whatever they thought Jesus was going to do, ended when he was crucified. But, spoiler alert, that’s not where the story ends. Resurrection happens. Resurrection was an unexpected, eleventh hour victory over the oppression of the cross. It was the divine answer to political brutality. 

Of course, all of this begs the question. What does any of this have to do with today? We aren’t in the first century. So if the cross was a political statement then, what in the world does it mean for us now? We’re in one of the strangest, most divisive political seasons we’ve seen. People across political lines are outraged, confused and overwhelmed by a wide range of issues. How can the cross help us find a way forward? There are endless ways we could explore, but let me start by suggesting two. 

First, I think the cross asks us to locate ourselves and God in this story as we think about translating it to modern politics. Once of my favorite things about the stories in the Bible is that they are bigger than their original context. They let us discover deeper truths by walking around in them. The story of the cross is really important because it locates God in a really unexpected place: in the position of suffering under an oppressive regime. It was meant, in some way, to give hope to others suffering under oppressive forces by locating God right alongside them. The cross, no matter what time in history it is, forces us to see those who are oppressed. So when we look at our modern politics and wonder where Jesus would be if he were around, the cross gives us a pretty good answer: with those who are suffering. So the cross asks us to think about, in every political move, who is being hurt by this? Who does this leave out? How will this cause suffering? And then realize that the cross locates God with those people. 

Let’s take this to a harder place. When we walk around in stories like this, we often walk around in the hero role. When I look at the cross, I often assume the Jesus role. So whatever the cross means must fit my context. But the truth is, I’m not always Jesus. Sometimes I’m Rome. Sometimes I’m the temple leaders. Sometimes I’m the crowd that was complicit. Here’s a helpful test for me: if I have a hard time identifying with a suffering Jesus, then I’m probably sitting closer to the oppressive forces than I am the cross. It’s an ugly truth to confront, but as a straight, white American guy, it doesn’t take many history lessons to realize the world was meant to work well for people like me. The cross asks me to hand over some of that political power for the good of others. We have the courage to face this tough reality because of what you hear week after week: you are deeply loved by God. And so is everyone else. 
Second, I think the cross and resurrection are asking us to elevate our political thinking.  Albert Einstein once said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” 

Israel, and everyone under Rome, had a political problem, and countless people had tried to solve it under the same terms that Rome used: violence and power grabs. The cross and resurrection refused to accept the terms Rome gave. The cross took all of the violence Rome had to offer, and the resurrection showed that it had no real power at all by creating what was meant to be a radically inclusive movement. Others at the time chose a more removed stance. Instead of confronting the reality of Rome, they thought that if they were religiously faithful, God would rescue them. Jesus didn’t take that stance either. You don’t get crucified if that’s your posture. 

So when we think about politics today, the cross asks us to elevate our consciousness to solve the problems we face. Confront oppression head one, but don’t accept the terms you’ve been given. It’s not a binary. You don’t have to oppose something just because it doesn’t agree with your party. We don’t have to think in “America First” terms. The radically inclusive community that the cross set in motion pushed beyond national, ethnic, and gender lines. The cross prevents us from ever thinking it’s us vs. them, no matter who “they” are. So when we think about our political options, drop the binaries. The cross gives us the power to face oppression head on, but with roots in divine love that is big enough to encompass both the oppressed and the oppressor. 

One last, big picture idea. When we talk about the cross and politics, we’re having an incomplete discussion. To talk about the cross in the story of Christian faith, we have to talk about the resurrection. They go hand in hand. They are the pattern of how God, and love, work in the world. We experience the cross – suffering, injustice, corruption and pain, but God is always working to resurrect. Love is always looking to breathe new life into what was left for dead. And if we follow in the path of Jesus, we too are called to foster resurrection. That, to me, is how Jesus informs my politics. In every political decision I make, I seek to bring resurrection in the world. To infuse life-giving love in places that have experienced oppression, suffering and injustice. That resurrection goal can help us transcend partisan divides. We can disagree about how to foster resurrection in the world, but if we share that common goal, we’re far from divided.