Surveying the Wondrous Cross (Further thoughts on why I don’t wear one)

Many churches decided to transfer the feast of the Holy Cross to today–you can do that any time a named celebration (other than a very limited few, like Christmas or Epiphany) falls on a Sunday.  And so it’s okay to let some of yesterday’s thoughts slosh over to today.

As ++Justin indicated in the introduction to the Archbishop’s Lent Book this year, the symbol of the cross has become watered down through time, fashion, and familiarity.  Moltmann went further in The Crucified God, saying that we have trivialized the cross through making it nothing more than a pretty ornament.  (I argued in my class at Marquette that the cross was and could be attractive without being “pretty”, but a lot of my seminar colleagues didn’t quite understand that “pretty” and “attractive” is a false equivalency.)

As ++Justin points out in his introduction (by far the most theologically worthwhile bit of the book), to early Christians, the cross–and the whole idea of crucifixion–was a symbol of shame rather than pride. It was seen as dangerous, and secretive:  while Christianity was still a persecuted and illegal religion, you had to be very certain that another person was also a Christian (and you had to discern that through conversation and behavior) before you used the cross as a way of identifying yourself.  A safer self-identifier was the fish symbol.

But now, the cross, for thinking people, should also be a source of shame or at least embarrassment.  It’s been trending that way since about 313 CE, when the Edict of Milan made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.  In 312, at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine had a vision that he should conquer under “this sign”–the sign of the Cross of Christ.  And he was victorious.  And the cross has, among other things, been a symbol of violence and arrogance ever since.

A cross, the symbol of a church which became as worldly as any temporal government, and encouraged conquest of the world in the name of the Crucified, should be a bit of an embarrassment.  Much gets said about martyrdom when “converting” foreign lands, but at least in the case of North and South America, early Christian mission inflicted about as much violence as it suffered.  And the church has not been shy about suppressing non-Christian religion in countries where it already held a comfortable majority position:  we overlook too conveniently that 1492, the year when Christopher Columbus–himself a converted Jew–sailed (misguidedly) to the New World under the auspices of the dual monarchs of Spain, was also the year that Ferdinand and Isabella ejected Jews from the lands over which they ruled.  Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a little bit about why Jews would have trouble accepting the Christian faith as they might always see the cross as a symbol of oppression, it is discussed in my essay in this collection. (The book is way too expensive for private purchase, so please get it from a library.)

Historically, there has been much good done under the sign of the cross–much of what we take for granted as part of good and free societies today (schools, universities, hospitals, abolition of slavery) has been spearheaded by Christian organizations.  Much of that good has been undertaken by small subsets of the churches, such as orders of monks and nuns, and groups of devout lay people bringing their love of Christ to bear on their political action.  Much of that happened at the initiative of women, before they had an officially recognized political or ecclesiastical voice.

But, as in all word-of-mouth advertising, one negative outweighs ten positives.  And the negatives associated with the symbol of the cross have been impressive.  For many people, myself included, the cross has become what Paul Tillich called a “broken symbol.

The cross as jewelry has helped to break and mangle the symbol, partly because it gets worn as a badge that identifies the wearer with a group in which membership carries advantages. And all it takes to be part of that group is to wear it.

Loads of people wear crosses, but  behave in ways and espouse beliefs that should embarrass people who try to follow Jesus–from the Westboro Baptist Church  to Joel and Victoria Osteen

Perhaps we need to be more cautious about displaying the cross so proudly, and take a moment to disassociate ourselves from those who claim it in ways we cannot. That is part of my reason for unclasping the chain around my neck and putting those bits of jewelry back in the drawer.  “Put down your cross and follow Me” isn’t perhaps the most inspiring hymnody (and again I apologize for the clompy piano playing), but it might be a start if the symbol is going to be repaired.

And remembering that, if we need to display a cross for people to recognize us as Christians, we aren’t doing it right.


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