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Cross Purposes

Easter is a time to reclaim the cross as a symbol of healing and hope.

By Kenneth E. Kovacs

We get all kinds of catalogs in the mail at the church where I serve, but one of the oddest was the Christian toy catalog that came during last year’s Lent. It was full of Christian kitsch, like “I Am the Light of the World” Jesus night-lights and pencil erasers proclaiming how “Jesus Rubbed Out Sin.” There was even a plastic, cross-shaped sponge shooter that spewed out cross sponges. Funny, maybe, if it weren’t so disturbing. The cross used as a toy, the cross used as a weapon.

The warping of the cross’s meaning is, sadly, nothing new—and sometimes those who are quick to claim the name of Christ are guilty of some of its worse defamations. In Jesus’ day, crucifixion was a brutal, ghastly act of the Roman Empire, reserved for enemies of imperial authority, designed to keep insurgents in check. After claims of Christ’s resurrection, the cross began to convey a different message. Ironically, this vicious symbol of violence was transformed into a sign of God’s redeeming power of love and justice over every destructive force in the cosmos.

Soon, however, this emblem of redemption once again became synonymous with hatred, violence and destruction. In 312, on the eve of the battle for Milvian Bridge (along the Tiber River, near Rome), with the fate of the Roman Empire hanging in the balance, Emperor Constantine had a vision in which he supposedly saw the cross in the sun, accompanied by a voice that said, “In hoc signo vinces” (“In this sign conquer”). The cross was subsequently painted on every soldier’s breastplate and the troops marched off to victory. Constantine became a Christian, and the entire Roman Empire followed suit.

Many scholars believe this event marked the end of Jesus’ revolutionary vision, as his message became fully assimilated into the prevailing culture. During the Crusades, Pope Urban II (1035-1099) sent his armies to conquer Jerusalem with the sign of the cross, promising eternal glory for sacrifice, death, and victory. When Jacques Cartier (1441-1557) sailed up the St. Lawrence River and landed in what is now Montreal, he planted a cross on a summit, declaring, “All this land now belongs to the King of France.”

How is it that Jesus and his cross can be so effortlessly aligned with political and ecclesial imperialism, representing not love but hatred, not mercy but brutality, not life but death? There are regions of the world where many see the cross as an image of so-called “Christian” America, which is not a compliment. Launching wars in the name of God, proclaiming Christian values around the world with smug arrogance while squandering our own resources and neglecting our own citizens, we have become a mockery of all of the values Jesus espoused, tainting the authenticity and integrity of the Christian life.

The cross has both inspired and terrified people of faith. We turn away in horror when we see images of fiery crosses at Klan rallies.

In a “Christian” Germany, Jews and other “undesirables” were transported to death camps while the supposed followers of Jesus either tortured and murdered them or stood by and watched. When asked if he found the symbol of the crucifix repugnant, Leon Wieseltier, a Jew, replied, “No. But the sight of it does not warm my heart, either. It is a symbol of a great faith and a great culture, whose affiliation with power almost destroyed my family and my people.”

In reflecting upon World War I, the great literary critic Northrup Frye (1912-1991) talked of a “displaced Christianity” that used images of the cross as propaganda tools, enticing the youth of Europe to make more sacrifices, endure more suffering, and inflict more violence and destruction. The cross is displaced when what it signifies is grossly at odds with its message. And considerable blame for this rests upon the Christian community. The church has twisted the symbol of Jesus’ love and compassion for humanity to such an extent that we find ourselves at cross purposes with its message, complicit in its distortion.

In the true cross we find a counter-cultural vision where all the prevailing values of the world are judged and overturned. Strength, power, and victory are now defined by this Jesus who in the eyes of the world was weak and powerless, a victim. Yet, this is the one raised by God, according to the Gospels, the one willing to suffer with humanity in all our pain, alienation, and sorrow.

It is Easter. He is risen. May we as Christians also rise and reclaim the cross, from a symbol of arrogance and oppression to one of healing and hope. In this sign liberate.

 

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Kenneth E. Kovacs is the pastor at Catonsville Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD. He has an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. in theology from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

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