Thoughts for Good Friday 2011:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)
Christ’s death was not just any death, but a crucifixion. The cross was a symbol of “shame” (Hebrews 12:2) and a “curse” (Galatians 3:13). That’s why it was considered “foolishness” and “weakness” (1 Corinthians 1:23) to worship a crucified God, the ultimate oxymoron.
The shamefulness of the Cross has important theological implications. As theologian Damien Casey explains in an essay available online,
the cross was a sign of ignominy. It was not a symbol commonly used by the early Christians, because for them its associations were all too clear. Theologically, the death of Jesus is God’s highest self-divestment or kenosis. It is here that the definite Christian revelation of God is to be found; in life and death of Jesus, his renunciation of mastery and identification with servitude, the poor and the oppressed and all those we treat like shit.
Its clear implication is that the concept of divine sovereignty as divine mastery over the world must be abandoned. God’s place is with the abject every bit as much as it is on the high altar of the cathedral. Yes, the crucifix as a triumphant symbol is a delicious irony in keeping with the spirit of the gospels. But that irony is lost when we forget its strong association with both ignominy and abjection. Then it merely becomes a sign of domination. In denying negation in God, classical Christian thought obscured one of its most profound insights into suffering. To speak to questions of suffering and injustice Christian thought must uncover its suppressed elements and acknowledge that its symbols, like the divine, cannot be mastered.
If the Cross is a symbol of God’s grace and love, it is so because it shows depth of humiliation which God was willing to endure for us. If the Cross is a symbol of the victory of God over sin and death, it is the paradoxical Christian victory that comes through defeat, the kind of victory in which persecution is a blessing (Matthew 5:10) and even a cause for joy (James 1:2).
The Cross is the victory of a holy love that cannot be overcome by evil but which “overcomes evil with good” (Romans 12:21). This overcoming does not happen by a show of strength and power. It happens by the weakness of turning the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). No evil we humans do to God can make God stop loving us, no suffering we inflict on God can make God stop doing good to us. In fact the more we sin, the greater God’s grace is shown to be (Romans 5:20), the stronger we resist God, the more God’s weakness absorbs our resistance in love. God’s love for us is invincible (Romans 8:38-39) that the more we hate God, the more God’s love is revealed (Romans 5:8).
If all this is true, then doesn’t this mean that it is impossible to desecrate a cross? You can trample a cross in the mud, throw it in the garbage, or flush it down the toilet, but if the cross is already a symbol of shame, humiliation, and weakness – if the holiness of the Cross lies precisely in the self-empyting love of God for God’s enemies (Romans 5:10) – then all attacking the Cross can succeed in doing is to make the holy weakness of the Cross more powerfully present.
As a symbol, the Cross is so powerful that it cannot be denied or destroyed by its enemies. Attacking a cross has roughly the same symbolic effect as shooting a gun-control activist.
Not all religious symbols work this way, of course. The enemies of Islam can desecrate a Qur’an by throwing it in a toilet or burning it. But the enemies of Christianity can’t desecrate a cross. All they can do is show that the Cross was right all along: this is the way humans treat God.
Perhaps the Cross can, however, be desecrated by its alleged friends – betrayed by a kiss, as it were (Luke 22:48). If the Cross can be abused at all, then surely the only way to abuse the Cross is for a Christian to distort the crucifixion into a symbol of hatred. When someone who should know better turns his or her back on God, refusing to love others the way we have been loved (1 John 4:19), this might – if anything can – bring shame to the Cross so as to “crucify again the son of God” (Hebrews 6:6).
For example, if an artist immersed a plastic crucifix souvenir in a jar of his own urine, this couldn’t possibly desecrate the Cross. (Not even if he also had ants crawl over it.) Assuming a piece of junk-plastic could be relevantly sacred in the first place, and assuming that immersing something in urine has the same rhetorical effect as pissing on it, and assuming that the artist’s resulting photograph of the crucifix weren’t beautiful thereby problematizing the claim that he intended to mock the Cross – indeed even assuming for the sake of argument that the artist did intend to mock the Cross – it does not follow that the artist succeeded in mocking the Cross. On the contrary, if the Cross is a symbol of shame and humiliation, then pissing on a cross can only enhance its symbolism, regardless of the artist’s intention.
In our culture, one cannot write the letters S-T-O-P on a red octagon and have mean “Don’t stop here”. The symbol has an objective meaning, and no single subjective intention can change that. If you want your sign to mean “Don’t stop here”, then you need use another set of symbols. Likewise, the Cross has an objective meaning that a jar of urine can’t change. If you intend to mock the Cross, that’s the last way you should do it.
A better way to mock the Cross would be to call yourself a Christian and then use violence against art gallery guards and to destroy someone’s private property in the name of Christ. You might think you were standing up for Christ’s honor – already a confusion since the Cross is a symbol of shame not honor – but all you would really succeed in doing is to turn the artwork into a symbol of the artist’s suffering and persecution. Where it had once been a beautiful image that led viewers into a meditation on the Incarnation, you would have transformed the artwork into a symbol of hatred and persecution of the arts in the name of Christ. (Especially if you also, inexplicably, destroy a non-offensive photo of a nun praying.)
But in all this, perhaps even still Christ would be victorious in his weakness. If the Cross is a symbol of shame and humiliation, if it shows us Christ’s identification with human brokenness and suffering, then perhaps we should see the Cross wherever we see suffering in the world (Matthew 25:45). If this is right, then not even Christian use of the Cross as a symbol of hatred can desecrate the Cross. Christ died for all those who suffer the results of sin, even those who suffer at the hands of Christians.
Even turning an allegedly blasphemous artwork into a symbol of persecution does not destroy the power of the Cross. It simply allows us to see Christ in the suffering of the persecuted artist. You can’t desecrate a cross even if you try. And Lord knows we try. Christ have mercy.