Posted by: rogermitchell | May 14, 2010

the power of the cross

Righteousness and peace kissed at the cross. As I understand it the cross is the place where Jesus took on everything that opposes his righteous kenotic way of living. It is the place where his love to the uttermost met head on with consolidated selfish ambition at its worst. It killed him. But it could not overcome love stronger than death. Three days later he rose. There is now an inextinguishable stream of love pouring out through the earth to resource his people everywhere as they also take up the cross.  There really is a river whose streams can make the city glad.

Last weekend I was at a conference with the wonderful theme of saving paradise, based on the book of that name and where its authors gave their unique take on empire and the church. While they carry the important insight that paradise belongs here in this world, and that the focus of Jesus is to see it restored here in a transformed earth, they see the preaching of the cross as the heart of empire, not the heart of the gospel. Representing women who the domination system of Christendom crushed they have discovered through good research that the crucifix only appeared in the tenth century in the time of Charlemagne and signifies the ghastly theology of the imitation of Christ’s suffering as the justification of violence against ones enemies. The perverse argument goes that if Jesus was willing to suffer in order to make peace then we should be willing to risk suffering and death to preserve or recover territory for God. But they also see that an extension of the same theology leads on to justify acquiescence in the face of violent domination on the grounds that our suffering might overcome the violence of our enemies with love. The same perverse theology has been used by the church to encourage victims of abuse to put up with it in imitation of Christ’s innocent suffering.  The intolerable experience of this in the context of violent partnerships and sexual abuse has caused the authors of Saving Paradise and their supporters to reject the whole theology of the cross. Instead of seeing it as the triumph of love over abuse and domination they see it as the means of legitimating abuse and domination. A kenotic theology of the cross is regarded by them as at best an essentially passive response to violence and abuse. Instead they look for a other sources of empowerment. I am quite sure that this is a dire mistake, but it focuses on the vital importance of the mindsets in which we interpret even, especially the most, central aspects of theology. The crucial (!)question they raise is how does the cross actively overcome abuse, injustice, domination and evil and not passively acquiesce to it? This question will provide the subject of the next few posts, and hopefully some good responses and comments for discussion.



  1. Good question. Recently I have spent a lot of time thinking about the connections between the cross and the cleansing of the temple. From the gospels (the synoptics, at least), one gets the feeling that Jesus went to Jerusalem in a delibarate attempt to confront the powers-that-be, and that his action in the temple was central in this confrontation, and one of the main reasons why he was executed as a revolutionary.

    I tend to think that non-violent or non-resistant christians (like the anabaptists, quakers and others) sometimes has neglected that confrontational-aggressive aspect of the cross. I really believe in non-violence, enemy love and servanthood, but only if this is the other aspect of a real battle with evil and the powers. The cross is what happens when we confront the powers and hierarchies with the reality of the kingdom of god. So patriarchy, for example, should sometimes be confronted with the power of god in a way that is not at all passive or “humble”.

  2. Roger:

    Somehow, in this time, Christianity has to be overwhelmingly life affirming – in all its forms. So the history of crusades, imposition of cultural values through colonization, support of violence from the household to the nation and its military, and the real despoilation of the earth has to be solidly, strongly, and emphatically rejected.

    While I see the cross as the place where Jesus did His work of reconciliation I also see that somehow the church became a death cult. How is it that the religious right in the US can so totally support the military, gun ownership and other forms of violence? How is it that the Catholic church can protect (for decades) those that abuse children and woman? Something has to break here. I have a friend who notes that God has done a great job of emptying out and killing the church for the past century. And He has. So I suspect God isn’t pleased with the results of what has been done in his name either.

    I also think that the most redemptive activity for us at this time is earth tending. All of us, for the next several generations, will be earth tenders first and foremost. I believe that is what Christ intended anyway – that restoration of paradise through meekness and humble work together. The meek shall inherit the earth as they tend to be the ones to work it, though they rarely, at this point own it.

    So what is the place of the cross. I think these women have a point. Another friend pointed out to me years ago that early Christians used the fish as a symbol and that the cross was used as Christianity embraced empire. So I think the work you are doing right now in your thesis is decoupling the cross from the association with empire. That won’t change the history but it might just change the future.

    And God knows we really need a new vision for the future!


  3. Intriguing. With Cheryl, I think these folk have a point: I absolutely think that the story of ‘the cross’ has been co-opted into all sorts of narratives to achieve all of these horrible things and more. I’m guessing, having not read their stuff and working on the basis of your précis, that they’re probably not taking issue with the question of whether or not Jesus ought to have allowed himself to be crucified. I’m also guessing that their real beef is the historical role of ‘the cross’ (as interpreted for selfish ends) in christianity. So it’s hard to imagine how not to have problems with that ‘cross’! And I suspect, from a very different paradigm, they probably won’t be miles from your thinking.

    I’m deeply uncomfortable with modes of devotion that glorify ideas of pain or torture (which I often see as being bound up with self-pity and ideas of victimhood). That film, the Passion of the Christ was, to me, horrific for that reason. I (obviously?) reject the very idea that Jesus was, in any way, enduring the punishment of God on the cross. To the extent that this has been a part of the narrative of ‘the cross’, I think that the Saving Paradise people have a real point. The fact is that the cross event has all sorts of meanings in our various traditions and there is no doubt in my mind that it remains to this day a means of attributing virtue to suffering, by consequence legitimating violence.

    I suspect (though, again, I’ll have to try to read this!), I think the basic distinction that these guys maybe don’t make is between the glorification of victimhood in the narratives of the cross they’re discussing and the very different idea of pushing love to the ends of the earth (our friend Allison becomes helpful here). This is really important stuff because one of the practical dilemmas of your theology of kenosis is whether it is ever appropriate to resist the exercise of abusive power (though you would probably prefer domination). With what kinds of acts may we do so?

  4. more thinking, Roger . . . I wonder if some of the problem with the cross is that we have narrowed the gospel down to that and that alone. Certainly Jesus did not define his mission or vision that way (though I am aware that the gospels have him speaking before the experience of the cross).

    So often, historically, the cross has been used like some sort of patriotic flag to wave in battle, whether it be the battle for souls (captured for God) or for other lands. If the cross is to have its full meaning then it must be followed by or be immersed in the full gospel which is about the Kingdom of God and living in it. Otherwise while I can assent to an abstract theology of what was effected on the cross, it will have no real grounded meaning in my life.

    I think that may be a real long winded way to say we have, historically, used the cross as a form of aggression and have not grounded it in real discipleship. Discipleship must always be about the Kingdom and Kingdom life or it is meaningless as well.

    I am also intrigued by how God brings forth new thinking. No one can write a comprehensive theology. He gives bits and pieces of revelation to all sorts of folks (non Christians especially right now) and we have to move a bit in faith to put the bits and pieces together all the while knowing we do not have the whole. That can leave some folks anxious who wish for the good old days of the church (ecclesia) as cult (and death cult at that). So I rejoice that things get nudged in these different directions. It broadens us and expands our vision that has long been narrowed down to scalps gained for the glory of the cross (or ourselves as God’s bounty hunters) rather than humans resocialized (discipled) into a new life in right relationship with the earth, each other, and the Creator.

    • Yep. I wonder whether we can talk about the cross as ‘the event’ when everything changed. Surely it’s the 3-fold event of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus… Each part contributing equally to the possibility released into the world.

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