Posted by: rogermitchell | May 27, 2013

What does the symbol of the cross really stand for?

The ultimate circumstances in which the conditions for law to maintain peace are suspended are known as the state of exception (see Giorgio Agamben’s book of that title).
The cross in Jesus’ day stood for those circumstances on an individual level. It was both the symbol and the consequence of the exception. Crucifixion was the condition and the price of peace through empire. By making the cross the daily motif for Christian lifestyle, as we have seen in the previous post, Jesus unequivocally positioned his followers in opposition to the Roman way of peace. Today, in our supposedly free society, it takes more than spoken opposition for the state of exception to be applied. Within Western nation states it generally requires actual or perceived threat to property, the law, the military and the institutions of state and its symbols before personal freedom is removed or individual life threatened by kettling, imprisonment, water hose, tear gas or bullets from a gun.

To take up our cross daily in non-violent counterpolitical living Jesus-style is to be ready for kettling, prison, violence and even death when it comes.
However, if we are to understand the more normative circumstances for the exception in our contemporary West we need to step outside the orbit of our mainly white dominated nation states of Europe, North America and Australasia. We need to look at those places where perceived or real threats to their ongoing exercise of sovereignty are met by our Western governments with bullets, drones, bombs, imprisonment without trial, water-boarding and the like.

So to grasp the full implications of the cross as a symbol of discipleship we need to include bullets, drones, bombs, imprisonment without trial, water-boarding and death as the fulness of the motif of discipleship that Jesus calls us to take up each day.
The plight of our enemies who receive these instruments of the exception is to be embraced as our own.

So how does this work to bring genuine peace? I suggest three ways in particular.

(1) To use the biblical imagery of John the Baptist and Daniel’s apocalyptic, every thought, word and act of selfless unconditional love is an axe cut to the root of the empire tree, and a crushing blow to the deep structural feet of the edifice of sovereign power through human history. After Jesus’ resurrection the oppressive local partnership of Israel and Rome came down for almost two millennia. The same kind of love will ultimately bring down the vastly more universal partnership of church and empire and its aftermath to the mutual good of Palestinian, Jew and the general multitude of the peoples of the earth.

(2) If the incarnation happened as set out in the testimony of Jesus, then there has been a transhistorical moment in time when God as a human being has demonstrated the life-laying-down power of love at a previous apex of empire and willingly encountered its state of exception. All the destructive consequences of the instruments of sovereign power were embraced by God there at the cross to the point of death and resurrection. Death was swallowed up in victory. So it follows that there is a place in God, a reservoir dug out, an inferno ignited, where all the results of sin and death on human life, spirit, soul and body, together with the creation of which he became a part, can be channeled. Such a doctrine of hell is not some ghastly idea of a retributive sovereign God’s exhausted indignation. It is the virus vault within God and now through the Spirit, within his people, where all the hatred, antagonism, rejection, resentment, violence and death can be contained and exhausted. Such is the calling of the peacemaking ecclesia. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Mtt 5:9) and “Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man (Lk 6:22).

(3) It is when we stand with pederasts, murderers, extremists of left and right, of any faith and none, emptying out unconditional love and forgiveness towards them and sucking up all the resistance, rejection and refusal into the heart of God via our own hearts, that there is real hope for peace. This is the kenarchic way for emptying out our Western or any other domination system and for winning the hearts and transforming the future of our enemies if they will receive it.


  1. (3) It is when we stand with pederasts, murderers, extremists of left and right, of any faith and none, emptying out unconditional love and forgiveness towards them and sucking up all the resistance, rejection and refusal into the heart of God via our own hearts, that there is real hope for peace.

    A very bold statement Roger and one that i find myself almost agreeing with.So if you don’t mind I will push back a little on it(or seek clarification).While I except that the place for us is to love and and by loving we overcome.I think it is important to note that God is looking for a response to that love and so should we,that response is repentance a choice to face God and become one of those who are able to join in the overcoming of evil in our own life and that of our community.If there is no place for repentance in this story there is no possibility of communities being formed that can consume the darkness around us.

  2. I agree that repentance understood as a change of mind and behaviour is necessary for social change from the dominance of me and mine to the kenotic love that gives away power to the other in love. However this can’t be demanded as a condition of love. As Paul puts it “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

  3. Of course it cannot be demanded but it can be asked for . Without it we are not capable of consuming only of being consumed.
    Greatly enjoying your posts and being greatly challenged keep up the good work .

  4. Roger: I thought about this on my way home on the bus. Then I thought about the bus. Very few of the church-goers I know ride buses. They are to inconvenient, take too much time, and nasty people use them. I live car-free so I use them a lot (its a four hour, 6 bus commute to/fro work). And if people can’t get their heads around all the real nasties you described perhaps bus riding is a place to begin.

    Buses/transit is a wonderful thing. You have to interact with strangers, with people you would normally avoid. In a country like Canada the people on the bus are frequently students, elders, the disabled, unemployed or others too poor to own and operate a car of their own. Today I watched while the whole bus tried to educate a young woman about bus courtesy. She was standing in the front, blocking the aisle and the seniors with their various walkers were having trouble exiting the bus. Many disapproving comments were made. And I thought – hey, this is good. No one was being nasty to her but they were trying to do the job her parents obviously avoided or failed to do (likely they drive a car). Then I ended up in a strange conversation with a developmentally delayed woman (there are a bunch who use this bus to and from work). I have no idea what we were actually talking about but she seemed content. Bus riding teaches you to care for others, to show courtesy, to wait when someone is having a problem with a walker, or too many bags or a pram with a child in it. You have to interact with all sorts of people from other cultures and religions. And if the local homeless or less than sober board the bus then you might have to interact with them too. There is a guy on my bus route with narcolepsy – he snores and snorts the whole way home. It isn’t comfortable or fun and really annoys the drivers. But once I figured out the cause I was ready to cut some slack.

    So take a first step towards the margins, the poor, those with lower-incomes, the less than fully able, seniors, students and others who don’t own their own vehicles – ride the transit system in your city. Lose the rage enabling car that isolates you in a bubble away from the disorderly and messy crowd and get on a bus. Its a first step towards Jesus – I’m sure he would always choose a bus/subway/tram over a car! And the bonus – you get to love creation too. c.

  5. I know exactly what you mean about public transport. We should use it more. I took the 29 from Trafalgar Square to Wood Green last Saturday to take part in a Pray Haringey borough youth education event. The hour and a quarter packed ride was perfect preparation for a relevant contribution.

  6. Roger, wishing I could interact more with this! But I remain caught at the front line of living the message rather than talking about it. This past few days sincw Woolwich has raised the stakes considerably.
    Your message here holds a plumb line up to evaluate complex situations by. At present I find myself with (some of) the establishment ( Anglican Church, police, etc) in opposing the actions of those on the far right for whom the cross has become a cultural symbol of power of “Christian England” to be protected in the face of militant Islam as it was in the Crusades. As we have said before the message of emtying ourselves of power and so allowing Christ to show his power in our weakness is a message for church in multicultural multifaith England. And yet the tide could so easily change and the establishment I work alongside now could be facing me in opposition! Your work is a welcome tool to deconstruct all we have inherited and evaluate it in light of the kenotic message. And also empower us with the peaceable ways of non violence. Thanks!

  7. If you can find time to attend the Richardson Institute Is Peace Possible? day event on June 22nd up here at Lancaster Uni it would be great to have you!

  8. (2) ‘…a transhistorical moment in time.’ Could what Edward Snowden has just done be termed that? It’s one of the most obvious kenotic acts of the moment – he knew what he was doing, knew what was at stake and knows the price he could yet pay. It’s live and could yet be a straw that breaks a camel’s back.

    Oh Wow!!! This may yet be that time – when ‘hope and history rhyme’.

    History says, don’t hope
    On this side of the grave.
    But then, once in a lifetime
    The longed-for tidal wave
    Of justice can rise up,
    And hope and history rhyme.

    Once in a lifetime, an aeon more like. And this is that time!!!

  9. I pray for it to be so!

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