Time to ditch the Cross?
Andrew Kleissner reflects on the potential problem of popularity that the cross presents today; 'a hugely counter-cultural symbol'.
The “Golden Arches” must be the most famous trademark or logo in the world. Although, speaking personally, wild horses would not drag me into a McDonald’s restaurant unless there were no other eating options within 100 miles, many people who see those arches are warmed by the prospect of what they will find below them. For, all over the world, they hold the promise of burgers, nuggets, milkshakes and fries!
I am sure that McDonalds have invested heavily for many years to make their logo so familiar. There are a few others which are equally iconic: the Nike “swish”, the Mercedes circle, the Shell petrol sign, and even good old London Transport’s circle and bar, which has been illegally adopted by bus companies around the globe. These symbols promise quality and consistency. And, as we learned from last year’s Volkswagen scandal, it doesn’t take long for a brand to become tarnished.
The Christian Church has a logo which is gloriously simple and instantly recognisable: it is, of course, the Cross of Christ. But this powerful symbol wasn’t designed by marketing consultants nor evaluated by focus groups. Indeed, it is totally artless in its modesty: just two planks of rough wood roughly nailed together, representing the story of Jesus’ death on the hill “outside the city wall”.
Yet the Cross is surely the last logo that a first-century religion would have chosen if it had wanted to be popular. For, to the Jewish community of the day, the cross was a sign of pagan foreign oppression. To the occupying Romans, it had associations with low-life and criminals. And to everyone, the cross was a place of pain and violence, an emblem of hopes that had been dashed by the overwhelming power of the State. It was hardly inspiring!
And the same is true today. For the Cross, at least in its basic form, is ugly and crude – certainly not the “old rugged Cross” sentimentalised in the well-known hymn! It does not radiate aspirational qualities of success or wealth, only of failure and defeat. It speaks of torture and death rather than health and life. It gives out a message of anguish and suffering rather than of an easy path to glory. To be honest, the Cross is a scene of such horror that it repels us; we want to avert our gaze.
This presents Christians with a real problem. For how can civilised folk believe that a hideous human sacrifice can release them from guilt and sin? How can they turn to a God who apparently approves of such barbaric violence? Doesn’t the death of Jesus take us back to primitive notions of religion which we ought to have discarded long ago? To put it bluntly, isn’t the Cross an obscene embarrassment, unworthy of a God who calls himself ‘Love’? Isn’t it a barrier, rather than an inducement, to faith?
There are many voices – even within the churches – which would say exactly that. While not denying that Jesus died in this terrible way, they prefer to focus on his life and teaching rather than on his death. They may regard the Crucifixion as no more than the martyrdom of yet another political victim, or as the inevitable fate of a ‘little man’ who spoke out against powerful vested interests. And they utterly reject any notion of God sending his Son to die to take the punishment for human misdemeanour.
More conservative Christians will, of course, continue to assert that Christ died as the world’s Redeemer (although they should also explore the breadth of spiritual motifs which are present in the story). Nevertheless even they sometimes diminish the Cross’s power to shock: by removing its splinters and smoothing its rough edges, by portraying it in an exquisite work of art, or by crafting it into a golden and jewel-studded artefact. Equally they may so concentrate on Christ’s risen Easter life that his Passion hardly gets a mention.
But the Cross must never be pushed away from its central place in our faith. It stands as a constant reminder of God’s love and the ugliness of sin. It shows us that God identifies with human suffering and feels it as deeply as anyone else; indeed, the crucified Jesus is God making himself vulnerable enough to share the very worst of our pain. His cry of anguish, “My God, why have you abandoned me?” shows how he identifies with people who feel that God has deserted them just when they needed him most.
Yes, the Cross presents us with the appalling picture of a bloodied man gasping for every breath and with life literally draining from him. It reminds us of the day in history when it seemed as if evil had triumphed and God himself had died. But that is not the true picture, for the Cross was no accident or failure. I believe that it was there that God’s plan of salvation took one huge step nearer to completion. And it was there that the greatest act of love in all history took place.
So I don’t want to ditch the Cross. It may be unsightly and even offensive, yet it is the perfect logo for Christ’s Church – a hugely counter-cultural symbol which confronts our society’s assumptions and challenges Christians to self-denying discipleship. On Good Friday believers from every Christian tradition look at the figure of the suffering Jesus and weep. But that is not enough: he asks us to “take up our crosses” and follow him every day of the year.
Andrew Kleissner has been the Minister of Christ Church (United Reformed & Baptist), Tacket Street, Ipswich since 2005. Prior to that he was a missionary in West Africa and then the Minister of two churches in London. He served for some years as the Baptist representative on “Churches Together in England’s” Theology Group and is now the Eastern Baptist Association’s Ecumenical Officer for Suffolk. Andrew is married to Moira, a retired teacher who – among other things! – volunteers for Christian Aid, Dance East and “Emmaus”.
(The views expressed here are those of the author, not of Heart 4 Ipswich, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate. We welcome your thoughts upon the ideas expressed here, posted as comments below)
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