Good Friday as Good News, part I

“Ron, you are a pastor, why don’t you wear a cross like many other pastors and priests do?”

That is a question that comes along to me in some form or another once in a while. More often someone asks, “Ron, why have you insisted that the New Covenant Fellowship building not be filled with cross imagery, as so many other church buildings are?”

Those are very good questions, and it is easy for someone to think that I am somehow ashamed of the cross/crucifixion/execution event that is a very central part of the New Testament narrative. Nothing could be further from the truth. What is true is that I think the cross has become in many circles a symbol of beauty and decoration, and in other circles a symbol of keeping Jesus on the cross permanently in a seemingly perpetual crucifixion.

Jesus is certainly not still on the cross, and there is no magic available in acting as though he is, whether in the eucharist or elsewhere.  But, neither did the resurrection turn the cross into a beautiful jewelry charm.

If we want to get in touch with what the symbol of the cross meant to the first century Jewish writers of the New Testament, we need to get in touch with their historical experiences. The Romans had crucified 1000’s of Jewish people before they crucified Jesus, and they crucified many more after they crucified Jesus. The Roman cross was to the Jewish community a symbol of torture, shame, oppression, arrogant misuse of power, and rampant brutality. It was a political power statement:  “Do not ever forget; we are in charge here!”

I grew up in the south where 1000’s of reported and unreported lynchings took place as Caucasian Americans lynched black Americans.  The goal was to be sure that “troublemakers” and “potential troublemakers” understood clearly who held the power. It didn’t really matter too much whether the person swinging from a tree was guilty or not, the message was still clearly sent to others. This is exactly how the Romans thought about crucifying Jews.  So, for me to understand the first century Jewish follower of Jesus responding to the symbol of the cross, I would need to understand that it felt a lot like seeing a hangman’s noose swinging from a tree limb in the south. 

To push ourselves a bit further, let’s visualize an electric chair with someone sitting in it ready to be legally executed – the wrong person who has been condemned by the legal processes of our court. Or, picture a crowd standing around an execution site as the person in charge loads the needle, and the crowd stands around gawking at the condemned prisoner – some of them even mocking, laughing, and jeering while others prepare their report for the morning paper or TV news.

And, to push ourselves just a bit further, let’s move the clock back from the zero hour just a bit, and watch the soldiers of the empire torturing the innocent, but condemned prisoner as preparation for the execution. Then it was with a crown of thorns, today perhaps with a waterboarding technique.

Now, it would not be true to say that I would never want a piece of art to display the cross.  In fact, Marc Chagal’s “White Crucixion” is a precious piece of art that shows Jesus on a Roman cross in the midst of Jews heading into the Nazi gas chambers and experiencing other tortures. If it was hung in the right spot inviting serious meditation, I might like to own an artistic rendition of noose, needle, waterboard, electric chair and a Roman cross.

Neither would I say that I would never wear a symbol of a hangman’s noose, an executioner’s needle, a water board, or an electric chair — I might wear one on a shirt or on a placard under certain circumstances. But, it would not be as a piece of beautiful jewelry.  It would either be as a personal reminder of a horrendous miscarriage of justice, or it would be as a part of a protest against some public miscarriage of justice.

If we can keep in view the horrors that images of the cross, electric chair, lynching noose, executioner’s needle, and waterboarding torture should bring to our mind and emotions, then we are ready to ask the question that resonates with the challenge of the New Testament Good News. How on earth (or in heaven) did they dare claim that this absolutely horrendous event somehow got caught up in an event they associated with God’s love for humanity, with God’s love for Jesus and for the world, and  with Jesus’ love for God and for us?

Let’s begin to explore that together next time.

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As always, if you have any thoughts, comments, or questions about this post, or if there is another topic you would like me to explore in a future post, please leave a comment. I always enjoy your questions and thoughts.   / Ron

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