The cross as a visual symbol (one you won’t see in our sanctuary)
Recently commissioned co-pastor Renée Antrosio and Pastor Emeritus Ron Simkins dialogue on images of Jesus and absence of crosses in the New Covenant Fellowship sanctuary.
Renée: There are so many other images that Jesus uses for himself in the gospels, how did the cross come the major symbol of Christianity?
Ron: I think we have to step back behind that question a bit. The cross became the symbol it tends to be now during the time of Emperor Constantine who adopted the cross as the symbol of victory over his foes. Apparently, at the same time Rome quit using the cross to torture and execute people. Prior to that time, no follower of Jesus wore a cross or saw it as a piece of jewelry or art as far as we know. It was a symbol—but it stood for torture and for attempts to control others by brute force. As a symbol, it was pretty much what we would think of if we saw a hangman’s noose, an electric chair, or a firing squad. Can God give victory over lynchings, torture, and unjust incarcerations? Yes. And, he did in Jesus! Is that what we are thinking of when we use the cross as a symbol today?
Renée: Using the cross as symbol of victory over foes has definitely shaped a modern American understanding of Christianity as being a religion of winning and success, which was not how early followers of Jesus experienced faith during the first 300 years after his crucifixion and resurrection. Why is submitting to human violence and willingly enduring great suffering on the cross critical to our understanding of Jesus?
Ron: The resurrection victory of God over sin and death through Jesus has to have the crucifixion as part of the event in order to see what God is doing both then and now. The resurrection without the cross is a kind of triumphalism that ignores the cost of love, mercy, and justice in the world. But Jesus certainly does not stay on the cross in the New Testament as he has in some theology. The cross without the resurrection is just a symbol of power winning over love. Still, the cross never becomes pretty in the Gospels or in the rest of the New Testament writings. It is our world at its worst; and God and Jesus at their best right here with us in this very real part of our world.
Renée: How might using the cross as the primary symbol of belief in Jesus lead to distorted images of God or be damaging to those seeking God?
Ron: That is not a theoretical question. We just need to look at history to see the answer. Once the cross became the symbol of the church as a world power rather than a symbol of God’s victory over world power, it became the symbol of crusades that slaughtered Jews, Muslims, and fellow Christians; it became a symbol seen throughout much of the world as a symbol of prejudices, torture, and threats. Isn’t it frightening that the KKK sees the cross as their symbol of power just as Constantine’s Rome did?
Renée: The gospel of John presents Jesus as the creative Word made flesh, the Light of the world, the King of the Jews, the Savior of the world, the Messiah, the Lamb of God, the Son of Man, and the Son of God. These seem difficult to translate into a symbol. How does having multiple titles and images of Jesus affect our understanding of him?
Ron: Every image, title, and symbol makes a very important point about what God has done for creation, humanity, the church, and each of us individually through God’s relationship with Jesus. But, every image, title, and symbol also has its limitations, and if pushed too far each symbol begins to become false rather than truth. For example: Jesus is King, but if pushed too far this begins to eliminate the equally important truths about Jesus as our brother, our servant, and our friend. If we push the “Lamb” imagery too far, Jesus becomes milquetoast, weak, and passive, but if we ignore it we miss out on the powerful liberating imagery of the new Exodus that only God can bring about.
Renée: Have you found a different symbolic representation for your belief in Jesus that you prefer, and/or is there a visible way you identify yourself as a Christian?
Ron: The cross is one of the important symbols of my faith demonstrating what God has done for us in Jesus, but it isn’t a pretty one. The Jewish artist Marc Chagall portrayed the symbolism of the cross much more accurately than does jewelry and pretty art when he painted Jesus on the cross in the middle of the Holocaust suffering (Persecution). Tragically, this suffering of Jewish and other people occurred at the hands of a people who had claimed to be a Christian nation for centuries. If we want to use crosses as art in our buildings and in our worship, we need art that portrays something like a lynching while showing God turning it into a life-giving event for many. Not easy to do in art. As Paul said, the cross is an example of Jesus taking upon himself the worst darknesses and the worst curses of human injustice, prejudice, sin, and torture, and trusting that God is bigger. And, God is! Wow!