This column was published on April 2, 2007 on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum. It also formed the core of my sermon on April 1. On April 5, 2007 this piece was picked up by a newspaper in the Cayman Islands. Who knew?
About this time last year I was approached by a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses at a bus stop. The bus was late, giving us plenty of time to talk, and eventually the conversation drifted to the subject of the cross I was wearing around my neck.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, it turns out, don’t like the symbol of the cross. For one thing, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe Jesus was crucified. They believe he was impaled on a stake, and this is an important distinction in their theology. But beyond the proper translation of the Biblical Greek word stauroo (“impale” to them, “crucify” to me), my conversational partners were concerned that I would wear the image of the device upon which I believe my savoir had died. (“My mother gave me this necklace” was not a satisfactory answer).
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are not alone in their discomfort with the cross. Latter Day Saints also tend to downplay the symbol of the cross, and the Unification Church—the religious movement associated with the ownership of UPI—has led an effort to convince otherwise conventional Christian churches to remove cruciform images from their sanctuaries.
I remain devoted to the cross. In my mind, those who would shun the cross or downplay its importance as a religious symbol—provided they believe the cross played a role in Christ’s passion—are missing the most important message of the cross. The cross is not only a representation of the instrument of Christ’s death, it is a reminder of God’s love. According to traditional Christian doctrine, Christ wasn’t just executed on the cross as a punishment for human sin, but on the cross, God, in human flesh, made a choice to share in human suffering. The cross, then, for Christians, is a symbol of divine empathy, compassion, and love.
As a symbol of God’s identification with the suffering of humanity, the cross has the power to remind people to join in God’s work of empathy, compassion, and love, not just emotionally, but in tangible action.
The cross is important because modern life tends to be like a swirling eddy, sucking us deeper into ourselves. We are shielded from one another by electronic gadgets, personalized entertainment, and the stress of working to support the flotsam and jetsam of what passes as evidence of successful living. The cross has the power to pull us out of this self-centered vortex and to move us toward empathetic and loving compassion for the people around us and the world beyond us.
This is dangerous. The cross can turn even the most reserved and staid couch potato into a radical.
If I allow the power of the cross’s empathy to live in my life, the sadness of a lonely child is not just her sadness, it is my sadness because I know what it means to be lonely and sad. The cross motivates me to seek that child’s comfort; and if she happens to live in Sadr City or Gaza City, or if she is hungry and lost in the Sonoran desert on her way north from Mexico, the comfort I am able to extend may be seen as an unhealthy mixture religion and politics. Such is the way of the cross.
The cross reminds me that the poverty endemic to the rougher neighborhoods of my city isn’t just a problem for those unfortunate enough to be stuck in the cycle of poverty, it is my problem. If I am attentive to the message of the cross, I will be motivated by compassion to do something positive in the community to address that poverty. I may volunteer in an inner city school. I may work at a homeless shelter. I may use my voice to speak at city hall on behalf of the poor who are my neighbors.
When I take up the cross, the suffering of an orphan with HIV in Africa is my suffering, and the love of the cross will inspire me through prayer, charity, and political action to do something about that suffering. It may even get me to go to Africa, to address the needs of orphans in a more personal way.
There are, of course, many religious symbols that inspire people to do God’s work in tangible ways, but for the Christian there is none so compelling as the cross. As Holy Week begins and with it the Christian observance of Jesus’ journey to Calvary, my prayer is that Christians will embrace the power of the cross to move us toward a greater and more holistic sense of empathy, compassion, and love.