The Old Rugged Cross

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.

11 thoughts on “The Old Rugged Cross

  1. Great post. Great lesson. Makes me wish I heard the sermon. Happy Easter Week to you, your family and your whole world.

  2. Thanks, JJ.

    It actually preached fairly well. I’m glad I was able to kill two birds with one stone.

    Cheers,

    Ben

  3. Ben, I’m glad the Jehovah’s Witnesses inspired you to
    write such a moving sermon about what the Cross means
    to you. Usually, when the JWs come to the door, I just
    get rid of them as firmly and politely as possible!
    Hope you’ve had a chance to read the Bill Moyers’
    speech he gave at West Point, which is in your latest
    issue of “Christian Ethics Today.” It’s as meaty as
    the Occidental speech you wrote about.

    Keep on keeping on!

  4. Alas! and did my Savior bleed?
    And did my Sov’reign die?
    Would He devote that sacred head
    For sinners such as I?

    Was it for crimes that I have done
    He groaned upon the tree?
    Amazing pity! Grace unknown!
    And love beyond degree!

    Well might the sun in darkness hide,
    And shut his glories in,
    When Christ, the mighty Maker,
    died For jman the creature’s sin.

    But drops of grief can ne’er repay
    The debt of love I owe:
    Here, Lord, I give myself away,
    “Tis all that I can do!

    Chorus:
    At the cross, at he cross where I first saw the light,
    and the burden of my heart rolled away.
    It was there by faith I received my sight,
    And now I am happy all the day!

  5. I learned that hymn at Mendocino Presbyterian church with Ronn in the pulpit and Judy at the organ.

    Judy, Moyers’ speech to the West Point folks was indeed powerful. I was particularly moved by the challenges he issues to his listeners at the end of the speech.

    Ben

  6. That must be Bill Moyers! What great challenge he left at West Point and Occidental. Perhaps we should raise some funds to get him a prime time slot on TV to speak to the nation. Ronn

  7. Pingback: Moyers at West Point at Ben Daniel's Left Coast Lions' Den

  8. Nice article, Ben.

    I had been meaning to send you an article that is the published version of a lecture given last fall at HDS by James Cone about the cross. It was titled “Jesus Christ and the Lynching Tree” and relates crucifixion to the lynchings of black individuals in America.

    While I cannot go as far as Cone does with his argument, what was most compelling about his argument was that we must not ever let go of the cross, because it forces us to think about who is being crucified today. I think that question is central to our mission as Christians– we are to find who is being crucified, hung out to dry, killed, maimed or hurt for whatever reason and to act christianly… we must reach out to those around us. The cross is about widening our community for me, and you made me think of that with this article.

    I will send you that lecture as soon as i can.

    Sarah

  9. Thanks, Sarah. I look forward to reading the lecture. Sounds like good foder for a Good Friday Sermon…

    Ben

  10. Ben–

    Yours is a thoughtful and though-provoking piece. What you don’t touch on are two aspects of veneration of the Cross that are very central to Eastern Christian (Byzantine) thinking.

    One, that we wear the Cross because Christ told us to: Take up your cross and follow me. It’s not just Christ’s Cross; it becomes mine when I decide to follow Him.

    Two, we see the Cross as the new Tree of Life. By eating of the fruit of the tree in the Garden, our first parents let sin and death into the world. By becoming the fruit of the tree on Calvary, Christ overcame sin and destroyed death, restoring the original unity of humankind with God. Our Old Testament readings for the feast of the Holy Cross (14 September) connect the Cross also with the wood of Noah’s ark, with Jacob who stretched out his arms to bless Joseph’s children, with Moses who stretched out his arms to open the way through the Red Sea, with the branch Moses threw into the bitter waters at Marah to sweeten them, with Moses’ making water gush from the rock by striking it with his rod, with Moses’ extending his arms in prayer so that Israel could defeat Amalek, with Aaron’s rod that flowered, and with the brazen serpent that was placed in the midst of the camp to save those dying of poison–all images and prefigurations of salvation by the Cross, either its shape or its material. We moderns may not be so comfortable with such allegorical readings, but the point is valid nonetheless. And with the usual Greek use of paradox to drive home the mysterious truths of our Christian faith, the Kontakion hymn for the feast of the Holy Cross calls it “a weapon of peace and a standard of victory.” We should wear it to promote peace and to proclaim the victory of Life over Death.

    Irenically,
    James

  11. James,

    Thanks for the post. I appreciate the Eastern perspective. I espcially like the connection to the Old Testament. It’s a good bulwark against any latent dispensationalism that may lurk in my Protestant world view!

    Peace to You Too,

    Ben

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