Today is Good Friday, the day on which Christians commemorate the death of Jesus by Roman crucifixion. For that reason, it’s also a commemoration of the event which birthed the use of the cross in the Christian tradition.
Unless you’re blind or really culturally unaware, you’ve probably noticed that the cross is the defining symbol of Christianity. You see it everywhere – necklaces, churches, tattoos, bumper stickers – much of the obnoxious kitsch of American religious culture vomits crosses onto everything.
You see the cross everywhere. That’s just the problem.
You see, while we all know the cross has something to do with Christianity and Jesus, we all (including, and perhaps especially, Christians) seem to have forgotten something: a cross is a torture instrument.
Put aside your religious assumptions or lack thereof and explore the story of a dark and human and weirdly redemptive symbol with me.
What Crosses Were (Are) For
Crosses have a long history. The notoriously cruel and feared Assyrian empire – which conquered the part of Jesus’s native Israel known as Samaria in 722 BC – would impale victims on stakes and leave them hanging to terrify captive populations.
The empires which followed Assyria and Babylon in dominating the Near East (with the possible exception of the Persians) would all use crucifixion, including Alexander the Great’s Macedonian empire and the Seleucid Empire which succeeded it.
It was the Romans who perfected crucifixion. Death by hanging or nailing to a cross was a long, public method of execution for criminals from lower classes and for rebels from conquered peoples or slave classes. It exposed the victim to public shame and all of the elements of nature while it slowly suffocated him to death over the period of up to several days. It was not a quick death. Crucifixion was designed to make you very aware of the fact that you were dying but not give you the satisfaction of an end.
You’ll note that I alternatively titled this section with the present tense “what crosses are for.” It’s hard to imagine – then again, maybe not so hard for people who understand evil – but this perfected torture method is still in use today in some parts of the world.
No empire could invent a better tool of control through fear or a better symbol of its absolute power. What Jesus and so many other enemies of the Roman state experienced would make us empty our stomachs in shock, disgust, and (hopefully) pity.
The Cross is a Weird Symbol
It’s really weird to make a torture instrument like the cross the central metaphor or symbol for your religious group. That’s like choosing a gallows or a guillotine or a gas chamber as your symbol. Not a wise branding move. No one’s buying that t-shirt.
Consider these Christian hymn lyrics about Jesus’s cross, modified slightly to reflect more recognizable torture instruments:
“When I survey the wondrous gas chamber in which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.”
– “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” by Isaac Watts
“So I’ll cherish the old rugged guillotine
Till my trophies at last I lay down
I will cling to the old rugged guillotine
And exchange it some day for a crown”
– “The Old Rugged Cross”
Weird, right? Are you really going to get dressed in your Sunday finest and go sing about this with your neighbors this weekend? Why in hell would you? Isn’t this the most horrifying absurdity you can imagine?
The Cross is Shameful and Foolish
“So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.”
– Early Christian writing – Paul of Tarsus’s first known letter to the church at Corinth, chapter I, verse XXIII
The first symbol of the cross and the first depiction of Jesus known to us is this graffiti with the inscription “Alexamenos worships his god.” In case you’re wondering, the little twat who drew this gave his graffiti Jesus the head of a donkey.
For a movement preaching Jesus as an alternative king to Caesar and Jesus’s way of peace as an alternative to the might of the Roman empire, the fact of Jesus’s crucifixion would have been a major obstacle to getting the word out.
Crucifixion was shameful. Worshipping and following a crucified man was foolish, if not insane. It’s not going to help you get by in the Roman world, and it might get you hung up on a cross yourself if you’re a poor, unlucky bastard.
It’s not too dissimilar in our own world. Who among us would follow the teachings of a convicted heroin dealer? We may feel some degree of pity for a death-row inmate. But reverence? Impossible. No one will be revering an injection needle or its victim. Most of us think the targets of the prosecutorial system deserve it. Even when we don’t, we stay as far away from its victims and products as possible.
The Cross’s Subversive Irony
Irony, n. “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.”
Today’s outside observers and critics of Christianity have noticed the weirdness of the cross more often than most modern Christians have. They point out that it’s telling that Christianity chose an instrument of death for a central symbol. They might have a point. It’s worth noting here that Roman emperor Constantine may be to blame for the rise of the cross as a widespread, recognizable visual symbol in Christianity – and that he apparently used it to motivate his army to kill a bunch of people. It’s undeniable that Christianity in some of its guises has brought death to the world. It still does. But that’s not the full story of the cross, and it’s certainly not the first.
There’s a reason Christians chose to use the cross as a symbol, and it’s not because the cross was a constant reminder of death. After all, Christianity did not begin on Friday, when Jesus was executed. At that point, Christianity – or the Way, or whatever Jesus’s earliest followers would have called it – had effectively ceased to exist. According to the Gospel accounts we have of these events, even the protagonists were in hiding, running away, or lying in fear of being captured and tried themselves.
No, Christianity did not begin on Friday. It began on Sunday. And it began not with the cross but with a reversal of the cross – resurrection. With what happened that day, all of a sudden Jesus’s followers were no longer afraid of being executed. They were no longer afraid of the Roman Empire. And they were so unafraid that they very shortly began taking the Roman Empire’s main instrument of power and death and transforming it into a medium for their message.
The cross is a subversive parody. What the Roman authorities meant for death and intimidation, Jesus’s followers eventually turned into a symbol of undefeated, resurrected life as embodied in Jesus and as expected for the world.
This isn’t an idle theory. Early Christian writer Paul of Tarsus was one of the first to form a theology of what the cross meant in his letters to Christian churches around the Roman world. In one, he explicitly states that Jesus, in his innocence, exposed the religious authorities and the Romans and disarmed their imperial might, their torture, their cross:
“And having disarmed the rulers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
– Paul of Tarsus’s letter to the early Christian church at Colossae, chapter II, verse XV
According to Paul here, it wasn’t Jesus – who was being publicly tortured to death – who was the spectacle. The spectacle was the people who were crucifying an innocent man. Think about that. Every successful act of civil disobedience since Jesus has done the same thing: showing the true evil nature of thrones and powers and rulers and authorities.
This revelation of evil – and his own rejection of violence in kind – was Jesus’s triumph at the darkest moment of his mission. Empires are built on lies. By exposing the main lie of violence that sustained the Roman system, Jesus won a victory for the alternative peaceful kingdom of God he had preached. As French literary anthropologist Rene Girard put it:
“To recognize Christ as God is to recognize him as the only being capable of rising above the violence that had, up to that point, absolutely transcended mankind… A non-violent deity can only signal his existence to mankind by having himself driven out by violence – by demonstrating that he is not able to establish himself in the Kingdom of Violence.”
This is part of what some Christians talk about when they talk about Jesus’s death, and it’s a key part of the subversive meaning that the cross came to take on over time.
First the Symbol, Then the Narrative, Then the World
“For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
– Paul of Tarsus’s first letter to the early Christian church at Corinth, chapter XV, verse XXVI
Yes, the people who came after Jesus and even after Paul continued to be persecuted and (according to the stories) crucified, beheaded, boiled, and otherwise killed in ways that might make even Game of Thrones baddie Ramsay Bolton blanch. But, for the most part, they refused to roll over and die. They refused to retreat into various forms of world-denying or cynical philosophies or spiritualities that abounded in the Roman world at the time.
The Christians took control of the symbol of the cross, and so they took control of the narrative. Resurrection had happened for Jesus, God was healing and renewing the world through Jesus’s followers, and there was little the Romans and their crosses could do about it.
The Christian movement, for all of its faults and splintering, led directly to the ending of the worst parts of pagan culture: the gladiatorial games, the common abandonment of unwanted children, crucifixion itself. By bringing the divine son-of-god Caesars down to earth, it led to an end of the deification of the state in the West. Indirectly (and for better or for worse), you can make the case that Christianity led to the collapse of the Roman Empire. I would give Jesus and the Christians major credit for the foundations of individual freedom and therefore of the modern world.
As you can see, the cross idea kind of backfired on the Romans. And that’s the story (or a very small part of it) of how the cross came to be the symbol of Christianity. That’s how an instrument of death became a slap in the face to death.
In that light, it starts to make more sense to call the cross something beautiful.
Make the Cross Weird Again
“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me… Death, thou shalt die.”
– John Donne, “Death Be Not Proud”
As I said in the beginning, the cross has lost much of its horror and therefore much of its holiness (by which I mean “separateness” or sacredness) due to overuse. That also means it’s lost much of it’s power to parody death and point toward a way of life that resurrects and redeems things.
Maybe the Christian thing doesn’t make any sense to you. Maybe Easter is just an occasion for chocolate eggs and partying it up (more power to you on the partying up. It’s a great holy day – everybody should enjoy it). But let’s try to remember the gravity of even one person’s actual death on an actual cross. Jesus was an actual human being who actually died this way, not – though our culture and our religious kitsch might try to make us believe it – either a distant totemic figure for sterile adoration or a Sunday school hippie strawman we can use as comedy fodder.
If you do try to follow the way of this Jesus who was crucified (and you’re still reading this), a good response to the cross may be to take more care with how you use it. When we casually talk about the cross, we forget its power as a symbol. We’re dealing with something here for which we lack context. Our fathers and brothers have never been in danger of dying on these torture stakes. We will never understand the cross in the way that the 1st-century Christians did, so the cross must never become a tool for propaganda or manipulation. After all, a main point of the Christian appropriation of the cross was to subvert propaganda.
I’ve by no means covered the full range of meanings which the cross can hold for Christians. That’s a post for another time. We may never fully “get” the symbol of the cross, and Christians are geared up to have years of theological atonement theory debates to prove it.
But we do need the cross. There’s still plenty of death and corruption and self-destruction and empire and evil in the world. Plenty of people have internalized it. Let’s make the cross weird again so that it can be transformative and redemptive again. Then let’s go out and do the work.
I didn’t link him up here, but major acknowledgements are in order to Anglican theologian and Jesus historian N.T. Wright. I owe a lot to his work on 1st century history and theological context of the Gospels and Paul’s letters.