It’s a little eerie to hear my son read a harsh Bible passage (Matthew 10; 33) about sons being divided against their fathers. It makes me wonder if I should have come better prepared, maybe with protective armor. Now that I look eye to eye with my son, I can’t take any chances. You know the saying, “never raise a hand to your children. It leaves your groin exposed.”
In all seriousness, it was a proud moment among many proud moments to see my oldest son reading this morning. It made me think about what I most want for him. Do I want him to call himself a Christian? That’s not at all important to me. I want him to think for himself, to live with integrity, to be all that he can be and to care deeply about people. If Christian stories and symbols help him to live more fully, then I want him to have Christianity as a resource. But being a Christian is not an end in itself. It is a means to another end; that is peaceful awakening.
What do you most want for your kids? What are your religious or spiritual hopes for your kids? Maybe more to the point, what’s your relationship to Christian stories and symbols?
The Cross and Clergy Abuse
I have to say that when I read articles like the piece in this week’s Time magazine about a new wave of clergy pedophilia that has swept Europe, I don’t know that I want to be associated with Christianity. As is the case in all churches and in all countries, the tragedy is made worse by the silent disregard of victims and the cover up. The church simply moves its known pedophiles to a new parish and hopes for the best. To the extent that the church and the cross are symbols of power without accountability, I want nothing to do with them. To the extent that the cross is understood as God the Father sending his son to be sacrificed on the cross for the sins of the world, then I want nothing to do with this cosmic child abuse.
The issue of your relationship to Christian stories and symbols is not just a matter of personal preference. It’s a matter of justice. This community must be a place of healing for people who have suffered at the hands of Christianity. And we must see this as a matter of justice. No less.
Some years ago I was at a conference looking at the question of pastoring victims of abuse. It was a moving conference and the most significant moment for me was when a woman shared some of her awful memories of being raped by her uncle over the course of 5 years, beginning when she was 13. He was an elder in his church. The room in his house where he abused the young girl had a picture of Jesus on the cross. Next to it was another picture of Jesus sitting with children on his knee. The caption read, “Jesus blesses little children.”
The woman said at the conference, “I can’t enter a church, or even see a cross without dying inside all over again.”
This may be the most passionate plea you ever hear me make. The holocaust irrevocably changed Christianity. Christianity can no longer speak of a loving, interventionist God who has a special relationship with one group of people over another with any integrity. To do so would be to rub salt into the wounds of an injustice so deep that my mind can’t even comprehend the pain.
Clergy sexual abuse and pedophilia are in the same category. They have irrevocably changed Christianity. We cannot blindly continue as if the many abuses at the hands of this religion have not taken place. If there is even a hint of a connection between celibacy and pedophilia, and there is, then rules on celibacy should be changed immediately. If there is even one person who was abused in the shadow of a cross and its power hungry defenders, then crosses should be removed. To ignore the pain of the victims of abuse at the hands of the church, sexual and otherwise, and to rub salt into the wounds of their injustice is unthinkable.
A 13 year old girl’s uncle has made it impossible to speak of the death of Jesus and the love of God in the same breath. It is unthinkable to speak of God having a plan for anyone to endure innocent suffering. The God who needs blood to be shed to appease his anger and in order to offer forgiveness is a God who must be abandoned along with celibacy. However we attempt to save the cross from its own history, it cannot be a symbol of innocent suffering. This is a matter of justice.
What do you think? Can the cross be saved?
Putting a New Spin on an Old Theme
Many have attempted to put a different spin on the cross. Just yesterday there was a report in the Grand Rapids Press of a local artist who portrayed Jesus’ crucifixion from the perspective of Jesus’ hands. A Cathedral in France attempted to bring the crucifixion into a modern context and portrayed Jesus slumped unconscious in an electric chair. The sculpture is called Pieta, bringing to mind Michelangelo’s famous masterpiece.
It makes me think of the Lenny Bruce saying, “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.”
Before dismissing this as the ranting of a comedian looking for a laugh, consider the sharp edge to the comment. Modern attempts to reinterpret Jesus’ death simple place the same conundrum into a modern image. Whether it’s a cross or an electric chair, what was achieved in Jesus’ death and what do we gain by keeping the symbol alive?
Then there is the awful news coming out of China that many American crucifixes are made in Chinese sweat shops under appalling, unjust conditions. Crosses used in American churches may have been made by under age, female employees working from 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. seven days a week and being paid 26 cents an hour with no sick days or vacation. Now there is the ultimate irony.
Relating this to the Jesus story, the cross was not a symbol of what he stood for. It was the consequence of what he stood for. The cross is not the symbol of Jesus’ cause. It’s the symbol of his detractors. It makes no more sense to keep the symbol of the cross alive as a memorial to Jesus life than it does to hang a bullet as a symbol of Martin Luther King’s life. Many warriors for justice have met premature endings at the hands of their detractors. It’s a well known but carefully avoided fact that standing up for your passion leads to great costs. But this doesn’t mean that we should glorify the cost. We should honor the courage and conviction, and not glorify the actions of their detractors.
jailLegend has it that Henry David Thoreau, the author of “Walden Pond”, sat in jail, imprisoned for protesting against an income tax, newly-enacted to finance a war. His friend Ralph Waldo Emerson came to visit him. Looking through the bars into Thoreau’s cell, Emerson asked, “What are you doing in there, Henry?” Thoreau replied, “The better question is what are you doing out there?” Take it from Rosa Parks and Jack Kevorkian and many others who have paid the price for their convictions.
If you follow your passion and fight for what you believe, there will be blood. But is it really the blood we want to focus on to motivate our most passionate and intelligent activism?
Jesus and Justice
Which Jesus do you honor? There are many to choose from. Towering about the city of Rio is one of the world’s largest Jesus statues, the 30 meter tall figure of Jesus the Redeemer. Rio is home to over 10 million people, a place of extremes where wealth and poverty reside awkwardly alongside each other. Jesus stands with his arms outstretched, as if welcoming the people of the city. Unfortunately, he stands facing the wealthy part of the city with his back to the poor neighborhoods. Isn’t that the wrong way around? Didn’t Jesus live for those who had the greatest need for liberation? Isn’t part of the problem for Christianity that Jesus has been hijacked by wealthy and powerful people who use him to justify their self serving agendas?
Some of you might remember that in 2002 Greenpeace hung a banner over the Statue of Jesus the Redeemer. The banner was hung to protest the blocking of Brazil’s sustainable energy program by large and powerful oil exporters and consumers. We inherit a Christian tradition where Jesus lived for the powerless, and yet our tradition has been hijacked to justify the actions of the powerful. Unfortunately, the cross has come to symbolize protection of the powerful rather than service of the powerless.
Some say that the empty cross is a symbol of hope in the midst of despair. I don’t see it that way. The cross was among the most painful and humiliating forms of execution. The concept was to hang a person in public view and allow vultures to eat the body. The empty cross for me is simply a sign of a successful execution. It neither comforts nor inspires me. What does inspire me? Oscar Romero was an activist and Roman Catholic Archbishop in El Salvador. His life was in constant peril because of his vocal opposition to injustice. He said often in his life, “If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.”
Thirty years ago on the day before Good Friday, Oscar Romero was murdered in his homeland. Jon Sobrino and many others ensured that his prophecy rang true as they continued his work in El Salvador. Not surprisingly the Catholic Church has attempted to censure Sobrino for his teachings on Jesus as a social radical.
I could outline a more positive interpretation of the cross as a symbol of passionate activism. However it seems far better to live by the words of Romero and allow the activism of Jesus to rise again in our own best efforts to live for justice.
The Cross and Manipulation
In the year 312 CE as he prepared for battle, the Emperor Constantine looked up to the sky and saw a vision of a cross of light in the sky, a vision which he interpreted as a divine sign. Up until that point a skeptic, Constantine began stating that he had the Christian God on his side. He emblazoned the Christian symbol on his soldier’s shields and led them to victory. Christianity soon became the state religion and the cross became institutionalized as a symbol for victorious crusades. Up until the time of Constantine, Christians had deemphasized the use of the cross because it was a pagan nature symbol.
When modern day leaders invoke the name crusade to describe their God ordained wars, they are laboring under the same false illusion that Constantine had used to justify his wars. There may be justification for some war. But make no mistake. This justification is never because God is on your side. This too is a matter of justice.
feetSo let me end with a comment about right wing commentator Glenn Beck. He recently encouraged people to leave their church if there is any reference to justice on the website. He suggested that this showed the true colors of the church, in this case pink. Glenn Beck had it bass ackwards. The ONLY way a church can follow in the footsteps of Jesus is to strive for justice.
Jesus felt so strongly about the priority of justice that he put activism before family loyalty, and even before religious practice. The activism that Jesus encouraged had nothing to do with communism, and everything to do with compassion. He came with a sword to cut through the corrupt power structures and self serving ideologies of his day, even if it was unpopular.
What does the cross inspire in you? The only cross I am interested in is crossing the lines that divide people with arbitrary markers of religious difference. I am interested in crossing aisles to work together and crossing the street to greet diversity and crossing the powers that be when they set up systems to serve the powerful and marginalize the powerless. I want to cross off religious wars from the list of world problems, and I get cross when religions claim exclusive truth.
So there you have it. I have revealed my true colors. That is why you don’t see crosses in this space. That is why we need to talk about the large cross hanging outside our building. What can we do to turn a symbol that has come to be associated with power abuse and injustice into a symbol of unity and healing?
The artist Marc Chagall painted Yellow Crucifixion in 1943. In it, the crucified Jesus was wearing Jewish prayer garments and holding a torah scroll. The cross was surrounded by horrific images of the holocaust. It’s a stark and controversial image. If the cross has any future as a symbol, it must transcend its exclusive Christian meaning and speak instead to the suffering of all people, especially suffering brought about my religious leaders.
What are your true colors? Are you prepared to show them? How does Christianity empower you to reach out beyond your own comfort zone to heal a hurting world? Do you think the cross can be saved from itself, or is it time to abandon this symbol and move on to more life affirming, inspiring symbols?
For Further Reflection-
Why do you think sexual abuse is such a problem for church leaders?
Do you see a connection between celibacy and clergy abuse?
Do you think the cross can be saved as a symbol?
How would you describe your relationship to the Christian tradition?