The cross has long stood as a symbol of aggression, but it is more rightly understood as a symbol of submission.
In a story in last Monday’s Star Tribune (“Murder Verdict in Little Falls hasn’t ended debate”), reporter Pam Louwagie included a small but telling detail about one of her interviewees. Louwagie attended a meeting in Little Falls of those who want the murder verdict against Byron Smith overturned. Among those in attendance, she reports, was “76-year-old Beverly Nouis, who stood inside the meeting room with about 45 other supporters, a cross hanging from her neck.”
Some Christians will read this and howl that the liberal media is again attempting to embarrass people of faith by pointing out Ms. Nouis’ jewelry while not commenting on anyone else’s accessories. Others will find it an odd but irrelevant bit of reportage. As a Christian theologian I find it a compelling tidbit in the weeks after Easter, during which Christians focus especially on the cross.The cross of crucifixion was a political symbol well before Jesus. Invented in about the 6th century BC, execution by crucifixion was common for about a millennium. Historians think that about 6,000 slaves were crucified on the roads leading into Rome at the end of the Third Servile War in 71 BC (you may remember that portrayed in the closing scene of Spartacus).
When Jesus was crucified outside of Jerusalem in approximately AD 30, it was a form of execution reserved for the lowest criminals: pirates, slaves, and insurrectionists. Roman citizens were exempt from this most humiliating of deaths.
The Apostle Paul, the first theologian of the church, was almost completely uninterested in the life of Jesus – he never mentions a parable or a miracle, and he doesn’t write about Jesus’ birth in a manger. But he is consumed with Jesus’ death. In fact, Paul uses “the cross of Christ” as a metonym for the gospel — in his mind, the cross is the gospel .
Paul’s message is no clearer than when he either composes or recites a hymn in his letter to the Philippians, writing that in Christ, God “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”
But it wasn’t long before the cross went from being a symbol of God’s humility to an emblem of Christian aggression. Not 150 years after Paul, preachers were using the death of Jesus as an excuse for anti-Semitism. In 240, the early theologian Origen shamefully wrote that the blood of Jesus would be on the hands of “all the generations of Jews that followed till the end of time.”
It was only another century later that the cross was first affixed to soldiers’ shields by the Emperor Constantine, and there it has lived ever since.
The journey that the cross has made from a symbol of ignominy, submission, and humility to one of imperialism, dominance, and aggression has been well documented by historians. Happily, many Christians – both clergy and laypeople – want to turn the page on this. They want the cross that we wear around our necks to once again remind us that in Jesus, God was suffering a defeat, not winning a victory.
Or, to put it another way, the cross is the reminder to Christians that victory comes in defeat . Jesus did not take up arms against his attackers. On the contrary, Jesus spent his life with those who suffered in the shadows of the dominant society, and he died outside the city walls, in league with the lowest non-citizens in the Roman empire.
Another person at that meeting in Little Falls seemed almost to revel in the murderous assault of Byron Smith upon teenagers Haile Kifer and Nick Brady. He said, “Open your doors, open your windows, raise your shades and load your shotguns.” I hope he wasn’t wearing a cross around his neck, because that’s the opposite of what the cross means.