This seems like a good time to remember that Jesus did not invent the cross. That cruel intersection of brutality and labour came from no divine inspiration, but rather from the same spirit that haunted prisons like Abu Ghraib. It was designed by the architect of concentration camps and suicide vests. It was devised along with the knot of the noose hung from the lynching tree.
The repurposing of the cross as an instrument of salvation, on the other hand, was a work of divine genius.
Can you imagine if we wore nooses around our necks as jewelry? If we decorated our sanctuaries with icons of abuse? If we collected replicas of the true Nazi gas chambers?
We shudder, because we know only too well that there are such collectors around us still. Imagine if bearing the cross provoked that same turn of the stomach. By rights, by the way that it was employed as an instrument of degradation, dehumanizing torture and death – by rights, we should have banned it from our sight. It should be taboo.
Instead, we venerate it. God has wrought some miracle by redeeming the cross from our shame at its deployment, in turning it to our glory. All it took was an act of human foolishness, matched with a work of divine genius.
Jesus was fool enough to stay out of love: love for his disciples; love even for his enemies. He prayed that they might find his way to be the one of light and truth; of life.
“What is truth?” asked Pilate.
Jesus should not have stayed in Jerusalem. That was his folly.
His genius was not to escape death but to defeat it on its own terms. To take on the burden of a denigrated race, false conviction, political oppression, the betrayal and abuse of a trusted and intimate friend, the random violence of the battle-scarred soldiers; the random cruelty of a sin-scarred world. He took it all upon his back and carried it stumbling through the streets of the holy city of God, he who had taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come.” He bore it all, and he suffered death upon the cross.
We put him there, we with our random sin and abject inability to love as much as we would like to be loved.
But his genius was not dimmed by our cunning architecture of terror and of torture. His love was not quenched by the darkness of the sky or the fading of his eyes. His passion was not quelled by the stilling of a beating heart.
He beat death at its own game. Every nail that we pounded in, every detail of death that we considered, or blind-eyed, or committed: every “none of my business;” every “eye for an eye;” every “I’ll take care of my own, you can go to hell;” every “you can go to hell.” Every nail in the cross, every nail in our coffin he took with him to the tomb. He descended into hell, where such details of death belong.
We venerate the cross not because we used it well, or had it right, or learned never to do it again: we are still trying, we are still getting caught in the details, snagged by jutting nails.
We venerate the cross not because of our ways with that device, but because of the way that Jesus turned it into the death of those details, those nails, those sins that we pin to him, suffering him to suffer for us because we haven’t got it right yet. He has made it the conduit to send those things to the place where they belong, so that we have a chance at living free of them, if we will only let them go on down to Hades with Jesus, and not ask for them back.
To his persecutors, he became their conviction, their chance for conversion. To their victims, he became their banner, and their hope for healing and new life, even if his own resurrected body still bore the scars. To each of us, who all tend both to sin and to be sinned against, such is still the way of the world, he is our hope for that undying love we so deeply seek.
He beat death at its own game because true life wins. He outwitted cunning cruelty with his foolish love. He turned our abuse of his humanity into the design of his divinity: the suffering God, who would die to save us from ourselves. We nail our pain, our shame, our hopes to his cross; we carry it with us as a reminder that he will bury even death for us, whatever shape it takes, if we will let him.
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Orbis, 2013)
Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand You Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Orbis, 2015)