The Cross of Christ is a Question Mark


I originally wrote this for my weekly “Highland Views” column, then decided I’d “blog it” instead.

A wise saying:  “Philosophy is questions that may never be answered.  Religion is answers that may never be questioned.”

Yet, question we must.

“A Former Minister has Questions about the Cross”

As we cross over from one season to the next, we enter the season of the cross. For Christians, this is Lent that concludes with “holy week”—the Last Supper, Good Friday and Easter.

For Jewish neighbors, this is Passover. The Last Supper was a Passover meal, so we’re reminded there is an intimate connection between Jews and Christians. The Jewish teacher, Jesus, has a final holiday meal with his disciples before he suffers his own “exodus” from the world into the “promised land” of heaven.

Much of my life and ministry was lived in “the shadow of the cross.” Though I was taught that the cross was a symbol of hope and forgiveness, it was also about suffering and death, which makes sense, since Romans executed people as we execute criminals in our own “civilized” ways.

I was given a wooden cross as an evangelical youth. When I was ordained, a friend made me a cross from steel nails.

In my book, Life After Faith, I wrote the following words about a visit to Scotland:

“[Against] a damp wall, in the far corner of the chapel-cemetery, was a broken cross. It had fallen from a nearby grave. Under it—dark, rich earth. Above it, a cold, cracked wall, but something else. Emerging from behind the graves, in back of the fractured cross, were greening leaves of a vine, peeking out of the darkness and shadows. I snapped a photograph. Over the years, as I‘ve studied that photo, I‘ve reflected on that crumbled metaphor, carried back from the soggy country of my ancestors. That fallen and broken cross symbolized and perhaps foretold the future fracturing of my faith. And more importantly perhaps, the living, greening vine offered a gift, a hint of hope and healing—of an abiding and abundant life after the crumbled cross, a life after faith.”

Over all these years, I continue to be perplexed and puzzled by the cross. What is the meaning of this image? Why would an entire religion make an instrument of torturous death its primary symbol? What does this icon tell us about the God whose best idea was a plan to have his son nailed up to show love and forgiveness?

During my years as an evangelist and then a minister and chaplain, I offered an array of responses to these problematic questions. As I look back at those years I wonder: did I ever really know what I was talking about? Did I have any honest answers?

In the Protestant church we were told an empty cross was like an arrow pointing directly to the resurrection. God forgave us when Jesus died, but it was really all about the “new life in Christ” who “conquered death.” Why we didn’t have an empty tomb on the wall or an image of Jesus floating up into the sky in the sanctuary, we never knew. Some churches do have depictions of the “Risen Christ” as the victorious King and Lord of all Creation—yet, the main story of “salvation” always cycles back to the crucifixion.

In my view, most Christians rarely think about the theology of the hymns they sing about the cross or consider what kind of message an outsider is hearing. “Lift High the Cross,” “Beneath the Cross the Jesus,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” One old hymn says, “Ye Soldiers of the Cross.” These battlecries present a very disturbing picture of the “good news.” Hold up the instrument of death and march with it to prove to the world that you are forgiven and saved and if people don’t accept that “divine love” they will essentially die a more horrible death than even Jesus endured “because God dearly loves them.”

I’ve yet to hear a Christian explain this any clearer (without dancing around the sacred tree).

When we were in seminary, there was an emphasis on the “crucified God” who suffered with humanity, especially “The Poor”—outcasts and marginalized persons. In some sense, this is the view I carried with me into chaplaincy with just those sorts of fellow humans. It’s a profoundly humbling way of seeing the world—serving others as if they were God. As Mother “Saint” Teresa used to say, poor folk are really Jesus “in distressing disguise.” I used to believe that wholeheartedly. There’s some deep meaning to that view.

Yet, the “crucifixion of the poor” no longer holds that meaning for me. In fact, I find it sad, disrespectful and nonsensical.

I know all the biblical justifications. Paul said the preaching of the cross would sound like foolishness. He was right.

What does the cross mean in our world today? Could it be the most divisive symbol in all the world of faith?

These days I imagine the cross in the shape of one large question mark.

Chris Highland


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