The Crucifix, Christian jingoism, and the brittle joy of Easter
The Scottish Cardinal, Keith O’Brien, has been making a lot of Christian supremacist noise lately, not only about the nature of marriage, but about the wearing of crosses as a kind of badge of allegiance to Christ. In response, Giles Fraser has taken this thoughtless Christian posturing to task by pointing out that the cross is a symbol of torture and a figure of horror, not a party badge.
In his Easter sermon, Fraser says,
… the Roman Catholic Cardinal, Keith O’Brien, has called on Christians to wear the cross as a piece of jewellery and as a mark of their faith. This comes in response to recent high-profile court cases involving the public display of religious jewellery that have led some religious leaders to insist that faith is being marginalised in public life.
Fraser says he does not object to the wearing of the cross as a piece of jewellery, and does not feel that it should be banned; his concern, rather, is that people should want to wear, as jewellery, the representation of a means of torture. A better symbol, he suggests, would be the empty tomb.
It is not the murder of Jesus that makes Christianity distinctive, but His rising from the dead, through which God demonstrates the limited power of Roman execution.
The only problem, of course, with this, is that, while we can be reasonably sure that, if Jesus was crucified, he died, there is no compelling evidence that he did rise from the dead, which is still as improbable as ever. Christians can express as much certainty as they like about this on Easter morning, but that conviction, no matter how ardently held, cannot make the dead rise in fact, though gods and lords many have risen in story. Supposing that he lived, Jesus’ suffering is much more certain than his resurrection.
The first disciples believed that Jesus would return within the course of their own lifetimes to wrap up history, take the redeemed to himself, and punish evildoers and disbelievers with eternal fire — the latter a sufficient reason for believing that, whatever else he was, Jesus was not a uniquely good man. Indeed, his repeated claim that those who do not believe in him deserve the hell of fire makes of Jesus something of a monster, despite the fact that he also spoke vividly about goodness and love and care for the neighbour. When, however, Jesus did speak about “the least of these, my brothers and sisters,” it is much more likely that he was referring to his faithful followers, and not generally to those who were outcast and forlorn. The preferential option for the poor depended on their faithfulness and not on their poverty. The stories of the Good Samaritan and the woman caught in adultery seem to stand as examples of a more sublime moral teaching, but it is hard to rescue them from the context of Jesus’ other sayings. We read what we want to read, and, traditionally, Christians have read Jesus as perfect man; and, while he may shine with a brighter light in comparison with the violence, perfidy and lasciviousness of Mohammed, it is hard to find perfection in Jesus without reading out great swaths of his reported life.
And this fact, of course, has its effects on stories of resurrection. That there is no objective historical evidence that any such event occurred in historical time is perhaps the most difficult problem with Christian claims, but the character of Jesus is in itself enough to raise serious questions about what such a resurrection of a fallible human being could possibly mean. The Alexandrian priest Arius was well aware of the problem posed by the human imperfections of the Saviour, and, while prepared to consider Christ the firstborn of creation, and the one through whom all things were made, he could not ascribe to him all the majesty, power, and glory which belonged to God alone. Arius, as is well-known, was eventually declared to be a heretic, but the reaction to Arius included an invidious claim about Jesus that turned the crucifixion, not into an act of cruelty and suffering, but into a moment of glory. Instead of the humiliation of public nakedness, of shit and piss and blood and cries of pain, the crucifixion was transmuted into something that can be cast in gold and worn with pride as a badge of honour. And instead of a deliverance from all the shocks that flesh is heir to, the crucifixion was rebranded (to use Fraser’s term), by the supposed resurrection, as something to which Christians are called to cleave to and share, and by melding their own sufferings with those of Christ, to show by their own sufferings that they are worthy of Christ’s sacrifice. As a consequence, the resurrection, which almost certainly did not happen, becomes an afterthought — which is why Christians can populate it with Easter bunnies and eggs and chocolate, with the fecundity that, in other registers, the church demonises and condemns.
But crucifixes and suffering are great aids to Christian jingoism, the kind displayed by Keith O’Brien, and it is not surprising that some people have taken exception to the demonstrative wearing of this symbolism in public. It includes both a subdued claim to persecution, as well as a casual threat of punishment of those who are unfaithful. Additionally, it expresses the church’s imagined vindication for all the cruelties that it imposes by its unyielding moral imperatives. Suffering is the theme of the religious life. Religion imposes rules for living, eating, sexuality, relationships, sickness, and dying. No matter what your suffering, Jesus’ suffering is always greater, and so our lesser calvaries are to be endured for Jesus’ sake. The empty tomb, which Fraser prefers as a more apt symbol of Christian belief, is powerless. It should be an announcement of redemption and transformation, but life goes on just the same, despite the claim that redemption comes (came?) through Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. The suffering is a much more potent theme, and one that more realistically reflects the realities of life, for the resurrection did not deliver us from bondage, or the world from decay. Theologians say that in the Easter mystery redemption is proleptic, and points to a future in which we are truly redeemed, but that is as dodgy as the Seventh Day Adventist claim that in 1844 Jesus entered the Seventh Heaven, even though that was the day, so it was said, that Jesus would finally return to take the faithful to himself. This tendency to spiritualise things away is typically religious. Religion cannot be falsified, because, like any saga, the story changes as circumstances change.
This is what is wrong with Fraser’s claim about the differential significance of cross and tomb.
For some, [he writes] the cross is a symbol of human salvation and has nothing to do with politics. This is both theologically mistaken and politically naive. It is theologically mistaken because salvation comes about through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Those theologies that think all the work of salvation is done on the cross where Jesus pays the price of human sin leave the resurrection stranded with no real work to do. And it is politically naive because the Gospel story makes it clear that Jesus was crucified as a threat to the authority of the empire.
This simply fails to appreciate the main problem with the empty tomb. If the tomb was empty, and Christ was victorious, then why are things no different now than they were? People are not blind. Since we still suffer, and many, arguably, suffer much more than Jesus’ few hours on the cross, the resurrection, which is supposedly transformative, transforms nothing. The significance of Jesus must, then, somehow be found in the suffering, because we still suffer. This is still the truth about our lives. If, then, Jesus did rise from the dead, or as other witnesses say, was raised from the dead, then the significance of this can only be known through suffering, and therefore suffering must itself be glorified, and the crucified Saviour be the focus of Christian worship — as it is. When Christians eat the holy meal, it is body and blood, the fruits of savagery, that they receive, not the spiritual benefits of an empty tomb. This, as Ignatius of Antioch said, is the medicine of immortality, and following his own doctrine, he made sure that he himself would become the pure bread of Christ in the arena, consumed by lions. Yearning for martyrdom, he wrote to the Romans not to rescue him, for, he said,
I am God’s wheat, and I am to be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may become the pure bread of Christ.
It is little wonder that the cross has always been a more potent symbol of Christianity than the empty tomb, since the cross is a challenge to share with Christ in the work of redemption, still unfinished, as Paul said. Like the warrior cult in warlike nations, the crucifix expresses the cult of martyrdom, which is realised in all our sufferings. Giles Fraser knows this, but he also knows how unhealthy it really is, how it leads on to cruelty and the overlooking of cruelty. But the empty tomb can never function as Fraser would like it to, for, despite the hymns of Easter joy, the battle is not won, and the powers of hell have still not done their worst.
Of course, all this plays into the major concern on this blog: the suffering of those who want the option of assisted dying. Christian emphasis on the suffering of Christ, and the imperative that his followers share in that suffering, is often the reason behind Christian opposition to assisted dying. For those who are not Christian, or do not share the theological emphasis upon suffering and redemption, there is no reason to buy into the Christian glorification of suffering, nor the Christian repudiation of self-chosen death. Christians could learn much from studying Ignatius of Antioch’s yearning for martyrdom, and his stern and implacable rejection of the deliverance which could have saved him from the wild beasts in the arena where he finally met the martyr’s death he had so ardently sought.