A season of promise and the lie of a crossless grace

This is the Easter season, post Resurrection, on the other side of the cross. And while some Americans shout “Make America Great Again,” most of the American church has liturgically moved into the season of Easter promises, failing entirely to notice the significance of Easter’s cross.

By the cross here, I do not mean that harmless ornament that adorns most Christian places of worship, or the jewelry piece that folks like to hang as an accessory on their neck. Neither do I mean that symbol of a pious faith that too many Christians believe grants them the right to claim they have been justified by grace through faith, while failing to confront their sin and all that the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth reveals about the state of our world and our way of life today.

No. When I claim that the church has moved into the season of promises without taking notice of the cross, what I mean is that the common narrative of salvation in Christ unjustly allows the cross to become almost entirely absent of any reference to the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, rather than shaping us in costly discipleship, this version of the cross merely represents an empty “cheap grace.” To use John Wesley’s words, we operate with a form religion, but we are entirely without its power.

What the church needs today, especially the church in America, is a recognition of the power of the cross that refuses to let us forget the “crucified peoples of history,” as the Salvadorian martyr Ignacio Ellacuría called them, or the “crucified earth,” as Kurt Vonnegut would put it.

In other words, what American Christianity needs is to come face-to-face with the Crucified. As James Cone put it, in his prophetic, provocative, call to repentance titled The Cross and the Lynching Tree,

Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with a ‘recrucified’ black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.

Cone aims to remind us that the cross and the lynching tree should be seen together. That the cross of Christ should force us to see that God identifies with those who suffer, especially those who suffer at the hands of other human beings—especially when that suffering is sanctioned by systems of power. And I would add that this too extends beyond human suffering, even to the rest of creation that suffers at the hands of humanity’s desire to play god, wielding forces of power that encourage injustice and ways of reasoning that aim to legitimate it.

Coming face-to-face with the cross of Christ is the boldfaced reminder to the church that we cannot expect our relationships with God to bring salvation, our faith to yield fruit, or our Christian claims to truth to bring us closer to the promises of God so long as we ignore the suffering of others, both human and nonhuman. We cannot expect to enjoy any kind of salvation  from God whatsoever so long as we refuse as individuals or a society to own up to our own complicity with injustice and beg to be empowered by God’s Spirit to put in place concrete steps that bring healing, wholeness, and restoration. Either the gospel calls us to repent (to metanoia – not just to feel guilty, but to actually dedicate ourselves to the work to making things different) for the suffering done by the work of our own hands, or our faith is based on a crossless grace, a grace that has nothing to do with Jesus, a grace that is nothing more than a lie, powerless to bring about the promises of God.

The church in America has been bamboozled. Instead of triumphantly claiming that America can somehow “be great again,” as if our history was something other than what it actually is, the source of mass suffering, what America needs is a church filled with repentant peoples crying out to God for mercy.

Oh the cross I see
Looks more like a lynching tree
Like a suffering humanity
Strung up by its neck, hands and feet
But Jesus is dying upon that tree

Oh the cross I see
Looks plain like this world to me
Some claim that it’s fair and free
Like their precious democracy
But Jesus is dying upon that tree

Oh the blood is running down
Upon the weeping wailing ground
With every body that breaks the earth is shakes
You see Jesus is dying upon that tree

The cross I see
Looks like this devil economy
Folks dotting i’s and crossing t’s
Trampling the poor for prosperity
But Jesus is dying upon that tree

Oh the blood is running down
Upon the weeping wailing ground
With every body that breaks the earth is shakes
You see Jesus is dying upon that tree

Oh my God have mercy on me
Oh my God have mercy on me

For the mothers and their daughters
For the sons who have lost their fathers
For the vagrants and the refugees
For the children who have become commodities
For the homeless seeking daily bread
Begging pocket change needing to be fed
For the immigrant working endless days
Exploited on a promise with no pay raise
For the prisoner locked inside his cell
Counting those days as he rots in hell
For the victims of this wretched war
And for the movement that we’ll just keep marching for

[From Steve Schallert’s “He Was Numbered Among the Lawless“]


2 Comments Add yours

  1. bgpery says:

    Well you had me until you linked to the Marxist theology, at which point I realized I might be misunderstanding.

    Speaking for myself, I have grown rather weary of “American Christianity”. What I mean is the attitude of “Jesus suffered so I don’t have to” and the excuse “Jesus wants me to be happy”. The presence of evil and suffering in the world disturbs me a great deal, and it’s gotten worse for me since I became a father. Christ by embracing the cross and that which comes with it gave value to suffering and death and makes them a means of participation in him. (It’s this which is keeping me a Christian otherwise I would need to be either a Buddhist to deal with the problem or wind up a depressed atheist). Is this what you are talking about?

    1. I think… Maybe… That Christ’s embracing of the cross “gave value to suffering and death and makes them a means of participation in him,” is not something I would argue against. But I think it is only half of the story, and thus, half-empty. For those who suffer, especially those who are on the receiving end of oppressive systems, the cross certainly does give value to suffering. But the sordid history of horrific violence done on behalf of the church to others and the theologies used to justify those acts should teach us. If “divine suffering” is used in a way that validates the dignity of those who suffer, that is one thing. But if it does not lead to the belief that God also wills for their liberation from that suffering, then we are not looking at a liberating image of God, but a god who looks more like a monster. Instead, the cross reveals that God has chosen to identify with those who suffer while judging the individuals and systems that benefit from it.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “Marxist” theology. I would certainly say my point fits well with Marx’s 11th Theses On Feuerbach: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” In theological terms, theologians have too often offered theological and doctrinal positions that make claims about God and God’s relationship with humanity that offer an interpretation of the world. I am utterly convinced that the purpose of the cross of Christ was not just to provide an interpretation of the world, but to change it.

      If what you mean by a Marxist theology is that I take seriously the suffering of those who are oppressed, that is not something I would deny. However, a discussion about Marx and Marxism is beyond the scope of what I am prepared to do here. Suffice it to say that my current position on Marx is twofold. Marx was right to call for revolutionary change, but his critique of capitalism was limited in that it addresses only one form of oppression within the context of the industrial revolution, leaving unaddressed a whole host of other forms of oppression, leaving open the door for the formation of even more violence and oppression.

      There are many anti-capitalist thinkers who borrow a lot from Marx, especially his dialectical approach, but who are simultaneously critical of Marxism. I would personally recommend Murray Bookchin’s reflections on Marxism in “Listen, Marxist!” https://www.marxists.org/archive/bookchin/1969/listen-marxist.htm#h2

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