I stand between two crosses as a Christian in the U.S. Bowing to one cross necessitates turning my back on the other.
Both crosses are symbolic of ideas, attitudes, affiliations and ethical demands; both carry with them vast narrative traditions; both make ultimate and uncompromising claims on my life.
Assuredly, though, they are different crosses.
Perhaps surprisingly, my ability to distinguish these crosses emerged from my theological training in the Baptist tradition.
I was taught that religious faith flourishes best and is most authentic when it stands on its own strength, independent of the influence of governmental and political forces.
As a consequence, I recognize the two crosses are different and see I must make a costly choice between them.
The first cross is old, familiar and some would say “rugged,” though our comprehension and embrace of it are never fully realized in our devotion or in our common life.
We all know about this cross because it is ubiquitous in our culture and has been for millennia. Our sacred texts, hymns, art and architecture are replete with its imagery.
We know too what it means as an alternative to our natural dispositions: It calls us to submission, to service and sacrifice, to thinking rightly and modestly about ourselves.
This cross demands that we love our neighbors as we love ourselves and that we love God most of all. It beckons us down hard paths of welcoming strangers, forgiving and even embracing people who have done us wrong.
This cross unwraps the majestic bounties of the natural world, not as privileges to be hoarded and used selfishly, but as extravagant provisions and gifts, tokens of love to be cherished and shared.
Finally, the origin of this cross is a staggering instance of humility and attempted humiliation, and so we, the proud, are scattered in the thoughts of our hearts.
This cross is not our triumph. Focusing one’s vision on this cross is apt to issue in a sigh. This cross stands for redemption.
The second cross is big, shiny, eye-catching and seems always to be new. It looms ominously over the political landscape, where it overshadows the first cross and delights in speaking for it.
It insists on control, compels fealty, brooks no dissent and divides the world into “us” and “them.” Its concerns are prestige and privilege; its discourse is power.
A fitting emblem for this second cross is the Millennium Cross on top of Mount Vodno near Skopje, Macedonia.
Built in 2002 by a dominant political party with the endorsement of the Macedonian Orthodox Church (MOC), its dominant position 217 feet above the Macedonian landscape compels you to look and take note.
About 64% of the nation are Macedonians, a South Slavic ethnic group that affiliates predominantly with the MOC. Other ethnic groups include Albanians (25%), Turks (4%) as well as Roma, Vlachs, Serbs and Bosnians.
About 62% of Macedonians are Orthodox Christians, 37% percent are Muslims and a much smaller percentage are Catholics. So the Millennium Cross doesn’t represent everybody, but that’s not the point. This cross stands for conquest.
“The Cross, besides the intention to make a tribute to 2,000 years of Christianity, was meant to be a political claim in the post-conflict society,” explains Anastas Vangeli. “It had [the] implicit role of a territorial mark of the nationalist IMRO-DPMNU, or, as it was popularly known to mean, ‘to serve as a reminder to whom the city belongs.’”
A cross has always made an appearance in American presidential elections, and 2020 is no exception. But this year the cross’s appearance seems more fevered and divisive than ever, with both political parties casting “the decision” in apocalyptic terms.
I can’t deny there is great consequence attached to this election, and I have very strong feelings about it. Our government has fantastic power to bring about productive change for people who really need help, but it also has power to cloak and preserve systems of greed and injustice.
So I will vote.
If the Christian church wants to tackle daunting social issues, then it cannot follow or affirm those who take up the cross as an instrument of personal conquest and manipulation of the trusting.
Our covenant and our reputation will be healthier if we confront hard social issues with the gifts appropriate to our commission – things like faith and hope, confession and repentance, forgiveness and hospitality, truthfulness and fidelity to our words.
So I will vote, but I have no illusion that my act will constitute submission to the cross that can redeem even that imperfect action. My vote is a civic matter and the imperfect product of a political system that recently seems on the verge of failure.
The changes I need to make to allow neighborliness to return to our common life seem impossibly hard: letting go of privilege, accepting with respect and honor the people with whom I differ and disagree and acknowledging my part in various social structures that value people on the basis of their education, affluence, occupation and place in the pecking order of American consumption.
Beating nihilism starts with beating my nihilism. But because that first cross still remains, I am not without hope.
I have abundant evidence that lively resources of family, friends, church and neighbors are standing at the ready to encourage and walk beside me.