The Gospels narrate their stories as if Jesus knew he would be put to death by Roman authorities. While the authors offer backward-looking theological interpretations of Jesus, and not necessarily fully historical reports of Jesus’ life, we can be sure that Jesus did understand that he would most likely be crucified.
History had told him that to challenge the authority of Rome was treason, and the penalty for treason was death. He knew full well that as he progressed in his challenge to the authorities, both of the Jewish religious power center and the Roman Empire, he would be put to death as a rebel.
But the classic text that interprets Jesus death as the example for his followers as the way they ought to live in the world is Mark 8:34, where the author puts on the lips of Jesus, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This was and hopefully still is the mantra for what it means to follow Jesus. Indeed, it should be the creed that supersedes all creeds.
Our interpretation, however, must not simply be a spiritualizing of what Jesus says, as is common practice among many Christians. To do so would move too far away from the meaning of Jesus’ statement that it becomes unrecognizable. Rather, our interpretation should be one that appropriates the statement to our modern context while at the same time remaining connected to the original intent of Jesus’ words.
We know that the cross was a symbol of Roman tyranny, and that crucifixion was practiced by the Romans on many who were considered enemies of the state. Jesus was far from the only one killed on a cross, and far from the only innocent one who suffered this fate. Thus, in the context of Roman jurisprudence, Jesus was just another enemy of the state that needed to be silenced.
But the earliest followers of Jesus reflected on his death and reached a different understanding of the image of the cross. Though the cross was still a ruthless tool in the hands of an oppressive government, for the followers of Jesus, the cross had shifted from an external symbol of Roman tyranny to an internal symbol of faithfulness for the Christian community. For these earliest Christians, the cross served symbolically as the norm of a community that existed in a world not yet submissive to the rule of God.
The cross became symbolic of the internal ethic of the community and the social formation of that community in opposition to Roman power. The symbol of the cross represented for them a new way of being human – one in which the radical virtues of Christ served as that which formed the character of the follower of Jesus as well as the community of followers.
In the fourth century, however, for the Roman Emperor Constantine, the sacred symbol of Christ, the Chi-Rho, became the symbol of earthly power and might. In essence, a second shift took place that moved the understanding of the cross as a symbol of radical discipleship to one by which to conquer through domination, oppression and violence.
Christianity, then, moved from the marginalized alternative community of disciples who lived out the radical virtues of Jesus, such as loving one’s enemies, turning the other cheek and lifting up the oppressed, to the dominant population of power in the West that forced conversion, killed enemies and created a social structure characterized by domination.
In our modern environment, the religious conservative movement has continued to herald this story of Jesus and the cross. The cross has become once more a symbol of political power, and the church has been swept into being part and parcel of one political agenda.
Those entrapped by this movement view the cross at a distance, preferring to see it as only an object on which Jesus died for our sins, rather than taking the cross as their own and seeing it as the symbol of radical discipleship and service.
In this sense, modern Western Christianity has sought to silence the radical Jesus and his cross, particularly the Jesus that judges the power structures of a society. Modern Christianity has reduced faith to personal salvation, personal piety and personal spiritual practices, all focused on the individual’s personal relationship with Jesus, which is supposedly made possible only through the substitutionary death of Jesus.
As a result, salvation is focused on the person getting to heaven when they die, worship has become focused on the personal feelings of individuals, and sermons have become life-coaching sessions in which the preacher offers platitudes on how to be a better spiritual person.
But in doing this, Christianity has gagged the historical Jesus and has cloaked his cross. The radical Jesus has been silenced; he has been replaced by a Jesus who permits us to wage unjust violence against our enemies in the name of national security. He allows us to hoard money and possessions in the name of financial security. He consents to our prejudices against people of other races, genders, religions and sexual orientations in the name of cultural security.
It is time for another shift, one that leads us back to the early Christian understanding of Jesus, his radical virtues and his horrible death as that which consistently challenges our way of living in community with others.
Shifting our understanding of the cross back to how early Christians viewed the cross would lead the church to find afresh its identity as an alternative community in which individuals are not formed by power, greed, exclusion and self-interests, but are shaped by the norms of Jesus and his cross.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.