The new general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, said at his recent induction that “the cross is the symbol churches need to return to in order to be one.” Interestingly it was when I was representing the Baptist Union in the World Council of Churches that I first heard people debate the use of the cross as a Christian symbol.
The earliest Christians were reluctant to use the cross as a symbol, preferring the image of a fish or the monogram chi and rho, the first two letters of the word Christ in Greek. The conversion of Constantine in the 4th century with his vision of a cross popularized it as a symbol of Christ and Christianity in general. It became a symbol found on the standards of emperors.
It was this use of the cross for political purposes that friends in the World Council of Churches were debating. For many of them, the symbol of the cross had been abused: from the Crusades to the Conquistadors, and by the modern missionary movement that had brought not just the gospel but cultural baggage. The cross had become a symbol of oppression.
At the same time, I have a precious collection of crosses from churches around the world. One is fashioned from a bullet casing from the civil war in Liberia, where the church is active in peace-making. Another came from a Coptic Orthodox bishop working in rural Kenya, who talked of the children playing at funerals, mimicking the world they knew with people dying daily from AIDS.
A third cross is made with the wood of an olive tree torn down by the building of the dividing wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories; another cross was made by women from India trying to build new lives after the devastation of the tsunami of 2004.
Each of these crosses is a reminder of God’s self-emptying love for a world in need of saving.
In my last pastorate in Wendover, the ecumenical service on Good Friday began by representatives from the congregations prostrating themselves together before the 10-foot rough wooden cross we would shortly carry in procession. It was a profound experience to be flat on my face alongside colleagues, showing in our posture that, whatever our theological and church differences, we were all totally dependent upon what God had done for us in Christ.
I have learned to return to that place in my imagination frequently, prayerfully bringing with me those with whom I struggle.
As Tveit put it, “The cross is the first and ultimate sign of the gift of God’s gracious being with us and for us … . We are one as Christians because we receive the same gift.”
To this understanding of the cross we must daily return.
Rev. Ruth Bottoms is moderator of the Baptist Union of Great Britain trustees and a full-time caregiver for her disabled father.