A reader found my Ethical Musings posts on Why people go to church and What was Jesus’ brand interesting. The posts prompted the reader to wonder if I had given any thought to the number of people who wear crosses. The reader accurately surmised that by comparing the number of church attendees to cross wearers, a significant number of people who wear a cross have no connection to Christianity or to the theological meaning of the cross.
I found the reader’s observation insightful and thought provoking. After receiving the reader’s comment, I began paying more attention to the number of people wearing a cross and was startled at the number of crosses I saw, especially when contrasted with church attendance and membership statistics for Paris and London, the cities in which I made my observations. Some individuals wearing a cross were obviously American. Even ignoring those, a still surprising number of French and British persons wore crosses. Since returning to the States, I’ve found that a disproportionate number of people sport crosses in comparison to U.S. church attendance and membership statistics.
Why the disparity?
The explanation that I find most cogent is that the cross has become a common cultural symbol and has lost its historic and theological meanings.
The Romans used crosses, generally shaped like our letter “T,” to execute tens of thousands of criminals. The Roman army (there was no separate police force) was highly competent and professional. They crucified Jesus in a way that from the Scriptural record (the only available source) appears fully consistent with their standard practices. Nothing significant about Jesus’ crucifixion seems to have been exceptional.
Non-Christians originally associated a cross with Christians as a form of insult. Christians, however, quickly adopted the symbol as a source of pride, reveling in its scandal. Early Christians, aware of the near unanimous public revulsion to the cross, also saw it as a safe symbol for identifying their meeting places, houses in which Christians lived, etc. No sane person would voluntarily associate him or her self with a cross.
Today, the scandal is gone. The cross has become a good luck charm (think of crossing one’s fingers, which originated as a way of making a cross) or even a meaningless decorative item valued for its craftsmanship or giver rather than its shape.
What if Christians wore an electric chair or noose instead of a cross? Those symbols would restore the scandal; those symbols would also underline the meaning of Jesus’ death (innocence in the grip of systemic power that led to the power’s unanticipated unmasking as evil and subsequent defeat) in a way that is perhaps more comprehensible by twenty-first people century. Unfortunately, in both instances the connection with Jesus would be lost. Perhaps Christians who wear a cross should consider wearing a cross with a hangman’s noose or electric chair superimposed.
As I write, I am aware that beheading is another form of capital punishment in current use. Regretfully, a sword has too many interpretations to permit its clear use as a scandalous symbol of capital punishment.
God is life. The scandal of the cross is that death, particularly a death caused by a ruling power’s imposition of capital punishment on a conquered peasant, led to life. May all who wear a cross dare to live into the hope and reality of the cross.