After two thousands years we Christians struggle to understand the cross, not only as what God has done for us, but especially as the paradigm for how God expects his people to live in the world. As long as Jesus’ death serves only and exclusively as what we must accept in order to go to heaven when we die staying out of the fires of perdition, and not also as how we who embrace Christ’s cross are to engage the principalities and powers that resist God’s ways in the present world, we will be guilty of ignoring a huge swath of New Testament teaching. Two examples will suffice.
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came to Jesus with her sons, and kneeling before him, she asked a favor of him. And he said to her, ‘What do you want?’ She said to him, ‘Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.’ But Jesus answered, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘We are able.’ He said to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.’
When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ (Matthew 20:20-28)
Jesus is not simply giving general instructions on humility here. He is not only thinking of the easy kind of service we can display offering coffee to the homeless (though that is a good thing). Jesus is very clear to James and John who seek the kind of power exhibited by the Roman empire– that way of being and doing kingdom belongs to the Gentiles, the pagans. God’s kingdom is a kingdom of sacrificial service, the kind of sacrificial service displayed by Jesus, the king of the kingdom who was willing to “give his life as a ransom for many.” Please note, Jesus is not only suggesting that his death was on behalf of others, but that his death is the kind of service his followers should be ready to render. And before we reduce Jesus’ words to nothing more than ignoring the unkind words of the neighbor next door (that too is a good thing), he is speaking of how he will respond to the political powers of his day.
But there’s more:
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matthew 5:38-47)
No amount of interpretive gymnastics can soften Jesus’ words here in the Sermon on the Mount. Essentially he is saying, if you are going to follow me and love the way I insist you should love, you have to love in a way quite different from the pagans. If you love only those who love you, if you love only those individuals you consider to be your neighbor, you have nothing to brag about; any atheist can do that. Just as Jesus refused to retaliate against his enemies who beat him so those who claim to have received the salvation he achieved for us on the cross must live in the way of the cross in the world. One cannot be had without the other.
I can quote more Scriptures, but I do not want this post to get too long. Jesus’ death and resurrection secure our salvation and eternity, to be sure, but they also serve as how his followers that have been saved are now to live in the world God plans to redeem. We live in a world of violence and it will sadly remain so this side of perfection; but Christians are citizens of the kingdom of God and such violence is no longer part of their world. They may and will suffer violence to be sure, but as kingdom citizens they must not inflict it. God’s kingdom has come and Jesus’ people must respond as kingdom citizens in the present. The Sermon on the Mount is not reserved for a time off in the future when all things have been made right. In the cross, Jesus took the worst that the world could do to him absorbing its violence into his life and by dying refusing to respond with violence like the pagans. And this is at least part of what Jesus means when he tells his disciples to take up their crosses and follow (Matthew 16:24). We dare not reduce our crosses to having a minor burden to bear or to have to suffer with a nagging in-law. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer stated clearly, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.”
The problem is that the church has had a Christendom addiction since the fourth century. Once the church had a stake in the power of the empire, the cross of Jesus could no longer be how God expects his people to live in the world. So the church in making its alliance with the empire had to commend, embrace, and even participate as pagans “lording it over others.” Thus, the cross was reduced to an individualized get out of jail free card because the politics of the cross, the way of being Jesus in the world, could not rule a violent world where violence was necessary to rule. The cross, which was originally a subversive symbol of the idolatrous pretensions of the empire, came to symbolize the empire in all of its pagan power and ways baptizing it with a thin veneer of Christian vestiges.
Until Christians in the twenty-first century West embrace the politics of the cross as it comes to us in the New Testament and reject the kind of reductionist atonement that amounts to nothing more than a policy for fire insurance that allows us to continue to embrace the governance of pagan ways, the church will be unable to be a suffering and peaceable and healing presence in a world ruled by violence and vengeance.
The politics of the cross and the politics of the nations are not compatible. To make them so is to baptize the secular and paganize what is Christian.